Why You Shouldn’t Chase Originality (Hint – You Probably Don’t Need To)
Posted On June 8, 2018
The elite of society, especially in artistic circles, has become obsessed with originality. The worst thing you can do is present something that reminds them of something else. The question is: why?
Don’t get me wrong; copying another artist and just changing up some names is tacky at best and sometimes just flat out an act of plagiarism (*cough* Sword of Shannara *cough*). But it seems like the critics and academics of the literary, theatrical, and visual arts either shame or at least frown upon any work that even vaguely smells familiar.
The odd thing about this is that in works they do praise, they talk about its “universal truths” or it’s ability to “reach into anyone’s [mind/heart/etc.]”. And half the time, when the audience at large gets to experience it, they are puzzled that something so bizarre and unrelateable to their lives ever received such high praise.
I could focus on why this happens to the artistic elite, but that is a blog for another time. For now, suffice it to say that I believe their profession, through no personal fault of their own, tends to alter their vision and ability evaluate how a piece of art will actually be perceived by most people. But what is unquestionably the case – audiences and critics often react very differently to the same piece, and this has led to a lot of artists pursuing the praise of the critic or professor. But why?
Things to Remember as an Artist:
If you are an artist, it is imperative that you know your audience and create with them in mind. Now, if your target audience is the “elite”, then you will most likely disregard this blog. Heck, you’re probably not reading it. But, if you are the artist who is simply looking to share your vision with people that appreciate it, I’ve got some tips for you.
1) The average person is quite capable of appreciating good art.
You don’t have to be a master painter to appreciate the Sistine Chapel, or a sculptor to admire David. In the literary world, anyone who goes to a Shakespeare comedy is going to laugh, because the acting helps break down the language intimidation (Shakespeare could easily be understood by most people reading it, if they didn’t just freak out over unusual syntax or an archaic word here and there). Not only do people enjoy it, they often can tell you why they enjoy it. They know their tastes and also what impresses them because they, even they possessed such skill, would never have thought of it. Yet even then they don’t often praise it’s “originality”. That’s because originality is assumed and should always stay in the background. If the originality, or lack thereof, is obvious, then the attention of the audience is not where it should be!
2) Great art doesn’t appeal to just the elites.
This is a tangent to the first point. Art, at its core, is communication. There are times when the most educated and experienced members of an audience will pick up on things that an artist is doing that will be missed by the public at large. That’s fine, but if they are the only people picking up on anything, that’s more of a compliment to those few in the audience than it is to the artist. A loving mother who spends all day with her toddler may know what certain cries mean the child needs/wants that just frustrates and confuses everyone else in the room. We don’t accuse the others of being idiots for not understanding the cries, but rather praise the mother for knowing her child so well. If someone has a message for the elite, but not the public at large, it may very well mean that their knowledge of their art is certainly vast, but their mind is small and their heart immature. The problem multiplies when it encounters equally small-minded critics, who cynically laugh at the confusion of the public and starts to view them as idiots because their ego is being stroked by their ability to understand what most people see/hear as gibberish. This tends to pressure artists into appeasing the elite over effectively communicating their story.
3) The overwhelming majority of the greatest artists of all time wrote for their audience, not the critics’ tastes.
Don’t get me wrong. The greatest works are often so layered that there are aspects of their works that only the elites will pick up on. To see Romeo and Juliet as simply a sappy teenage love story is to be blind to much else Shakespeare did in that play, and all of it was very much deliberate. And yet, most of Shakespeare’s plays were written for the masses. Some where written for royalty. He really didn’t write for the critics because critics didn’t pay him. Most of the time they still don’t. They expect you to supply them with free copies of your work or pay for their travel to come see it, as if they are the ones gracing you with their genius, even though they themselves often have yet to create anything of recognized value.
4) The reason for #3, and the reason you should avoid chasing the approval of the elite: trends come and go in the critiquing and academic worlds, but humanity as a whole does not change.
Academics and critics are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of pieces they see, and it can become wretchedly monotonous. As such, they tend to overvalue anything that breaks the monotony, even if it’s horribly done. What’s more, they can outsmart themselves and see patterns that the artist never intended. Critics rarely miss praising a true great piece of art, because true greatness gets universally recognized, but they will cynically bash many good pieces of art, and wrongly elevate trash to greatness.
Truth First; Originality Naturally
But that begs the question – what should you be concerned about as an artist? Simply put: the Truth. Truth never fades, whereas all lies do (and if you are chasing originality, you have a high likelihood of leaving Truth behind because the Truth has been said many times before). But, each of us is limited by our perspective. I personally believe there is only one Truth, and I do not believe perspective is Reality; but I do believe our ability to interact with it is restricted to our perspective and what we have seen. But this, for the artist, is actually great news! It’s what allows you to create something that speaks to the audience, that they recognize its value while praising it for something they haven’t seen before. They react with joy because they recognize it for the Truth they know and love, but you’ve shown them its beauty from another angle, with new lessons revealed. They are a little closer to seeing Reality in its entirety. Of course, none of us ever gets there completely. There is always more to learn. This is also why you shouldn’t cease to consume art as an artist, so that you too can benefit from the parts of the Truth others have seen.
But that doesn’t mean everything is Truth. There are lies. There are misperceptions. And that is another reason familiarizing yourself with art is so important. It allows you to see what Tolkien called “echoes” of the Truth vs false whispers that appeal to the senses. Humans can be drawn to both, but echoes always lead back to the Source, which sustains people, whereas lies leave them stranded.
So, when you are creating your piece of art, don’t fall under the sway of the elite’s slanted view of originality. Remember that it is the Truth that gives your art value, and it is your unique perspective that gives it originality. No need to chase novelty or finding a new way to “be original”. Remember what C.S. Lewis said: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
Want more insight to writing and literature? Read my other blogs.
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