Original Sin?

Call this a conditional defense of one artist and an unconditional argument against the cult of originality. Granted, there are at least 2 sides to every story, and I certainly don't know all the facts, but this is the situation as I understand it from the several articles I read.

I just learned of the controversy surrounding Canadian artist Sheryl Luxenburg’s award from the American Watercolor Society. In a nutshell, the AWS awarded Ms. Luxenburg the 2008 Gold Medal for her watercolor “Impermanence”, which is a Hyperrealist work employing a pointallistic technique that mimics inkjet printing. The AWS has since revoked her award and asked for a return of the cash, and also banned her from any future competitions. It might be added that the artist had already donated the money to charity, but dutifully returned the amount when asked. The presumed reason for revocation is that she did not take the source photos for the painting herself. There has also been the strong suggestion that what Ms. Luxenburg submitted was not an actual painting, but in fact a giclee. As a result of all of this, she has received a slew of hate mail, been scourged on a number of art blogs, and apparently has even received death threats. Her images have been removed from the sites of other organizations that have awarded her prizes.

The artist in no way hides the fact that her work is based on photography (as, I might add, are a vast number of paintings currently being produced today). She properly licensed the use of the images beforehand, so no copyright laws were violated. Two separate images were combined to produce the source image that the painting was based on; a minimal degree of alteration, perhaps, but it surely qualifies as the act of composition, nonetheless. 500 hours of minute, detailed work followed.

The AWS has released a statement simply claiming that the artist violated the entry rules of the competition, but does not specify which one. Essentially, they’re saying that the work is either not a painting, or not original enough. If it’s not a painting, then one seriously has to question why this fact was not discovered by the judging panel during the competition. If it’s revoking the prize because the source is not original, then in my opinion the organization has taken a rather capricious position on a very slippery slope. Where does originality end and derivative work begin? Does the still-life painter have to craft all the objects appearing in the setup? Does the landscape painter have to grow all of the trees or terraform the prairie scene? Should a portrait painter only paint their own children?

Of course not.

As dramatic as it is, the situation with Ms. Luxenburg and the AWS begs a larger question. To me, this whole controversy clearly stems from our relentless obsession with originality. Debating a work’s originality seems to me just about one of the most fruitless conversations one could possibly have, and is probably a completely modern phenomenon. Try mentioning it to, say, the great artist-craftsmen who worked on Chartres Cathedral. They would likely just mutter something under their breaths, gnaw off a hunk of bread, and go back to their anonymous, glorious work. Consider how remarkably stable and unchanging Egyptian art was; they found something that worked and stuck with it for 2000 years. In fact, I rather suspect that 99.9% of all the artists who ever lived would have a very puzzled and amused look on their faces if you tried to talk to them about originality. I simply don't believe there is such a thing as a wholly original work of art. Every artist brings with them a long train of influences and inspirations going back to the beginning of art. These are brought to bear on every single work they create. Some feel it more or less than others, but it’s impossible to escape and useless to try. In my opinion, the only thing an artist really needs to worry about is uncovering the germ of their own artistic personality, and nourishing it by figuring out it’s relationship with the endless chain of previous art.

Whether it is intentional or not, Sheryl Luxenburg wades directly into the middle of this question, which to me makes her work even more challenging and interesting. It sounds like she’s feeling pretty hurt by all of this, which is really too bad. This is the kind of thing which will either make her career or break it. Assuming the facts as presented are true, I truly sympathize with her, and hope that in the long run she gets far more attention, well-deserved recognition, and robust sales than if she had won and simply kept the prize.

As for myself, I look to one of my favorite Wise Men for guidance on this:

"What news! How much more important to know what that is which was never old!"

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