The Real McCoy
When it comes to the topic of creativity my mind often takes strange U-turns. Recently while researching Mark Twain for a personal project I was working on, I came across a quote of his on plagiarism and began musing on the topic of artistic plagiarism and the notion of what constituted true “originality”.
Was there such a thing? Or are all creative people—in one way or another—stealing and riffing from one another in a continual dance of ideation? Is there some kind of unconscious intelligence at work that all creative people possess which is able to direct the track and arc of a creative work, and do these reflexes, if trustworthy and tapped into perfectly, and without partiality, result in a work that is undeniably authentic?
Big questions, with answers as vast as the question itself. Depending on which side of the fence you are viewing the question from, the answer has a multitude of layers.
Is Anything Really New?
In a world of re-packaged, reconstituted ideas, what constitutes originality? Is anything ever truly “new” or are even groundbreaking ideas the offspring of something else. Must a creative work inevitably be steered by the autocracy of one person’s vision—or at least a very small group? For example, can a crowd write a great novel, a play, and a feature film?
Take Hollywood films for instance. So often, mainstream movies feel contrived, cobbled together – committee-made, which they so often are. Perhaps this why we sometimes feel cheated when a movie has an obviously happy ending shoehorned in for good measure. Maybe it’s because we sense that the instinctively “true” ending was discarded. Or, perhaps this was why the happy ending was pinned on in the first place? Are we wired to need it? Is the happy ending what we unconsciously want in a storyline? If, to some extent, a sense and structure of plot is innate, then are authorship and writing skill overrated? Redundant?
As a writer, these are not pleasant thoughts to consider. The more I ponder it, the deeper down the rabbit hole my mind goes. It’s one of those questions that generates more variations on the answer and is deeply subjective depending on who you ask.
Slap A New Label On It, And Call It Good
Personally, I feel that there are only a handful of true creative geniuses in the world, artists whose vision is so profound and revolutionary there is no model with which to compare them to. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, DiVinci—to name a few—icons of creative geniuses who had no predecessors before them—at least not one’s that made it to the heights of fame that they did.
The truth is most creative people take existing ideas and re-purposing them into something different. Re-imagining them. Writers do it. Painters do it. Filmmakers do it.
Re-imagining is not the same as claiming a creative idea as one’s own. And, chances are, it’s been done already, in some shape or form. I think Jim Jarmusch (Independent film director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor and composer), summed up the concept of originality as it relates to the artistic mind the best when he summed up artistic originality in this way:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, and bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.” — Jim Jarmusch