January 9, 2012

"Make it New": What is Originality?

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, 1911; oil on canvas; 24 1/8 x 19 7/8; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.


Is Ezra Pound's modernist injunction to "Make it new" useful? I've long wondered if the push from art school/art world to make work that is unique, original, and avant-garde, doesn't sometimes edge us toward The New at the expense of something deeper. These thoughts came to mind recently because I've been reading an excellent book on aspects of poetry – Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by the poet Jane Hirshfield – which is beautiful and thoughtful and deep, and whose ideas readily translate into the visual arts. I am grateful to two friends for recommending it: Deborah Barlow, painter and blogger, and Susan Jane Walp, painter. In her chapter "The Question of Originality", Hirshfield points to the origins of the word and how they express its two aspects: the idea of something innovative and of something authentic. How important are each of its aspects, and how do we get there? In a letter attributed to Mozart he writes:
When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer – say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them...
When I proceed to write, the committing to paper is done quickly enough.....but why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or, in short, makes it Mozart's, and different from those of other people. For I really do not study or aim at originality. (my emphasis added)

Picasso, who certainly can be said to be one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century had this to say:
The artist is a receptacle of emotions come from no matter where; from the sky, the earth, a piece of paper, a passing figure, a cobweb. This is why one must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them. One must take one's good where one finds it....
When we invented cubism, we had no intention of inventing cubism, but simply of expressing what was in us. Nobody drew up a program of action, and though our friends the poets followed our efforts attentively, they never dictated to us. The young painters of today often outline a program for themselves to follow and try to do their assignments correctly like well-behaved schoolboys.
The painter passes through states of fullness and of emptying. That is the whole secret of art. (my emphasis added)
I believe that time to be alone, time to work, and to think, time to be open to the world, are necessary in order to find our true selves in the cacophony of influences. Finding that self, the one that leads to original and unique thought, is what is so difficult: I remember being told in graduate school that it would take 10 years to find a personal expression, free from our teachers and our peers. It takes more than that; it's an ongoing project if we want to stay alive and alert and fresh in our work. Time, so that the process is natural, and not rushed, so that we don't press ourselves into a preconceived mold of newness.


Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1938; oil on canvas; 59 x 51 inches; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.


If Picasso was a great innovator, the same cannot be said for Balthus, although his paintings are certainly very personal, and very unique. His work shows another aspect of originality: finding something new within a tradition; it is not at all necessary to be an iconoclast in order to express yourself. Hirshfield, who is very influenced in her writing by Buddhism, has this beautiful paragraph on finding originality, on necessary doubt, in words that touch me deeply:
Originality lives at the crossroads, at the point where world and self open to each other in transparence in the night rain. There, the plenitude of being comes and goes. Originality summons originality: a work of art that contains the mind of freedom will call forth freedom in others. But originality also asks presence – the willingness to inhabit ourselves amid the uncertain transports and sufferings that are our fate. To feel, and to question feeling; to know, and to agree to wander utterly lost in the dark, where every journey of the soul starts over.

16 comments:

  1. Perfect for me to read this early morning. Thank you!

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  2. I have often worried about trying to be original. I have worried about trying to find my own way of doing things. Finally, I have stopped worrying and just doing. I am always hopeful the original blanket will cover what I do and it usually does. Nothing dramatic but still I feel more at peace.

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  3. Originality is just a by-product of not pretending you are someone else. It is not a goal in and of itself.

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  4. Great post... my work has shifted back to something possibly more traditional after many years of abstraction. All I can do is paint what needs to be painted. There seems to be a trend towards this idea of newness, for sure, and I often see outstanding painting that gets past by for something more gimmicky.

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  5. beautiful . thank for sharing this.

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  6. A lovely, thoughtful post, thank-you Altoon. Hope to read Hirshfield's book soon.

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  7. Thank you for all the nice comments. I agree with sam and with Lisa that we shouldn't be worrying about originality; I hope I made that clear in saying we have to "find our true selves".

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  8. fullness and emptying - like the moon.....

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  9. When we are only driven for the new, substance, meaning, and depth coming from one's own personal exploration and understandings of things can be readily lost. An example of this is the endless, sometimes stunning parade of minimalist mannerist paintings, where variations on technique declare they are "the new".

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  10. i was also drawn to the fullness and emptying lines which ring so true--like the movement of waves advancing and receding on the shore...

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  11. Wonderful post Altoon! Very inspiring and thoughtful. Nine Gates is now on my must read list.

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  12. "to know, and to agree to wander utterly lost in the dark, where every journey of the soul starts over." We are, after all, built for observation and reflection. A pause in the infinity that passes through us. Nice post, Altoon. It was Sultanish, and clearly appreciated.
    best,
    john fairley

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  13. Wonderful post--and very pertinent....

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  14. Thanks for this thoughtfu, grounding reminder. The number of comments speaks to what a deep cord you have touched Altoon.

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