The cult of originality in art neglects the fact that much great art has been made from working within a tradition, argues Martin Gayford.
“The worst thing you can believe,” Lucian Freud once insisted to me, “is that something is good simply because you made it.” Indeed, he went so far as to claim it didn’t matter who actually had created a certain painting or sculpture. The only important point was the quality of the work itself; he even felt that it did not matter if a work was a forgery, so long as it was powerful. This was a view that undermined the contemporary cult of originality.
We’ve come to stress originality too much. If only innovation matters, after all, then what is the point of copies? There is nothing, by definition, very original about a replica. But copying, until very recently, was the basis of art education. The first independent work Michelangelo ever made, according to his biography by Ascanio Condivi, was a reworking of a print by the German artist Martin Schongauer of the Temptation of St Anthony. Since he had a standard Renaissance apprenticeship, the teenage Michelangelo would have made many more copies than that. He would have spent many hours reproducing the drawings of his master, Ghirlandaio. That was how a young artist learnt, not just in the 1480s, but for centuries afterwards.
In my forthcoming book of conversations with David Hockney RA, A History of Pictures, the painter has this to say on the subject. “I’ve always admired Degas’s copy of Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines (1861–62). I look at it and think: What he must have learnt from doing that. That’s why he was doing it, to educate himself.” Copying, in other words, is a way of joining a tradition. By making his version of the Rape of the Sabines, Degas was gaining a huge amount of information about Poussin. Thereafter, the 17th-century master’s way of drawing and constructing a scene was internalised, an ingredient among many in Degas’s sensibility.
Of course, distinctiveness and individuality are important, especially in Western art since the Middle Ages (though not so much in Ancient Egypt). Perhaps those attributes, however, are
a bit like destinations in Alice Through the Looking Glass: you get where you want to go more quickly by setting off in another direction. Thus Michelangelo’s copy ended up different from Schongauer’s engraving, not because he was trying to make it like ‘a Michelangelo’ –
at the time he had no such thing as a ‘signature style’, since he was only about 13 years old –
but because he was trying to make it better. For example, Michelangelo studied fish in the Florentine market so as to add detail to the scaly limbs of the demons assailing the saint. When he was approaching 80, Freud himself spent night after night in the National Gallery working from a picture he loved, Chardin’s Young School Mistress. The paintings and etchings he produced were not exact facsimiles of the 18th-century oil, more like translations into Freudian terms. I am sure, however, that he was not consciously aiming to “express himself originally” – an idea he would have loathed. It was the result of his effort to make the best pictures he could. What we think of as originality is often like that, a by-product.
As it happens, forgeries generally aren’t all that good, because the people who make them are thinking of turning out a product (which may be why Picasso is supposed to have said, “Sometimes I forge myself”). It’s not wise to imitate one’s self, but maybe it’s not advisable to set out to be original either. That is simply getting things the wrong way round.