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  • Writer's pictureLarry Kaiser

Originality in Art Is Impossible...or Is It?

Or When the Artist’s brush is Like Sergey Bubka’s Pole.

Artists have a number of opinions about being unique that are contradicted by fact, by reality and by common sense. Here, I intend to expose some of the flaws in common assertions about uniqueness and originality in art.

Many common ordinary everyday artists complain that Being unique is no longer possible, "because everything has been done already.”

The critic, Brian Sherwin, seems to agree.

Brian Sherwin (born January 22, 1980)

is an American art critic, writer, and blogger

with a degree from Illinois College in 2003.

Sherwin is a founding Management Team

member of the artist social networking site

myartspace, where he also served as

Senior Editor for six years.

Writing for Fine Art Views, Sherwin says, “When you consider the influences that bombard us on a daily basis it is clear that originality in art, as I've mentioned in the past, is a specter -- a ghost.” And he ends the paragraph with,

“Point blank -- originality in art -- as in all things-- does not exist."

Well, that depends.

Mr. Sherwin’s reasoning is as logical as asserting that stew is not beef because it is not 100% beef. That pie is not cherry because it is not ALL cherry: there are other ingredients in there, like sugar, salt, pie dough and cornstarch.

Mr. Sherwin also claims that Picasso was not original and creative because he learned to pick up a brush and mix colors from other artists. That is like asserting that Einstein was not creative because he did not invent the wheel, fire, gravity, nuclear fusion nor also discover a formula that explains everything else in the universe, including God.

Is it smart to conclude that...

Sergey Bubka was NOT a pole vaulter

because he never cleared a bar set fifty feet high.

It is easy to propose that any ambition is unattainable, or impossible, or foolish, or just tilting at windmills…if you set the ambition against unrealistic standards.

Other well-meaning artists and critics advise artists that their work will ultimately be judged by how original it is; therefore, because being original is so difficult, the serious artist’s strategy must above all else focus on being original.

Artists then overdose on how difficult it is to make original art. And that particular drug—itshardtobeoriginal, manufactured in art school and sold in dark alleys, brightly lit art galleries, and the Internet—has terrible side effects:



loss of ambition,






and murder.

In my opinion...

Being unique is easy.

Being creative is easy.

You write your name don't you? Does anyone else have the same handwriting? Are there not handwriting experts who are invited to testify in courts of law that particular handwriting samples are the true handwriting of the defendant? How do they do that if your handwriting is not unique? Which, for artists, suggests that an individual's brushstrokes are unique in the same way that handwriting is unique.

Do you think that I, or any other artist, could copy another artist's paintings brushstroke-by-brushstroke, wash-by-wash, glaze-by-glaze, exact color-by-exact color and get it right, make such a perfect, precise copy that an appraiser or an attorney with a magnifying glass could not discern the difference?

I am skilled at that sort of thing, but I cannot fool a good appraiser because of what?...

...because of the other artist's uniqueness.

I could not copy my own work even without permitting a little uniqueness to creep in.

Another example: My Photoshop program tells me that a decent photograph of a simple painting can discern around 26 million colors. How can anyone convince an artist that his art work is just like someone else’s art work--an identical copy of 26 million color pixels exactly like the other guy’s 26 million pixels, exact pixel-by-exact-pixel, top-to-bottom, side-to-side, frame-to-frame?

Can anyone make an exact copy…are you kidding?

But Brian Sherwin says, “When you consider the influences that bombard us on a daily basis it is clear that originality in art, as I've mentioned in the past, is a specter -- a ghost.”

Well, I have a deal for Mr. Sherwin: a beautiful bridge in New York city, must be worth over a billion dollars; let you have it for, say, a penny on the dollar…

Being unique is easy…if we don’t set the bar to impossible height. Being creative is easy for the same reason…if we don’t set the bar to impossible height.

Today, I spent about three hours looking at art on the internet and found no two pieces to be even slightly similar.

How unique does art have to be?

100% unique?

90% unique?

30% unique?

1% unique?

I contend that we artists do not need to focus on being unique; uniqueness comes naturally.

What we must focus on is permitting ourselves to express that which is natural: we must permit ourselves to be unique. Too many artists actually devote a lifetime trying desperately to be like some other artist in the vain hope that that will make us unique...if our viewers are not too knowledgeable.

I recall that while I was in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades, I filled notebook after notebook with my signature. Tens of thousands of attempts to make my signature just like Nancy Caraway’s signature; hers seemed so unique.

Then in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade, I filled dozens more notebooks with my signature, trying to make it different from all the others I had seen.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe, but there were about 300 other students doing the same thing. Recalling that bit of misguided folly, I am reminded of all those artists who wish desperately to be unique and original while at the same time they furiously engage in the act of blocking any of their creativity and uniqueness from happening at all.

Recommendation: Any time someone says that being unique and creative is impossible, think of the great Russian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka soaring twenty feet in the air, only to have the bar set at fifty feet.

Simply, prohibit yourself from mimicking anyone else, and uniqueness will settle into your soul.

Set your creativity bar at a challenging but fair height and go for it.

If you become skilled enough, like Sergey, set the bar at world record height, grasp your brush or chisel, lean into your work and zip into history at full speed. Larry Kaiser, artist, author and essayist.

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