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Originality is the Lie Social Media Wants Us to Believe

Updated: Sep 14, 2022

Consider the quote:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. Always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to." - Jim Jarmusch

For me, this notion is both uncomfortable to confront and undeniably true. It's a subject that's a bit taboo and a bit controversial in the world of makers on social media, but that's exactly why we have a responsibility to dive into it. Taboos are prohibitive and art shouldn't be.

In terms of the creative process, what happens in the creative community on social media is not much different than what's always happened in the world of art. Each of us is inspired by our own collection of experiences. Both conscious and unconscious inspiration from other work makes up a significant part of our collection. When we learn a new craft, we rely on imitation because it's undeniably the best avenue for creative learning. Storytelling, which is considered the most ancient form of art--I'd argue, even language itself--is quite literally imitation. As we develop our skills and voice within a craft, we learn how to better synthesize our inspirations into authentic work so we naturally rely less and less on imitation.

Before the age of connectivity, artists forged their creative journeys out of sight from the endlessly scrutinizing eyes of the internet. The forgiving nature of anonymity no longer exists, but humans' desire to make art is a constant. We still endure the same learning process, but now the world watches on, as our growth, mistakes, successes, and failures are magnified, celebrated, and criticized.

We find ourselves forced to adapt to and navigate this inorganic, intangible, and, at times, really uncomfortable space that we share online. On top of it, we are bombarded with work from other talented makers in higher velocities than ever. Thus, we can't help but ruthlessly compare ourselves to those around us and strive to meet increasingly unrealistic standards--standards that don't take into account that each of us are at different points on our creative trails.

Our propensity to guard our assets and talents stems from a deeply human need to differentiate ourselves so that we stand a chance in the fight for survival. This innate drive is what got us all here. No doubt instigated by this fundamental instinct, we developed a culture that glorifies individualism and encourages rampant egotism. Social media exploits these tendencies to the fullest. When our livelihoods and ability to continue creating depends, in part, on these platforms, it only fuels the proverbial fire. Often times when something important to us feels increasingly vulnerable, we're driven to protect it. We become hyperaware of potential threats and start perceiving them where they may not exist.

Let me be clear -- egregious acts of plagiarism and theft exist in the art world, and they're unacceptable, need to stop, and perpetrators held responsible. I'd like to believe we inherently know how to identify these exceptionally damaging instances--and most often, the worst arise when soulless corporations rip off independent artists for profit. But because not all cases are black and white, the line of what is an acceptable amount of inspiration and what is morally unsound can be extremely muddy and extremely subjective. Who should hold the power to decide where the lines are drawn? And who will benefit from those lines? Sounds like a breeding ground for exploitation.

This is where social media becomes even trickier to navigate. Our egos have changed the expectations--now we must somehow pretend we can create in a vacuum void of any inspiration and imitation despite the fact we are surrounded by it in larger quantities and at greater speeds than ever. But artists know that nothing is created in a vacuum. Every creator is inspired by creators who came before them. So when we start trying to stake intellectual claim over an art form that has existed since the dawn of humanity, we inevitably will corner ourselves into a gridlock, unable to create anything at all for fear of being labeled a thief or fear of being stolen from. Art is supposed to be an outlet for what we fear, not be the reason we feel it.

It bears repeating that originality doesn't exist. The only reason that makes us uncomfortable is that our egos require us to believe that we are original. Egos lie. Nothing is original, and that's a beautiful thing. When we decide to embrace it. Every idea, every dream, every combination of words, has all been done before and many times over. Every work of art, piece of jewelry, or incredible meal you've ever loved was created by someone who drew on a varying combination of imitation, inspiration, imagination, and used their hard-learned skills to execute their craft.

This is the joyous cycle of creating art. It's addicting. We constantly riff off all the things that light a fire within, and in turn, we hope the art we send off into the world resonates with someone else who desires to carry the flame. So on and so forth, until the world is filled with the magic of art. Despite what our egos may tell us, none of us can somehow detach ourselves from the aggregate of art and inspiration created before us...created FOR us, that exists all around. We can't extract ourselves from this cycle, nor should we want to.

Instead, let's embrace the possibilities this opens and see how far we can go from here.


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