When a teacher says “be creative and do something inventive and new!” every student is bound to be thinking “oh crap” in the back of their minds because they know how hard it is to come up with anything new. The concept that no idea is original anymore is not foreign to most educated people. However, it seems the world is still constantly striving for new ideas—original ideas—in places as basic as high school English to places as complex as multimillion dollar companies inventing software. Since every industry is laced with this need to be authentic, most people are forced to try to come up with these new ideas. Their efforts, of course, leave them swimming in circles of ideas already brought to the surface to be used. However, even knowing this, they keep swimming deeper. To what lengths are people willing to go to in order to potentially be original? Also, is this straining even worth it after all is said and done?
Before continuing, please take a moment to click on this link to a YouTube video, and listen for a minute or two.
The composition, Polyphone X by Pierre Boulez, is from 1951, but it is very similar in style to more recent Avant-Garde music and could possibly be one of the early examples of this genre. This style of music is definitely interesting, and if anything I cringe a little after listening for more than a minute. The rhythms aren’t even, the tones overlap to create clashing sounds, and there is no clear melody or theme. One comment on the video even compared it to the sounds of an orchestra warming up. I would compare this type of music to very abstract art. At an art museum I went to this past summer specializing in modern or abstract pieces, one “sculpture” was a pile of shredded paper on the floor. Might I mention the artist was paid thousands of dollars for that “art”?
Someone once told me that something is art if at least one person can get enjoyment from it. I do not care to argue about the artistic merit of either of the two examples. I would even agree that just about anything can be art. Someone could probably dissect that song to explain its musical genius just as another someone could stare at the paper long enough to find some profound meaning behind it. However, part of me believes those artists (the composer and sculpture artist) made the choices they did in their pieces not with regard to artistic merit but rather with regard to being different and new. They believe abstract equals inventive. They believe they have conquered the feat of all feats—the feat to be original. Except, have they really?
First, the art piece and song were derived from something else, so by the traditional definition of original, neither hit the mark. Both composers probably studied what was common in the world around them and did everything in their power to do the opposite. Even still, the music had notes and types of playing used before, and the art had abstract themes used by other artists. Both had inspiration from some external source whether the inspiration was conscious or unconscious.
Second, let us say for a moment that originality isn’t something entirely new, but something that breaks from traditional ideas or previous forms. For example, when Pablo Picasso “invented” cubism, it broke away from traditional realism. In this sense of originality, his idea was new. However, I would argue that who’s to say he was the first man that ever attempted to use cubism? Perhaps he was just the only person with enough fame to spread the idea of cubism, so naturally he is credited with it. The influence he had has nothing to do with originality.
Therefore, the two examples (the song and abstract sculpture) are not original in my opinion. Rather, they are a desperate attempt to be different. While a few thoughtful individuals somewhere at some time might appreciate the art, have the inventors really been successful? I am not jumping to purchase the pile of paper or frantically searching for a place to download the strange song. Those two creations will never be mainstream, especially the song. There are psychological reasons we don’t like it. Our mind is designed to find patterns. Our minds also only enjoy certain note combinations. This isn’t because humans are inept at adapting to new sounds. It is because the mind was made that way thousands and thousands of years ago.
Those artists’ efforts to be original will leave them in obscure corners of YouTube and weird art exhibits in a small building in Omaha, NE. What they believe as “originality” isn’t getting them anywhere in the mainstream. Boulez’s song is a perfect example of this. It was composed in 1951. That was over 50 years ago, and I still don’t see it popping up on any Pandora stations or most watched YouTube channels.
When people create new ideas, I’m guessing most of their purpose is to develop something that can reach a tipping point and become widespread. Since this is the case, it is entirely more productive to take ideas that have already been used and rearrange them or shine a different light on them. If the idea isn’t new, the inventor already knows it is agreeable to the minds of society, and as the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” or in other words, if the idea isn’t wrong, why throw it out.
If the composers and artists and writers and inventors of the world are still worried about being original, I would say this to them: while history tends to repeat itself, the exact mindset of the world can never be recreated twice. The reaction to an idea can never occur exactly the same after the first time it is felt. Therefore, if originality means new, isn’t everything original? That would at least justify people in recycling ideas over and over and over again.
People are paralyzed by the need to be original. Since originality and invention is supposed to propel society forward, it seems we’ve been thinking about it all wrong. There are some pretty neat ideas out there, and it would be a shame if people just keep trying so hard to find something else.