Authenticity & Originality

It has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that “good poets borrow, great poets steal.”As such, it makes perfect sense that David Shields would “write” Reality Hunger. This book was created by taking what others (ranging from Elvis to Yeats) wrote or said and combining it into a single work. While he did not want the work to properly cite the original sources, the publisher’s lawyers decided otherwise (for obvious reasons).

Since I am a professor, I tend to see this sort of thing as plagiarism rather than a creative work (although I have seen some creative attempts at plagiarism). However, some folks do not see it this way.

One recent example is provided by Helene Hegemann. Her book, Axolotl Roadkill, allegedly contains plagiarized text. In her defense, she asserted that “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” This remark nicely mixes “there is nothing new under the sun” with Tolstoy’s view that sincerity is of critical importance in art. However, Tolstoy did have the view that originality was important, as did many other great writers including Edgar Allan Poe.

While Hegemann’s remark can be dismissed as an artist’s hyperbole (or an attempt to justify plagiarism) she does raise an interesting point about art.

On one hand, it can be argued that there is no originality. After all, artists recycle old ideas that themselves are ultimately just imitations of life. True, it might be said, artists can put together old content in new ways (such as Avatar) and achieve great success. But, this sort of originality cannot be considered true (or authentic originality).

In regards to authenticity, perhaps that is what matters-to speak in a genuine voice and, presumably, with the sincerity that Tolstoy praised.

On the other hand, originality does seem to be possible in various degrees. After all, it is easy enough to distinguish between outright copying and works that provide some new element. Having graded papers for years, I have a rather clear insight into that sort of distinction. Also, if there is no originality, there would seem to be little reason to buy or experience “new” works, because there would be no such things. We would be wiser to save our money and avail ourselves of the art already in the public domain.

As far as authenticity goes, that presumably means that the work presents what the artist really thinks or feels. Presumably people can feel and think the same things, so the work of another could, for example, be an authentic expression of what Hegemann thought or felt. However, this hardly seems to be the grounds for claiming authorship. After all, suppose a student of mine turned in a paper she copied from the internet claiming that it authentically expressed her views on Descartes’ skeptical arguments in the First Meditation. Even if this claim were true, she would hardly be entitled to claim the work on her own. After all, if I see someone doing a job and say “gosh, I would work just like that” I am hardly entitled to a cut of his paycheck.

Interestingly enough, I have had students try that approach-they have said that the text they copied expressed their view and hence they regarded it as acceptable to copy it without citing the source. Obviously, I did not buy that reasoning. After all, if I caught a student copying off another student’s test, I would not accept “well, those are the answers I would have put anyway” as a legitimate excuse. The same would seem to apply in art as well.

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10 Comments.

  1. Originality in the arts is a fascinating topic with a number of aspects. For example, the need for art to be original pushes the boundaries of what’s “acceptable” to its limits and at a pace, I believe, that leaves the public behind. I’ve been greatly involved with classical music all my life, studied it, played it widely and been open to new ideas in it, yet a lot of new stuff, last century, left me in the dust. Originality in the arts would seem to override other qualities in importance.
    Another aspect of originality in art I could spend lots of time arguing over is to what extent forgery is art? Consider a masterful forgery of some painting. What about the original makes it more a piece of art than the copy? I’m not looking for an answer, I think I know it, but what about the way the painting was technically executed, the forger by far had the greater skill and probably sensitivity. Why doesn’t the forger get any kudos?

  2. Since we’re all a bit different from one another, I don’t see how a person could present the views of another as being authentically his. Perhaps a person who considers that the views of others are authentically his has not thought deeply enough about who he is.

  3. In Zen calligraphy, there is that one symbol that keeps showing up, the circle.

    It would seem that the simplest and most universal expressions are the least original.

    Does the effort required to be original increase as time passes? I think that the manner in which we measure that effort might be compared to the effort put into constructing a building with materials purchased from others (though I know that some would challenge the notion of comparing ideas to physical material).

