Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Well, just so—because I find them so beautiful. And the pictures came out so well, even if they’re kind of pop [kitschig], worn, and not very original. I don’t care. I like it. Smileyface symbol.
The citation is the full text of a blog post, translated from the German; it accompanies pictures of a white lily from two angles. To see the post, apply here. The site, by the way, produced by a busy young mother with a little boy, is aesthetically attractive and interesting in its choice of subject matter too; its creatrice need not apologize. But her commentary reminded me of the subject. I wonder, actually, how old this issue is and when it began to plague the artistic community. It’s certainly been around throughout my life. Originality.

Originality is paradoxical in that it escapes personal control and manipulation, and when it is present, it may be mistaken for the banal. The more we try to be original, the more our project is likely to fail—because originality is a state or background from which something arises; it’s not an objective. What we can achieve is novelty, but while originality may strike people as novel, novelty is not part of its essence at all.

Now that I’ve dipped my toes in the water—thought meanders thus, feeling its way—it occurs to me that concern with originality probably arises with decadence. It comes about when the artist begins to outrank his or her creation, and the creative effort becomes a public enterprise pursued to glorify the artist. I lack the knowledge and diligence at the moment, but signing works of art began relatively late, it seems, perhaps in the nineteenth, maybe even the twentieth century. The artist began as an anonymous skilled craftsman, became a figure of renown not unlike some architect of fame, turned into a figure almost of religious veneration—real saints having been banned— and finally achieved, with Salvador Dali, let us say, the status, in addition of pop celebrity. And it is in this evolution of the artist from plumber to culture hero that originality developed. Mere skill was not enough to distinguish the craftsman, who remained—see his or her labor in advertising, wall-paper and fabric patterns, “design,” so-called, and elsewhere commercial—from the figure who carried, as it were, the effulgence of secular divinity, the radiance of genius.

Originality, therefore, in its usual application, means illumination from on high, but expressed in a manner divorced from the traditional religious sense. Here I’m reminded of Charles de Gaulle’s pronouncement, in Algeria, trying to impress his then Muslim constituents there, saying, “I have baraka.” Baraka points to the same ineffable something which in this context we call grace, in that one originality—but which, in either case, means a mysterious inflow of something transcendent. Original. Ah, yes. Original.

Originality and authenticity both have the same rooting. They point to something irreducibly given. The authentic individual is a “self-doer,” acting from within. The original artist acts from the source. In both cases the action arises from a depth, not from the surface. Inside out, not outside in. But this correct description of originality produces further paradox. The real, the original, and the authentic cannot be grasped, categorized, measured using external, thus superficial, means. It takes originality to recognize it. And the courage to assert this recognition even if, on the surface, the work appears to be ordinary or banal. The lady in question—with whose blog post I began—saw the beauty in the flower, something of its authentic nature—which is there even if often seen before. She captured it skillfully. Then she bravely asserted that she liked it—even if others were looking for something more tricky and more “original.” Interesting case, even though I may have failed to communicate it sharply enough. So much original stuff—and strikingly so—merely says decadent to me. The kitschy lily speaks the truth no matter how often photographed before.

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