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The state and waste of Dutch Design: I don't know what's art, but I know it when I see it

During my visit to Santiago I come across several street artists at one of the city's touristic hotspots. With only a couple pieces of chalk and a small crumbled photocopy as reference they drew life-size religious scenes on the concrete pavement. Each of their works was of such extraordinary craftsmanship that the saints seemed to be alive and breathing. Yet, there was nothing that set the chalk drawings apart from the reference material the street artists were using. For all intents and purposes their works were identical copies of the [photographs of the] original paintings. Obviously, the medium the street artists used was different, as were the audience and the commissioner (i.e. client). But is that enough to turn an exquisitely made copy into an original piece of art?

To find an answer to these questions we first have to try to define 'art'. An extract of the Oxford dictionaries describes it as: 'the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination… to be appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional power'. Since all of these qualities are subjective that which you perceive to be art might not be perceived as such by someone else. In other words: art is a distinctly unique and deeply personal experience to the one who beholds it.

However, Oxford's definition does contain two keywords that we can use as a point of reference, namely 'creative skill' and 'imagination'. It implies that a work of art needs to contain both of these to be (objectively) classified as art. In the example of the Santiago street artists their work hits each and every checkbox of the Oxford's definition except for imagination (after all, it's an identical copy of an original work they copied on the pavement). But does this implies that the street artists are not artists? No, it certainly doesn't. It merely implies that their chalk drawings should not be considered as art. Then again, one can also argue that the street artists did use their imagination by copying the original painting on the pavement by using chalk, with a different purpose in mind and targeting a different audience. If one uses this argument it means the street artists create original works of art through the transformation of other original works.

To escape from a never-ending loop of reasoning and counter-reasoning lets back away from the Chilean street artists example. Instead let us explore the concepts of 'originality' and that of the 'copy' in the Creative Industry.


The Original Copy
To be original means to be the first (i.e. the earliest). This fact brings with it rather dire implications for the concept and prevalence of originality in art and design. After all, each and every work of art is based on another work of art that came before it. Therefore to be truly original is an impossible goal by itself and only very few artists and designers will manage to achieve it to a certain degree during their lifetimes. Does that mean all other artists or designers who "fail" to do so are no good? No, quite the contrary. Most of them will make high quality works of art and design, earn a living by doing so and be exhibited in museums and galleries. Thus being original says nothing about the quality or importance of one's art or design. If anything it's a statement about one's ability to successfully deviate from the 'creative status quo'.

For a practical example on the topic of originality (or better said: the lack thereof) just take a look at any academy, museum, platform or creative blog. Many of these are filled with works and concepts that are inspired or based on other works and concepts that are already being featured there and elsewhere. The result is that soon after the initial sense of awe everything starts to look alike. Hence many artists' oeuvres and designers' portfolios have become interchangeable with one another. It's the byproduct of a globalised world where every creative sees what every other creative does at any given moment. It has enabled many of us to become expert craftsmen and craftswomen but at the cost of our originality. Most of us don't create copies but we don't create true original works either. Instead of using a paintbrush or chalk we use a laser cutter, some lines of code or a 3D printer. In many ways most of us creatives are not much unlike the Chilean street artists that transform one original work into another by making some minor tweaks.


The Good, the Great and You
But what could be the solution to all of this? How can one hope to some day achieve a degree of originality? For one you need to take the time and effort to come to truly understand what makes the art or design that you appreciate great. Find out why you like it (is it the texture? The typography? The colour? etc). Figure out why the artist or designer did what they did and how they did it. Map out the relationship between their work and your own. Also don't forget to scour museums and creative blogs for inspiration, but be critical by what you let yourself be influenced. A lot of art and design these days has a (visual) "wow factor" when you first come across it, but a lot of it also lacks depth or meaning. It has become a mass media consumer product and you have to be very aware of that.

Either way, these are just a couple of steps you can undertake to some day branch of in your own direction and achieve a degree originality. The most important question that you have to ask yourself is whether you want to be original or not. It's easy and tempting to do the same things as everybody else is, and honestly there's absolutely nothing wrong by doing so. You also shouldn't think less of your 'artistic' self should you choose to go this direction. However, be aware that down the road it might cost you your sense of achievement and personal satisfaction in your creative career. After all, like Picasso said: 'Good artists copy. Great artists steal'. It's not about talent or craftsmanship, it's about developing a mindset and its application.


photo credit: Herb Slodounik