  4. Which forms of expression can be understood and appreciated by a recipient? And how does this realate to the perceived creativity of those expressions?

    I strongly believe that the absolute essence of communication – not least artistic expression – is that it takes place against a backdrop of a fixed frame of reference; that the communication presumes a shared understanding of this frame of reference by both artist and audience. The frame of reference may, however, change over time.

    Different people may have a more or less implicit idea of the current frame of reference (by analogy with linguistic’s competence versus performance). The recipient may perceive (and appreciate) a message or work solely on the basis of the experience it generates – without concern for, or knowledge of the formal frame of reference. But the recipient can also understand (and appreciate) a work solely on the basis of how the expression relates to the frame of reference. Most of the time, the reception is characterised by a mix of these two extremes.

    This applies even if the expression breaches, alters, or extends the existing frame of reference. Creativity, in this approach, can not be defined or judged – nor can it be forced to appear – in a conceptual vacuum.

    As I see it, creativity can be defined in two ways: either by an expression’s relationship to and utilisation of an existing frame of reference, or by the expression’s break with, modification of, or extension of an existing frame of reference. Both of these dimensions include novelty as part of the basis for assessments.

    For instance, an expression can be created within the current frame of reference, but differ from other expressions both in terms of proximity (similarity) to other expressions, and with respect to the degree of tension between the form of the expression and the frame itself. If I invent a new chord sequence on the guitar (by randomly selecting combinations of a number of scale notes, or by altering the spacing between the frets of the guitar), I can certainly present a new (or, at least, unusual) “harmony”. However, this will hardly be appreciated or considered to be creative, by either composers or listeners.

    In the first case, one reason for this is that the listener can not establish a reliable picture of the constituent notes’ or chords’ relationship to each other (intellectual). Another reason is that the listener can never establish an emotional expectation of the progression of chords. This also applies to the other case. In addition, it appears that the above examples support the idea that the prevailing frames of reference in Western music are founded, at least in part, on “natural laws” of harmonics.

    Pythagoras divided the vibrating string in mathematically precise distances and corresponding “well-sounding” sequences and combinations of notes, according to the “harmony of the spheres”. This “untempered” tuning system changed, during the Baroque era, into a “well-tempered” tuning system. (The circle of fifths, that in modern music theory defines the twelve tones of the octave in terms of fifths stacked on top of each other presupposes an “unnatural” equidistance.)

    It is very interesting to study the development of musical theory to date, as it clearly illustrates precisely how creative steps(eg, triads, modalities, major and minor tonalities, counterpoint, modulation, etc.) have been taken by (regularly) violating, altering, or extending the existing frame of reference in different ways. Perhaps this may inspire the the creation of (possibly expression-specific ) creativity-enhancing tools?

    Take a phenomenon such as alteration, or notes alien to the current chord being played – one half-note up or down from a given tone in a melody or a chord, followed by a return to the original note: The temporary dissonance is part of a device described as a Greek tragedy in miniature.

    There are many clear examples of how the musical toolkit has been expanded to include techniques based on playing with the listener’s expectations (intellectual but also, and perhaps above all, emotional), created by his or hers knowledge of the current frame of reference.

    It is also interesting that Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, although it relates to previously developed frames of reference, never really made a breakthrough. One possible explanation is that its design violates mathematical laws of nature (consonance), making the emotional experience uncomfortable or unattractive. Another explanation is that the expressions created in this new, in and of itself (intellectual) graspable framework can not be appreciated (either intellectually or emotionally – at least not when listening, perhaps while reading the notes) of the human brain, due to its limitations in working memory.

    Since any expression is subject to different, expression- or genre-specific frames of reference, it is difficult to imagine general creativity-enhancing tools.

    Let’s continue to apply this theory of psychological invariants to aesthetics in general.

    Stravinsky is said to have stated something like this:

    “It is the task of the creative human being to carefully sift the elements he receives from the imagination, for it is necessary that human activity prescribes its own borders. The more art is controlled, limited, worked, the freer it is.”

