Is Originality Dead?

Everywhere we look, it's like experiencing deja vu. From the onslaught of movie remakes to recycled fashion designs, the concept of an original idea may already be extinct.

Is Originality Dead?

Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a creator of an artistic work like being slapped with a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement. Well, that, and perhaps the stress of having long-lost relatives show up at the door asking for a piece of his newfound wealth.

Just last month, Katy Perry was ordered to pay damages to the tune of US$2.78 million ($3.85 million) by a jury, who found the pop star—together with her co-writer, music producers and record company—guilty of ripping off Christian rap song Joyful Noise by Marcus Gray (aka Flame) for her 2013 hit, Dark Horse.

The concept of “sampling” in music has been around for decades. One of the most notorious was the monster ’90s hit by Vanilla Ice. Ice, ice, baby, the catchy ditty masquerading as rap had a bassline pinched from Queen’s Under Pressure from a decade earlier.

Ironically, hip-hop artistes, who most often accuse the mainstream of cultural appropriation, might themselves be the biggest perpetrators. Rapper P. Diddy, for instance, sampled The Police’s 1983 hit Every Breath You Take for I’ll Be Missing You in 1997.

While sampling may be considered a homage by artistes to their musical heroes, the problem was that in both cases, the rappers did not credit the original songs until they were called out, which gave rise to all sorts of legal issues.

In Perry’s case though, she may have been an unwitting victim of a musically ignorant jury. Industry experts later proved that both songs differed in key, tempo, notes, even beat.

So how did such an injustice prevail?

Blame the Internet. While it has certainly democratised knowledge acquisition and facilitated the easy flow of information across borders, it also expedites the pilfering of ideas, setting the stage for what Los Angeles-based visual artist Darel Carey refers to as “confirmation bias”.

The Scourge of Confirmation Bias

“The perception of everything having been done before is propagated by all the unoriginal ideas we see in everyday life,” notes Carey. “We see remakes of movies and copies of themes in art, and that makes it easy to assume that nothing is original. We are looking at instances of unoriginality to confirm unoriginality.”

This scourge of confirmation bias occurs because we, as humans, are natural-born pattern seekers, Carey observes.

“We want the easiest, quickest answer to put our minds at ease. If someone independently comes up with an idea that is similar to an existing one, we want to assume it must have come from the one already in existence,” he explains.

How then do creative professionals contend with the fear of innovating in an age where every creation, from fashion to furniture and technology to architecture, appears to be no more than an “inspired” replica of a pre-existing article conceived by the generation before?

“It’s not that all the original ideas have already been discovered,” Carey adds. “It’s just that what it means to be original is constantly evolving. Any present-day original idea stands on the shoulders of accumulated knowledge.”

Originality: An Evolving or Exhaustive Concept?

What makes an idea original is exceptionality. One that pushes the envelope, transcends boundaries, injects freshness and bewitches us with the magic of novelty. It has the power to revolutionise industries and may even make us question our pre-existing notions of reality.

“While rare, the probability of new and original ideas is not impossible,” says Kevin Ou, a celebrity photographer-turned-entrepreneur who has lensed the likes of former US President Barack Obama and Hollywood heavyweights Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp.

Creativity, he says, often compounds ideas from inspiration that came before it, giving birth to something unique and different. “Most creativity is cyclical and older ideas tend to have a new lease of life in modified ways,” says Ou, now group CEO of LivMo, a global experience marketplace he recently founded.

Carey holds a similar view. “Ideas are always floating around—some new, some old, some great, some bad. Having a creative mindset is about digesting ideas in a unique way, looking for other paths and seeing things from multiple perspectives, all of which enable one to make new connections,” he expounds.

Creativity, therefore, is also about “connecting dots that either haven’t been connected before or haven’t been connected in the same way before.” In Carey’s case, it’s lines instead of dots. His uncommon style of art sees the artist manipulate optical and spatial perception using tape as a medium to make line patterns that create an illusion of depth.

“People have used tape and line patterns to create art before, that’s nothing new. People have created immersive spaces before, those aren’t new. People have created illusory art that tricks the mind’s eye before, that isn’t new too. But all of those things together coalesce into something unique. It took me years of learning, creating and thinking to arrive at such a harmonious intersection of ideas,” says Carey, who was recently commissioned by The Sanchaya resort in Bintan to create a unique installation inspired by its monochromatic palette.

Darel Carey and his mind-bending tape installations.

So, if repackaging, repurposing and recontextualising ideas constitute creativity, is originality even a requisite for ideation and creation? And does it even matter?

Not according to these creative professionals. In fact, the process could work just as well when inversed.

“This concept of idea-compounding means that creativity is infinite,” Ou considers. “As long as the will or desire to create exists, the possibility of something new and original can be born.”

Synthesising Creativity

Don’t even get Thomas Heatherwick started on the question of whether originality still exists in this world. The British designer of the new London Routemaster buses, who’s also working on the upcoming Terminal 5 at Singapore’s Changi Airport, refuses to give it even a moment’s consideration.

“In every age, everyone thinks that everything has been done before. But I think saying there’s no such thing as originality lets people off the hook,” he asserts.

In fact, one could argue that the potential for originality is now greater than ever, as the lack thereof increases the pressure to innovate. This calls for creators to arrive at the creative process with an attitude of experimentation and, perhaps, even defiance, as they question conventional thinking, challenge their imaginations and push beyond the parameters of established precepts.

“There will always be room to pull together new ideas, make new connections, create new chemistries and synthesise things,” Heatherwick believes.

“What’s different about humans versus animals is that we’re interested in the pursuit of improving life, and that hunger is a powerful instinct inside us. Human ingenuity, I think, is one of the most magnificent things.”

As authors of any creative work will attest, the fear of being unoriginal—and being called out for it in the social sphere—can be paralysing. But one can take comfort in the knowledge that originality is now less an expectation and more the exception.

“If all ideas were original, then we’d have to change the meaning of ‘original’,” says Carey. “So, what we see in the world is exactly what we should expect to see: A whole lot of unoriginal ideas, with a few rare exceptions pulling us forward, innovating and redefining the norms.”

This story first appeared in the September issue of A.

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