Here's the paper I wrote recently for my art history class:
After spending a day reading about originality, I reflect on Shakespeare's title/phrase: "Much Ado About Nothing." The critics point out that art (or by extension, any aspect of thought or science) comes either from emulating existing knowledge or practice, or from some alteration or re-direction of existing knowledge or practice. Or perhaps both.
Either the artist works from his own self-image, his own feelings, his own experience, or he channels the ancients, reworking communal themes and images. Or perhaps both.
This is hard to argue with. What are my other choices?
First I reflect on the possibility that anybody can work entirely from his own self. Once you get to kindergarten, you have already internalized a body of knowledge that comes from others. By age five you have learned a language, and a sub-language that marks your ethnic origins and your socioeconomic status. You have learned a family history, perhaps complex: sisters, half-sisters, stepsisters; relatives by blood vs. those by marriage; which ones you like, which ones you stay far away from.
By age five you have learned a culture. Within your family, you know that everybody comes to the table at dinnertime, or gathers around the TV, or fends for himself; that you go to church on Sunday or root for Michigan State; that you read books or have dogs or wash the car every weekend. Within your community, you already know whether people in the neighborhood are friendly with one another and are welcome in each other's homes; whether they go to work faithfully, are unemployed, or play tennis every day; whether they demand that their children do homework and get good grades; whether they respect or fear the police.
If you were to drop out of kindergarten and move to a cave, you would still be marked with those early exposures to culture and history, and no matter how religiously you were to pursue artistic originality, you could never escape those memes. And every year that you stick with the program, learning more facts about your history and becoming more nuanced in your culture, reduces the possibilities that you could be totally original as an artist.
If freedom from history and culture is the hallmark of the "modern" artist, then it seems that the only true "modern" artists are those who were raised by wolves or those who are profoundly retarded. Perhaps the most well-known example is the late Judith Scott, who was deaf and mute and had Down syndrome, and made "art" by obsessively wrapping yarn and fabric strips into bundles. She was embraced by the art world as an outsider artist and her work sold for as much as $15,000 and is found in the permanent collections of many prominent museums.
The rest of us have no choice but to bring our culture and history to our artmaking.
If nobody comes to the studio without history and culture, then where can true originality come from? Artists can copy others and/or, having come up with some idea that works, copy and repeat themselves. This is no different than it was 500 years ago, but today, artists are made to feel inferior if they are not "original," whatever that means.
One of the nastiest remarks one can make about art is that it's "derivative." The frequent response, it seems to me, is to say "I didn't want to be original, so there." Call it appropriation, call it sampling, call it quotation -- it's a preemptive defense against accusations of lack of originality.
In the end, I believe artists must walk a fine line between being influenced by their surroundings, their culture, their history (otherwise they would be brain dead) and outright plagiarism. Too far over the line and they may find themselves in court, but currently it's a lot more difficult to be found guilty in the public opinion of the art world.