    I think of this when I read an interview with Carl Nielsen:

    “I have never made an outline for any of my symphonies, which have always been found to be so well-planned. They grew out of a foggy notion of one thing or another and so developed into something complete. They have come by themselves, and I have always felt that nothing could go wrong, because they were a part of me.”

    Nielsen’s statement may seem naive, or perhaps deliberately formulated in line with the ideals of the late romantic era. For me it is obvious that they do not tell the whole truth.

    Nielsen was exceptionally well practiced in his craft. He studied violin and composition at the conservatory of Copenhagen, where he later became both teacher and director. He admired Bach, Mozart and Brahms.

    “Over the years, he detached himself from his grounding in Viennese classicism, became freer, and sometimes experimental, bordering on the edge of the atonal” my dictionary tells me, and I think of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, and of his consciously progressive attitude towards musical expressions.

    One can not detach oneself from something unless one has a thorough understanding of what it is one wants to break away from. It is not even relevant to talk about detachment without such insight. Both Nielsen and Stravinsky knew this, of course. But maybe Stravinsky had a clearer notion of how “misty ideas” evolve into something complete, seemingly by themselves. They are “misty” just because they are so deeply rooted, so widely dispersed in the creator’s consciousness. They have, in this respect, become “part of” their creator. And their manifestations are perceived to “come by themselves” to the same extent that the crafting has become so skillful, so habitual, that it is automated.

  5. In the case of forgeries, I’m inclined to divide them into two categories: forgeries of specific works and general forgeries. A forgery of a specific work would probably not be art in that it can be seen as analogous to photocopying a work. While being able to duplicate a work by hand would require high technical skill, I would be inclined to say that meaningful artistic aspects would be lacking. After all, it is easy enough to imagine a machine that can copy paintings using a robotic hand that actually paints them. Such duplication would not seem artistic.

    In the case of creating a general forgery (for example, creating a work to pass off as a Picasso rather than a specific Picasso) would require high technical skill as well as more meaningful artistic ability. After all, the forger would need to create a new work. However, some of the artistry would seem to be missing since the forger would be “stealing” some of the artistry from the person she is copying.

  6. Ralph Sabella

    Bjorn,
    Thanks for that marvelous post.I assume you’re a musicologist or into the philosophy of music.
    The Stravinsky quote was great. I didn’t quite understand your reference to his neo-classic period. I knew he had one, Pulcinella, for example, but what you had to say about it seemed incomplete.
    I would loved to have heard more Nielsen, but he was almost never played at concerts nor on music stations when I was younger and a more active listener
    About Schoenberg, it would seem to me the whole idea of the 12 tone setup alienated it from most music listeners. He and Stravinsky were contemporaries, with his music played in a token sort of way, whereas Stravinsky is one of the greatest of the 20th century. Both were ground breakers. Schoenberg’s stuff is highly cerebral, for me, too cerebral and nothing else. Not what I want in music.

  7. This is a wonderful piece, what is authentic? All supposedly novel works are dependent upon thentoatinformaiton of past folks. Remember what the great issac newton said, “i couldn’t do it unless i stood on the shoulders of giants”, he was stating that newtons sem deinal theoriesof gravitation were dependent on the antecedent notions. He couldn’t have conceptualized the notion of newtonian mechanics without euclids contribution of geometry, and pythagorian mystism.

  8. The Myth of Originality « Jakob - pingback on March 12, 2012 at 12:01 am
  9. late_to_the_convo

    I agree to some extent, but what about painting? If you can copy another artist’s techniques, does that not make you as great as the artist? Sure, you can’t claim that the design is yours… But the execution?

  10. Late,

    Artistry can probably be divided up into skill sets. So, if someone can copy another artist’s technique, then she would have technical skill (the exact sort would depend on how she copies). If the artist cannot create her own works, then she would lack originality. In effect, she would be a human copy machine/scanner.

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