How the Quest for Originality Destroys Creativity
I was in Tallahassee, Florida at an intimate venue for a Dashboard Confessional show several years ago. I stood with friends within 5 feet of the stage and just in front of us was a forty-something white male, balding with tattered jeans and a long-sleeved Grateful Dead T-shirt. This fellow had just missed his chance at being a hippy and was there that night like it was the last remaining disco in the Florida panhandle. There was no getting closer to the stage,we were already in enough danger as it was. There was equal risk of getting knocked out during his windmill or of getting accidentally fondled while he moved about like “a tay in the wind.” Both of those things happened to me. If he hadn’t been so drugged out of his mind, I would have said something. Instead, I just did all I could to keep my distance. Thinking of this as a one-man mellow mosh-pit helped alleviate the awkwardness. He disappeared while Chris Carabba changed guitar strings. Undoubtedly, he found a kindred New Age spirit to chill out with him in the Taurus and listen to Seals and Croft. I never knew where “Summer Breeze” blew away to but one thing was clear, that free spirit could not dance.
They never can.
For years, this idea of originality has haunted my creative efforts. Somewhere along the way, I bought into the belief that originality is the chief end of all art. I became obsessed with the notion of originality and gave no thought to excellence. My approach was to meticulously consider every element as I entered it into a story. It would not occur to me for some time how absurd this goal actually was. Such a product would be beyond comprehension. Years afterward while watching Garden State I would be reminded of myself in the character of Samantha. It was so important to her that her actions be unprecedented. At one point, she sits on the corner of her bed and wiggles her finger in the air. That may have been a first. Still, it was of zero value.
Truly great artists are not so concerned with originality that they would let it obstruct their creative vision. Truly great artists make best use of all material available to them. The artist combines disparate strands to fulfill his vision. In music, that would include inspirations and influences. The longstanding and current debate on song sampling and fair use has broached the hypothetical and turned into a major copyright issue weighed by the courts.
In reality, there is no wholly original creation and if there were we could not understand it. The line between innovative and derivative is practically invisible. As long as there is art, these debates about originality and creativity will continue. It is necessarily so. Art is nothing if not communication and communication is hardly that if one is only talking to himself.
And with that, we have come full circle all the way back to the man who danced like no one was watching or in the same room.
He was having a good time but he missed the point. His was not a brilliant dance and the five foot area around him was a place that I have come to fear the most. In pursuit of good vibes, he withdrew from the community that had gathered there and remained isolated unto himself.
Great moments happen when we enjoy the art that already is, when we take the time to learn the words to the song or the steps to the dance, then we can improvise.