As a visual arts examiner, I regularly see the results of student attempts at originality and I have to tell you, it’s not pretty.

And it’s not even original. Quite often it’s the opposite of original, it’s a cliché. If it was being presented as a Post Modern, ironic look at clichés and stereotypes, that might be OK – sort of – but in almost all cases I’m looking at a genuinely predictable, obvious image. I’ve seen it many times before. Original it’s not.

But that’s not the point – for one thing, originality is not mentioned in the visual arts assessment criteria so – as an examiner – I’m not actually interested in finding anything “original”.

For another, nothing is original. OK maybe the first person to put a print of his hand on a cave wall 50,000 years ago was original, but realistically –

Nothing is original

 But in their interviews/video presentations and their 1000 words commentaries (referring of course to the May 2015 session and before of the current course) I often hear students talk about being original. (“I really wanted my artwork to be original” etc) – as if that was something to strive for and/or be proud of, as if that was what examiners wanted to see.

 I think it might have been more productive for these students if they said that they wanted their artwork to be a contribution to and part of the art “dialogue”.

I agree with Kit White, who says

Art is a continuing dialogue that stretches back through thousands of years. What you make is your contribution to that dialogue. Therefore, be conscious of what has come before you and the conversation that surrounds you. Try not to repeat what has already been said. Study art history and stay alert to the dialogue of your moment.”

Section 8, “101 Things To Learn In Art School”, The MIT Press, 2011. Artists are collectors and are always being inspired by something (or someone).

We learn by looking and sometimes  by copying, in one way or another. This is where the idea of a dialogue with the past comes in (we can also have a dialogue with the present of course).

It’s difficult – if not impossible – to be ‘original’ if you don’t have a sense of what has already been done.

Five years ago…

In July 2010, I wrote about originality – FALSE GODS: ORIGINALITY .

I’m returning to that theme five years on in the light of the new DP visual arts course (first examination next year, 2016) and tying it into the idea of art as an on-going dialogue that we have with the past.

I’d also like to mention the writer Austin Kleon because he and Kit White have informed this post (references at the bottom).

Art History

So – what does ‘contributing to the dialogue’ mean?

“Study art history and stay alert to the dialogue of your moment.”

Art history. It’s a huge resource and if you care to dip into it at almost any moment you will find plenty of inspiration. You don’t need to repeat it (and even f you try, you can’t really repeat it – in effect you recontextualize it). Its all about context.

Dip into it and learn, reflect, think and respond. Become part of the dialogue.

DSC02104Steal Like an Artist

This is also where Austin Kleon comes in. Kleon says quite a lot – but in many ways, the title of his book gives it away – “Steal Like an Artist”.

Remixing, re-using, selective borrowing, appropriating etc – it’s normal. It’s good. It can be exciting.

(But I think that for some students and teachers, copying is taboo, probably as a result of their attempts to “be original”?)


Start the Dialogue!

Even as a starting point ‘stealing’ (or appropriating etc)  gets that dialogue going, it means you are starting to participate in the conversation (or journey) and of course it will will enable you to see what has been done already.

It may even enable you to see that what you thought was original had actually already been done – many times.

Look at art, learn about art and contribute to the dialogue that is art.

(And ALWAYS record all your sources!)


***Austin Kleon is author of “Steal Like an Artist”, “The Steal Like an Artist Journal” and “Show Your Work”


***Kit White is author of “101 Things To Learn In Art School”