Debate: Is originality in art overrated?

Published 31 August 2016

Should artists bow to tradition, or should they break all the rules? Martin Gayford and Richard Cork go head to head. Vote on the winner below.

  • Yes...

    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.

  • We’ve come to stress originality too much. If only innovation matters, after all, then what is the point of copies?

    Martin Gayford

  • No...

    If art is to be life-changing, it must break the rules, even if we find that unsettling, says Richard Cork.

    True originality in art can never be overrated. I will always remember the moment when, in 1962, the Tate acquired Henri Matisse’s sublime paper cut-out The Snail. As a teenager marooned at boarding school in Bath, I scrutinised The Snail with astonishment and delight. It was reproduced, full-page, in The Sunday Times’ new colour magazine, and my 15-year-old eyes had never seen anything like it. Matisse’s originality broke all the rules, providing me with an epiphany. I realised just how liberating it was to gaze at a work that challenged everyone’s ideas about what art could become.

    But many older British gallery-goers reacted to The Snail with angry condemnation. When I ran to my school’s art room, clutching the Matisse reproduction excitedly, the response by my art master could not have been more hostile. I placed The Snail on the desk in front of him, exclaiming: “Look, sir, the Tate has bought this totally daring masterpiece! What do you think of it?” After staring down briefly, with infinite disdain, he dismissed it as “rubbish” and rebuked me for admiring it. “Anyone can daub flat paint on pieces of paper, cut them up with scissors and stick them together like this.” For me, however, The Snail’s bold originality was a life-changing experience. It transformed my adolescent understanding of how a great artist can dismantle the barriers of tradition in order to define a fresh vision for the future.

    The Snail had been executed in 1952–53. Already bedridden, Matisse would only live for one more year before dying of a heart attack. This extraordinary tour de force was produced by a frail octogenarian who probably guessed that his end was near. So The Snail also taught me that originality in art is not the exclusive preserve of impatient young rebels. True, some of the most memorable advances were made by painters like Masaccio, Van Gogh and Seurat, none of whom even reached middle age. But the most original work can also be created by artists as old as Titian, who was pushing 90 and never stopped trying to reinvent himself until his fresh handling of paint attained a provocative freedom, with very loose brush marks and even finger smears.

    The same urge can be found in painters as disparate as Rembrandt and Monet, whose late works took them into realms even more daring than those they had penetrated earlier in their careers. Anyone encountering Rembrandt’s profound and vigorously summarised self-portrait at Kenwood House in London, or Monet’s astounding Les Grandes Decorations on the curved walls of L’Orangerie in Paris, should realise that truly great artists never content themselves with serving up predictable sedatives. Even though the elderly Monet was suffering intense frustration in the 1920s, as he underwent major eye operations to avoid the onset of blindness, he broke through to a near-abstract approach in these canvases. “I no longer sleep because of it,” he admitted, describing how “at night I do not cease to be haunted by what I am attempting to realise.” But Monet’s revolutionary late work changed the course of 20th-century art, deeply influencing artists including the Abstract Expressionists.

    While distinguishing between the potent and the meretricious, we should all engage with even the most unsettling experiences that originality in art provides. Nothing is more depressing than the attitude of viewers who approach innovative work with all their prejudices rigidly intact, refusing to accept that art has a fundamental right to defy even our most hallowed preconceptions. If the importance of originality is not recognised, academicism becomes rampant, repetitive dullness prevails and artists lose their crucial ability to renew our vision of the world with outstanding, revelatory verve.

  • If the importance of originality is not recognised... artists lose their crucial ability to renew our vision of the world with outstanding, revelatory verve.

    Richard Cork

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