Under the Influence: The Importance of Authenticity over Originality in the Art World

Let’s face it, breaking into the art world isn’t easy. The concept of a ‘starving artist’ is never far from people’s minds when I tell them I’m an art major. I’ve gotten a few too many preemptively-pitying sidelong glances from the parents of my peers, already guessing at the tuberculosis I will have to suffer through, envisioning the cardboard dwelling that is my future. A life straight out of La Bohème. But good news, friends! Art careers—or perhaps more accurately put, creative careers in general—are on the rise, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (as of 2014). Approximately half of prominent art careers studied (including careers in graphic design, illustration, editing, and many others) paid more than $50,000 per year. Not too shabby, right? But now that you feel a little better about your decision to pursue art, there’s another problem rising to prominence: Originality.

Over the past year or so, I’ve read a handful of articles, exposés, and opinion pieces declaring rather obtusely that “Originality is Dead.” Even the most perfunctory Google search of such a phrase brings up a surprising amount of articles touting the idea, and a handful of books. And as if that isn’t enough, there are also T-shirts and similar apparel featuring the phrase, because who wouldn’t want to emblazon a bleak and somewhat upsetting generalization across their chests?

Anyways. There are a few decent arguments for the whole "originality" problem, but I tend to disagree regardless. As an artist, I just really don’t believe that there is genuinely nothing new out there, nothing left to discover or feel that hasn’t been seen or felt before. But that isn’t entirely my point. I think there is an argument for ignoring the problem of originality altogether, in favor of originality’s not-as-popular yet steadfast cousin, authenticity.

Authenticity. What exactly is it? The Dictionary.com definition describes it concisely as “not false or copied; genuine; real.” To that effect, the term "originality" is already incorporated into that definition. Let’s, for the sake of argument, say that originality really is impossible in this day and age. It wouldn’t matter. Authenticity is more important. Austin Kleon, for one, encourages any and all of his readers to "Steal Like an Artist," a bit of a more whimsical take on the whole issue, with his ideas of creativity as “remixing” our influences into a new work of art—an idea I greatly prefer, over the excruciatingly small-minded finality of “Originality is Dead.”

Even if any given piece of art weren’t 100% original (and honestly, it is pretty hard to create an art piece that isn’t influenced by anything from the world around us) think about why it was made. As artists, art is our mode of expression; we make art because we want to, because we have something to say, because something we saw or heard or experienced made us feel something, and we wanted to channel and process that, and thus came art. That, my friends, simply can’t be unoriginal. If something you create—whether it be a photograph, a painting, a poem, or a play—comes from a place of meaning, it is yours. Although some suggest that there are no new ideas, I propose that each of us has a different perspective—something that perhaps they haven’t considered--which, yet again, means our interpretations are intrinsically unique and (you guessed it!) original. In the words of Edith Wharton, “True originality consists not in a new manner, but in a new vision.”

There is another notable distinction I want to point out. When I say ‘originality doesn’t matter’ the one thing I don’t mean is plagiarism. As a creator and a small business owner, I not only understand intellectual property law, but also the more human aspect of that idea. Having your art stolen is one of the worst things I feel could happen to a person, and that’s again because of the authenticity factor. Art is so personal that plagiarism is one of worst offenses—it strips us of a part of our identity. The recent ZARA/Inditex Brands scandal with countless artists, like Tuesday Bassen and Adam JK, shook the independent art world and left us all feeling discouraged. Our art is our perspective, our lens on the world, and plagiarism, on any scale, demeans our work.

The beauty of art is in its authenticity; in the story it tells. So the next time you find an article declaring originality dead and the work of artists’ nil, keep scrolling. Authenticity is your trump card.

text and visual: jackie andrews
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