Sunday, 14 October 2012


Ken Robinson defines creativity as “original ideas that have value”. By making a distinction between originality and value, Robinson suggests that original ideas may sometimes have no value at all. Value, in Robinson’s terms then, is something distinct from originality. Originality cannot be intrinsically valuable, presumably because it can just as easily be the ‘origin’ of arbitrary, destructive or pointless outcomes as it can of meaningful or useful ones. Accordingly, if originality is to be thought noteworthy it must first be qualified by other terms that designate its value: its “impact”, “significance”, “rigour” etc – terms, by the way, that also form the criteria of the Research Excellence Framework.

But where does this leave originality of indeterminate value? Are we always in a position to judge the value of something original? Do we even recognise things as original when we first encounter them? Furthermore, is it not one of the defining features of originality that it frequently appears unfamiliar and is therefore easily misunderstood or rejected? And what of the relationship between originality and tradition? Does tradition stifle or enable originality and is originality somehow preferable to traditions which have engaged, entertained and instructed people for generations?

The contemporary idea of originality is actually a relatively recent invention. Shakespeare, for instance, was not thought original in his time nor is it likely that he would have considered himself original. Originality, as we think of it today, developed hand in hand with the notion of genius: the belief that rare creative individuals are uniquely able to produce works without precedent, works that show no clearly discernable link with the past and which, therefore, must be the product of otherwise unaccountable gifts.

In antiquity it wasn’t believed that creativity had its ‘origins’ in individuals at all. Creativity and inspiration were thought to be unique gifts bestowed by the gods upon artisans who thus became earthly conduits for the gods’ creative impulses. This idea of the centrality of divine agency also permeated Christian art which was universally believed to be a representation of the word of god. It wasn’t until the rise of the Romantic movement in the 18th Century that the ideas of originality and genius emerged in their currently recognisable form, often fueled by ignorance of the sources drawn upon, copied and reworked by such “geniuses” as Shakespeare. In fact, very little is known even now about Shakespeare’s life or education.

As another oft claimed genius supposedly wrote: “Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” Interestingly, this quote is frequently mistakenly attributed to Einstein. In fact it was coined by Benjamin Franklin who, as is well documented, worked extremely hard, from unexceptional beginnings, to develop his prodigious and wide ranging skills. Equally interesting is the fact that Franklin is often dubbed a polymath but rarely a genius. Genius evidently takes more than simply concealing your sources – it takes concealing all your hard graft too.

In her essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” Rosalind Krauss discusses the Modernist obsession with pictorial grids which she contends is a “stereotype that is constantly being paradoxically rediscovered”. For Krauss: “The actual practice of vanguard art tends to reveal that 'originality' is a working assumption that itself emerges from a ground of repetition and recurrence.” Originality for Krauss is a kind of tradition, one that repeatedly proclaims it’s uniqueness and that constantly calls upon the same anti-referential and ahistorical forms as exemplified by the grid. Krauss’ thoughts highlight a longstanding tension between tradition and originality. Whereas originality demands the new, the unexpected, the novel and the unprecedented and calls for radicalism, individuation and autonomy, tradition, on the other hand, demands exactitude, respect for authority and the preservation and perpetuation of customs and the hard-earned skills of refined observation and craftsmanship.

But when making such comparisons we must be careful not to dismiss the lesser party as an unnecessary and outmoded anachronism. In his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T. S. Eliot makes the vital point that great art is only ever born of a thorough understanding and awareness of the traditions of which the artist’s work forms a part. In his discussion of the work of poets and poetry - and art in general - Eliot rejects the commonplace assumption that an artist’s greatness is due to originality and instead asserts that:

"The most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. […] No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists."

Nevertheless, Eliot also warns against mindless adherence to tradition:

"Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, 'tradition' should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. " -TS Elliot.

You don’t have to look far to find that tradition is all but despised in contemporary academia. Academia conceives of itself as a progressive and forward thinking set of institutions and as such it is deeply committed to what Krauss terms “the discourse of originality”, that celebrates progress and improvement and is consequently opposed or at least indifferent to much that underpins and sustains tradition. Evidence for this disdain for tradition is clearly visible in a quarter century of decline and disappearance of those disciplines most devoted to traditional practices - the crafts in particular but also in the increasing threat to the arts and humanities in general.

And the culprit? The culprit is by no means originality itself but rather the centrality originality plays within the sciences. Science has no truck with tradition save for its core ‘methods’ of systematic observation, measurement, experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses: of the Scientific Method itself. Everything expendable in science is dispensed with or, at best, left for historians to pick over and preserve.

But in the headlong quest for originality, that infects domains far beyond the realms of science, much is being sacrificed and not all that is abandoned along the wayside is either expendable or retrievable.


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