I’ve been thinking a bit about the notions of ORIGINALITY and APPROPRIATION.
As you know if you’ve read my manifesto, I often use music as a model for thinking about art and design. I appreciate the relevance of the term ‘practice’ to both and I’ve always been enamored of the collaborative aspect of music making. The question of originality in music is also a very interesting one. I started thinking about this when considering the notion of ‘covers’ in music – especially popular music (from folk through rock to rap). The cover is a tribute, a test of one’s own ability and sometimes a kind of one-upmanship. A way to acknowledge your forebears and to strut your own stuff at the same time.
But in the fine arts this could be considered simply copying. Its been impossible to carve a version of Michelangelo’s David as part of an art practice for over a 100 years? For most of the 20th Century the avante-garde position has been to reject and deny the work of our forbears – not incorporate it. But since the 1970’s appropriation and sampling have become part of post-modern practice. I’m sure there’s some excellent analysis of the connections between originality, covers, sampling and appropriation with respect to music – I need Don Miller Jr.’s input here!
Perhaps in the worlds of craft and design the notion of ‘cover’ has been there all along. Lately I’ve been teaching one of my favorite classes at CCa – The History and Theory of 20th Century Furniture. It’s interesting the way some ideas keep reappearing and being reinterpreted in the recent history of furniture design. For example, studio furniture designers and makers post WW2 have had this thing about designing and making music stands – perhaps this reflects the parallels between music and craftsmanship.
Through looking at so many designers in the History and Theory class I’ve noticed another strange trope or design ‘meme’. So many 20thC furniture designers have embraced the vernacular be designing their own ‘cover’ of the three-legged milking stool. Here are some nice examples –
All this was floating around in my noggin’ when I listened to a great Radiolab show last week – the piece entitled ‘Patient Zero’. It was about tracing the source of things to their ORIGIN – they looked at the AIDS virus, Typhoid Mary, the High Five, and the Cowboy Hat. The last piece featured Jonnie Hughes who has written a new book entitled “On the Origin of Teepees: the Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves).” Get the pun!
In it the author expands on Dawkins’ concept of the ‘meme’. Dawkins believed that a meme was perpetuated by it being copied, duplicated and appropriated. Hughes hypothesizes another mechanism for the survival and, more radically, EVOLUTION of ideas through environmental, social and historical factors. In the example of the cowboy hat he proves that no-one invented it – despite Stetson’s reputation for having done so. Actually, it evolved to satisfy a very particular set of human needs determined by cultural and environmental factors – powered by the selection pressure of the cowboy’s choice. The cowboy hat wasn’t invented it evolved on the prairie – like buffalo!
So now I’m wondering if ‘originality’ is in any way a valid or useful concept in such a rich field of cultural appropriation and ‘memetic evolution’. I’ve always found it a very problematic concept and a futile goal. The scientific model as aphorized by Newton in 1676 has always held more appeal – “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can only make an (original? evolving?) contribution to a field by recognizing and working with all that has gone before.
I think it’s time I designed a three legged stool – though I know its not original!!!