On Originality (1985)
Arts, September 1985, pp. 132 - 133.
Originality, as it is presently misunderstood, is the most overrated attribute of contemporary painting. For a hundred years we rebuffed it, time and time again, as it came up in the best new art. Now we have seen the light. We have repented, and in a massive and misguided fit of perverse penance we have tried to make it obligatory. The result? The ritual of novelty. Current Artspeak mechanically sounds the call from the barricades, rallying us to "daring," "shocking," "irreverent," "disruptive," "iconoclastic", "provocative," "stubbornly disjunctive," "deliberately unpleasant" art, an art of "radical fragmentation" and "aggressive questioning of outmoded forms," a "raw expressionism" which will "explore new territory," "expand dimensions," "broaden parameters," "push the envelope" "supercede convention," "transcend mere taste," "unsettle expectations," "clash with the past," "create corrosive irony," "signal aesthetic shifts," and "crumble the walls of tradition" with its "fresh," "visionary," "liberating," "exciting," "uninhibited" "energetic revisionism" and "forceful adventurousness." All that, and much more, I found swarming in the pages of just one issue of one art magazine.
It gets silly sometimes. Writing recently about the cold and quaintly mannered figure painting of Philip Pearlstein, Scott Burton used words and phrases such as "modernist," "radical," "innovative," "not a revivalist," and "enemy of conservatism and tradition." None of it had anything to do with Pearlstein's painting, but that was beside the point. It was what had to be said to praise it.
Students eagerly paint "bad" and cringe from anything faintly redolent of convention or tradition. "Bad" is good, "good" is old-fashioned, and old-fashioned is February in Siberia. "Revolution" is a far higher ideal than "resolution" ever was. "Controversial" is always great - there's no disagreement about it. Craft and skill and talent and all those old timey things are tossed to the winds to make way for "inspiration." Making it different is so much more important than making it right. Besides, who's to say what's right? Everything's relative, after all, and these are my feelings and my emotions. This is ME! And so they go, willing victims of the vicious myth of self-expression. Art shrugs and moves on, bemused, bored.
If originality and the other terms which comprehend the idea of newness are to be useful terms for art writing they should be better understood. Newness, as "different from," is a relative characteristic and utterly dependent on its setting or continuum. Nothing can be new in itself; it can only be "newer than." New is new by comparison, not by essence, and it is necessarily a temporary condition. Furthermore, newness, as such, has no value. Originality, however, in practice, as we use it, means newness that adds, newness that is useful, newness that makes something better. This is the newness that interests us.
If originality improves, and if the aim of art is to be good, originality in an art is something new which helps make it good, or, more generally, one of the aspects of art-making which serves to uphold and maintain the tradition of goodness in art. Tradition is the succession of great art over time. It comes down to us with the presumption that we will make art good enough to keep it going. Tradition and originality are interdependent, not antagonistic. Originality needs tradition as a framework for action and it mines tradition for the best just as tradition nurtures originality for perpetuation.
The leading edge of tradition, as it comes to us, can be called style. Style is the present residue of tradition, the inert matter given to us, along with the materials of the craft, on which we exercise the manipulation needed to make good new art. Style is not only appearance - what the art looks like - but also the structural ingredients of that appearance: the methods and manners, the dos and don'ts, the aesthetic assumptions, the techniques. There can be many styles in one medium. Certain styles seem to be more fruitful, more "enabling," more conducive to genius, and because genius recognizes this, these styles are seen retrospectively to include the best art of a particular time, bearing tradition as artistic goodness is embodied in the works produced within their bounds. Every artist begins with this heritage. There is no good art, as Eliot said, without it.
