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The fallacy of originality

Taylah Carroll
Taylah Carroll is an indie folk-rock singer-songwriter from Melbourne, Australia. Her stunning new single “Vermont” was produced by former Hot Little Hands frontman Tim Harvey and is now available for streaming everywhere.

What makes something groundbreaking or avant-garde? Originality is often touted the holy grail of true artistry, but how, if ever, can we be sure if something is original? Or is the concept altogether too abstract to strive for? 

Artists may spend years waiting for that singular moment of atomic combustion. The first thought ever thunk to miraculously materialise from their purposeful cognition. Every singer of song, writer of word, painter of paintings, sculptor of sculptures, chef, designer and maker of things, has at some point decided to strive for originality; or at the very least, been judged by its metric.

But the more I look at the various ways human creativity materialises, the more it becomes startlingly clear how much art is time, place, and means bound.

Picasso once said “a good artist copies, but a great artist steals”. Though I don’t subscribe to this without a giant grain of salt, what I do take from it is the idea that originality and good art are mutually exclusive.

Every thought you have, word you speak, and action your take, is informed by a plethora of experiences. Your truth is coloured by your history, your experience bank, your interpretive palette. Nothing comes from nowhere. Output must first be input. 

From Tori Amos and Fiona Apple I have learned to fashion my words to cut with concise, and considered emotionality. From Tom Waits, to create worlds and images through specificity. From Tim Minchin I have witnessed humour as a powerful lyrical tool, used to inform, release and intellectually stimulate. From Sarah Blasko I have seen the power in juxtaposing vulnerability and strength. Watching too many episodes of Mad Men has informed my illegitimate feelings of nostalgia, whilst my experience as a young woman, coming of age, has informed it more legitimately.

Is an artist a builder then? A collector and interpreter of beauty, pain, ugliness… experience. An artist curates their inspirations and experiences in a way that makes sense and seems powerful to them. If they’re lucky, it matters to other people too.

Perhaps then, this is what makes good art? It’s ability to move people. Art bookmarks our lives, helps us to make sense of things, sometimes distracts us.
 Often, art speaks to the quiet parts within us, saying things we already know, but haven’t yet faced.

It is not originality that makes any art striking but the very opposite. It’s ability to unify through saying something we all relate to, in a slightly different way to how we would say it ourselves. Because when I think about what art moves me, it’s the art that highlights the commonality of all human experience. And what could be less original than what is at its very heart, exceptionally common.

We finish here, with a remaining question. If it’s not originality that sets great art apart from the mediocre, what defining characteristic are we mistaking it for?

Welcome, authenticity!

An artist that I think exemplifies this ability to authentically relay a perception of the ordinary with great skill is Courtney Barnett. Her album, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Think, was the debut that catapulted the artist to success. It was also the album that first highlighted for me personally the way simplicity and directness could be equally affect laden as the poetic and obscure. Barnett speaks worlds with not very much at all. That is her authenticity. She writes about what she knows, in a way that is at once relatable and unique.

I believe art to be a culmination of experience, influenced by observations, then brought together to create a new work. Art doesn’t come from nowhere, spontaneously appearing in the mind. No concept or idea is wholly original. It is a reflection of time and place. Authenticity however, that is what we are after. An artist’s true and unique organisation of experiences that are actually, at their centre, quite universal.