By all measures, you would consider me to be someone involved in the creative pursuits. I am also a writer and commentator on many things, both on this blog and off. So I do not broach the subject of originality lightly.
The long surviving myth of originality and the stupidity of most criticism as petty fault-finding came up again recently, when Vishal pointed me to yet another meticulously researched site documenting where every popular Hindi song was “lifted” from. The question that once again came to mind was: Is any music truly original?
Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously plenty of blatant copy-cats in every creative field who do not even attempt to camouflage their use of pre-existing material with the semblance of innovation, but to call someone a creative thief is largely a value judgement that is rarely a measure of intent, and is not anything as dramatic as truth or fact. How is it ok for me to use old photos in my designs, or redo Shakespeare, but it’s not OK for someone to recreate a new tune with slightly different instrumentation? I use public domain images all the time in my work and so does everyone else. We constantly refer to popular culture and collective stories and memories. Does that mean that we are all, each and every one of us, creatively barren?
Does creativity truly mean coming up completely new patterns of thought and expression? If that is so, define “new”. Also, name one new and completely uninspired thought you or anyone else has ever had that had no precedent in nature or human history. If such a miracle would ever occur, it would mean the idea would have to have entered the creator’s mind from without, free from the common conduits of the senses or any other biological means. This would be tantamount to divine intervention. Would that idea be yours to claim, considering it was given to you?
The philosophical conundrum of originality is complex and stems from a very Greco-Roman legacy of thinking, which has purported the fallacy that there is some sacred individual ownership of thought and ideas. If you look back at other cultures, this possessiveness of thought is not as apparent. People have common stories and common memories. When knowledge is passed down through the generations aurally and through public art forms, the individual does not have the luxury of supposing that owning the book or the written notes on a subject somehow result in ownership of the concept itself. People do come up with new ideas in as much they spot connections in the things they sense around them. The building blocks are very much external, and the day someone comes up with a completely new and unsensed building block on which to base a new work, humanity will have finally done its first piece of original thinking.
Beyond this disease of labelling the innovative as original, what is more worrying is the glorification of commentary. We live in an age when the transmission of ideas is less restricted than it ever has been. While this opens up the floodgates of creative expression, it also clears the field for more confident commentary and criticism. Commentary is not a bad thing, and I welcome its educational and mind-changing value. But commentary appears to now be equated to a creative act. To clear things up once and for all, most of the time, it is not.
While it is true that some great thinkers do manage to raise the level of their criticisms to an art form, commentary by a critic on the lack of originality in a work is not just ironic but completely ridiculous, considering their art form depends for its content, structure, and thrust, on someone else’s work. Does the critic then “lift” his material from things he despises? It would seem so.
Commentary as thought, education, and discussion is vital. Commentary masquerading as such grandiose things as justice, policing, judgements of originality, and straight out irrelevant mud-slinging is a festering disease in the minds of those many unfortunates who shall never create on their own, for lack of talent, tenacity, or both. If we are all such believers in originality, when did parasitism become a creative act?