Originality appears within style by means of execution. Execution is the direct and immediate application by the artist to the art he is working on, what he does with and to the materials at hand. It is the living source of art, and the vehicle of originality. Execution is usually less a matter of broad invention or gross alteration of form than simple creative liberty taken with given form, more recombining, say, than recreating. Non-artists don't know how art is made, and they insist on misunderstanding the process. They are taken in too easily by "Lust for Life" types of romantic simplification foisted on them by other non-artists, for non-art purposes, all that "eureka" blarney whereby masterpieces spring whole from the tragically demented but divinely inspired brains of raving fools. There's so much less melodrama in the truth: that all art is just plain materials, that art-making is a regular day-to-day job made up of hundreds of small judgments and decisions - real work, in other words. Whatever is there is there because some artist spent a lot of time working at his craft, trying this, trying that, changing, relating, shifting, shading, selecting. Whatever is worthwhile about art arises entirely from the materials, from the "formal" things, from plain stuff even when it has been arranged into "content," which is, after all, just "formal" things organized into depiction instead of some other way.
Better execution, which is naturally original, is first recognized by other artists hungry for ways to paint better. They take it up and work with it and originate in turn. It is a continuous process. This better work is different by definition. As it enters style it will alter style insofar as it departs from it. This can happen quickly or slowly; it can be comprehensive or incremental. This is how art changes. This is how originality, even as it decomposes style, upholds tradition.
I think the reason our culture values art so highly is that it corporealizes the creative part of ourselves which lies at the heart of art-making, that moment of intuitive invention between the artist and his materials, the quick spark that drives the engine. How it happens that it is reflected in the work, and stays there over time, is puzzling. I can only testify, as an artist, how rare and fugitive it is, and how difficult to make happen, and how random and capricious it seems as it comes and goes. There is no such thing as premeditated originality. Originality is as uncontrivable as it is precious.
Nevertheless, the current perception of the historical value of originality, and the market's consequent demand for it in any form, is relentless and seductive. This is the impelling force behind novelty. Originality and novelty are alike insofar as each seems to add something to style. The differences are in character and effect. Originality maintains tradition by renovating style, novelty belittles tradition by applying aesthetically inappropriate change to style. Originality works with and on materials to affect craft and art; novelty disdains materials, craft, and art except as they can be used to create effects to influence an audience. Originality is tentative and exploratory, subtle and insinuating, and tenders its findings to taste. Novelty is certain, presumptuous, declarative, and submits claims to taste. Originality makes something fresh from something established; novelty disguises the exhausted with the startling. Originality threatens taste because it makes changes in the root of art, deep in the simple material core of it, at that "execution" level. Only highly evolved taste relishes the changes brought by originality because only highly evolved taste looks past unfamiliarity to find artistic goodness. Ordinary taste, always in the majority, always seeking pleasure at a lower level, recoils from this unfamiliarity and seeks art which will work obvious and therefore more comfortable variation on familiar forms, dressing up predigested structure with pre-anticipated "newness." Pop Art, for example, satisfied a new general taste for novelty in the early '60s by applying trite but "outrageous" illustration to accepted forms of latter-day Abstract Expressionism. Originality, in the meantime, was cropping up in the more radically inventive paintings of Noland, Louis, Frankenthaler, and Olitski, among others, which, typically, have fared less well in the marketplace. It is interesting, and ironic, that originality is all the more easily overlooked in a novelty-stricken environment.
The problems the art public has had with originality over the years have been well documented but poorly understood. The lessons are seldom brought up to the present. We don't think for a minute that we are into the same kind of benighted myopia. We are, though. And how! We used to be on the wrong side of advanced taste; now we have abandoned it altogether and the market is terrorized by its own inconstancy. The Catch-22 of avant-gardism is the craving to be "with it." In a fashion-driven world no one can bear to be different, not really. Whenever there is a frantic rush to stand out from the crowd, there is a reciprocal need to be as much as possible like those who are seen to be standing out from the crowd already, and the art in question rapidly becomes the crowd, thus assuring that it will contradict its own terms. There is nothing as dateable as the up-to-date.
In the meantime, originality, scorned for so long as too daring, and now despised as not daring enough, is still with us, still doing business at the same old stand, knowing in its heart that good art must make its way in the face of human frailty and foolishness as long as art and life go on.