I don’t know that I have ever encountered an artist who has never agonised about originality.
At some point (and for many of us, still) we’ve all wanted to find an iconic style, to stand out, to be heralded as someone worth noting. And of course we do—because it’s those who’ve stood out before us that have inspired and motivated us in our own journeys. Visionaries inspire generations and legends inspire centuries—heck, even millennia—of budding artists. It’s very difficult to fall in love with art and NOT dream about our art reaching people that way, too.
Whether it’s the success and recognition that you crave (absolutely no judgement—anyone who labels monetary success of artists as “selling out” is gatekeeping and probably insecure about their own journey… ANYWAY) or a more humble sense of security and belonging, a sure-fire way to stand out as an artist is to be seen as original, to produce something we haven’t seen before. In a world obsessed with ‘first’s, ‘greatest’s and ‘best’s, it doesn’t feel like enough to replicate what has been done before. We feel like we have to be original.
Or, put more accurately, we tend to think about originality in a way that holds us back from being able to attain it. However, that makes for a less impactful (read: click-baity) title, so I stand by my original statement.
According to Merriam Webster, “original” has many definitions, but the one most relevant to us is “not secondary, derivative, or imitative—an original composition”, and I would say this is approximately the definition that most of us hold. It is something entirely new. It is not influenced by or a product of or an ode to anything else.
That said, I firmly disagree that your work has to fit this description to be impactful for two main reasons: it’s impossible. And even if it wasn’t, it’s ineffective.
We cannot create in a vacuum. Everything we do is influenced. Our voices, our opinions, our goals, our music preference, the clothes we wear—ALL of it came from somewhere. Even if you do something deliberately to be different, you’re still letting the norm influence your behaviour (inverse proportionality is still a form of proportionality). So, put simply, you really can’t make art that is entirely original from anything that’s ever been made.
We may think it is originality that makes iconic artists stand out, but that is an over-simplification. In fact, when things are too new, too different, we have a really hard time connecting with them.
If you strip us back to our animal instincts, we learn that what is familiar is safe and we come to trust it and seek it out. With repeat exposure, we learn faces of the members of the tribe, food that is good for us, that sort of thing. However, something new and original presents a potential threat. A face we do not recognise might be hostile, an animal we haven’t seen before a predator, a strange coloured berry poisonous, and we avoid it. It’s in much the same way that, as we are reading a sentence, we expect it to end in a certain triceratops.
See what happened there? As you stumbled upon something new, unexpected, it felt weird and jarring.
The tendency to prefer that which we are familiar with is known as the mere-exposure effect, or the familiarity principle. While it’s true that new things intrigue and excite us, on a very primitive level, we cannot connect with things that are too new. In advertising, studies found that “original” adverts were more effective when they included elements of familiarity, too. Those familiar elements required less processing than the original elements and gave our brains context by which to process and memorise the original.
So, in summary, original is good, but not in isolation. Familiarity is a vital and often overlooked part of forming a connection with new media. Just as familiarity without originality is boring, originality without familiarity is alien.
So, what is it that we are seeing when someone’s art, seemingly original, stands out to us?
It is familiarity with just enough originality to make it exciting. It is originality with just enough familiarity to make it appealing.
What’s really happening is a very clever balancing act of old and new (and, as I mentioned before, entirely new isn’t really possible, but it might be the first time that those particular influences have been combined).
Originality can be achieved by combining our interests and influences (which might be mainstream and far from original), in ways that they have never been before.
Our society has a preoccupation with hyper-specialisation, but it’s from diversifying our interests and recruiting expertise from beyond the scope of our field that true innovation happens. This is why we so often hear from influential figures that they never felt they fit in, people thought they were mad or they didn’t do particularly well in school.
Instead of tunnelling deeper into your art and hoping that originality happens to you, try instead to think with a wider scope. What areas of interest do you have that other artists don’t seem to share? What do you love visually outside of art? What guilty pleasures exist outside of your artistic interests? Bringing those things into your art will not only make your work original, it will also give people who are viewing your art something they might be able to relate to, something familiar. The more we recruit these seemingly random facets of our unique lived experience into our work, the more original we will seem, but without losing touch with familiarity altogether.