Why Originality is Overrated

September 14th, 2004 · 3 Comments · Writing

Stelarc‘s Third Ear Project

Since Cezanne, in the latter part of the 19th century, artists have shifted from pursuing craftsmanship to pursuing originality. There are many reasons for this, including the invention of photography, which created less of a need for realism.

For the last hundred years, artists and critics have sought original forms and approaches in art. In 1850-1900, realism was abstracted (Cezanne, Picasso), and gave birth to total abstraction and surrealism (Mondrian, Miro). Post WWII, abstract expressionist (Kline, Pollock), minimalist (Judd), and pop artists (Warhol). Since the 60’s the form of art was concept-driven [sometimes] more then visual (Baldesarri and Chris Burden — who had himself shot in the arm with a .22 rifle in a gallery — he’s now a prominent teacher at UCLA).

Since the 60’s, artists have had to work really hard to push art further, but fear not: they were a diligent group who saw the potential of video, technology, performance and installation culminating in the excessive go-go 80’s with performers doing provocative stage work (Annie Sprinkle, former adult entertainer) and that Jeff Koons’s ceramic statue of Michael Jackson in a bubble bath with his monkey. In the dead-serious 90’s we saw artists who used plastic surgery to alter their bodies (Orlan, who after altering her face to look like famous women in several well-known paintings, placed an implant on her forehead which looks like a large sore, and Stelarc who is planning to add a third ear–Stelarc is a really interesting artist worth checking out, great speaker & inspirational performer who works with robotics, although the whole ear thing gets under my skin). This is either interesting academic research or a king with no clothes on, depending on your taste and worldview.

The pursuit of originality has taken us to some magical and scary places. I suspect there is no limit to how far art can be stretched. However, there is a point where being innovative and original takes us to such an extreme that it loses the ability to connect with us past the point of shock.

I’m a fan of originality, I just think that it is currently overrated, and potentially dangerous if not tempered with a spirit of generosity.

Category: Writing

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Tibbie

    Very interesting and well said!

  • Leonard Bast

    I’m in full agreement about the idea that originality is overrated. That doesn’t mean that we’re locked into sterile traditionalism, making the same things over and over. I think of it as having to learn the rules before you can break them. If you don’t know what you’re breaking and why, then the mere breakage doesn’t mean much. At the same time, there’s plenty of room for innovation–if not always for “pure” originality–in variations on a norm. Over time, enough variations make a new development.
    I find Stelarc interesting from a philosophical point of view, but I’m troubled by how much some of his projects resemble physical torture. Do you know Brian Massumi’s book Parables of the Virtual? It has an enthusiastic discussion of Stelarc that’s worth looking at.

  • Murray

    Thanks Tibbie & Leonard.
    Leonard, your clarification of the value of originality is a necessary addition. You’re also right about Stelarc’s work resembling physical torture, which is funny because he has such an unusually optimistic and enthusiastic personality. I’m now remembering some of his early works, which are even closer to real torture. I haven’t read Parables of the Virtual, thanks for the recommendation.

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