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Is Kanye right – do we place too much emphasis on originality?

This week, Kanye West tweeted that we should be ‘less concerned with ownership of ideas’ – two of our writers make the case for and against

Conversations around originality in art and the creative industries are nothing new, but with Kanye West’s return to Twitter this week, they've abounded on the timeline once more. Kanye caused some controversy by tweeting: “too much emphasis is put on originality. Feel free to take ideas and update them at your will all great artist take and update.”

He added:

His comments immediately sparked fierce debate on Twitter, touching as they do on the very core of all the creative fields Kanye works across – music, fashion, and visual arts. Some young creatives recounted times when they have had their work taken for free, and emphasised how important credit is. Others discussed the nuanced differences between originality and creativity, and the undeniable uniqueness of Kanye's catalogue (despite the fact he also takes and borrows samples from all over pop culture). Here, two of our writers go head to head on the question: is originality overrated?

FOR – CLAIMING TO BE ORIGINAL IS A CLICHÉ

Text by Chris Hayes

There is no more boring artist than the one trying to be totally original. In an everything-must-be-original-world, we wouldn’t have appropriation, postmodernism, or memes. I don’t want that world: I love sampling, collaborations, and exchange. I want artists to be up late together sharing ideas; I want them ripping images out of magazines. Most of all, I want them to be so bored, angry, or excited by what came before that they have to get involved, take, and borrow.

It’s easy, in conversations about art, to get caught up in the semantics of truth. But at its core, originality must suggest some kind of distinction from what came before, and what others are doing. I don’t believe Kanye is advocating for the copycat or the thief, but for a kind of creativity that is immersed in something else.  

Obviously, it would be dangerous to totally shed the idea of crediting the ideas and inspiration of fellow artists. But to over-emphasise credit or ownership ignores the ways in which creative peers in a community are constantly borrowing, taking from, and shaping each other. It’s important that artists aren’t exploited by business and institutions, but I would hate to imagine the artistic community stifled by a fear of approaching each other’s ideas and artworks. References and ideas circle among people, within communities in a specific time and place – what’s the difference between influence and exploitation? It’s difficult to say exactly, but I think it’s about being part of the source of your inspiration – it’s about building a meaningful relationship with what drives you.

Kanye’s 2013 track “Blood on the Leaves” might be the best defence of the trend towards copying, sampling, and quotation, which has been one of the most definitive tendencies within contemporary art (kicking off with Dada, conceptualism, and postmodernism). By taking someone else’s song – Nina Simone's 1965 rendition of “Strange Fruit”, a song about racism and lynching by Billie Holiday – Kanye made a powerful statement about music, history, and the lived experience of African Americans under the legacy of slavery. Kanye could have made a song about the same topics without sampling anyone else, but by doing so, he pointed to an entire musical tradition.

“The standard process of training to be a classical artist involved copying the great works of those who came before you...copying was the basis of training to be an artist” – Chris Hayes

Claiming to be original is the biggest cliché there is. People like to point to the Old Masters as a time when artists didn’t get distracted by politics, had “real” skills, and were “original” in ways that we can only dream of. This is a myth. The standard process of training to be an artist involved years and years of an apprenticeship, copying the great works of those who came before you, and even studying statues before you were allowed near a model – copying was the basis of training to be an artist.  Even when they did graduate to being the original artist, they had teams of assistants to help paint their masterpieces. Originality is a myth.

Artwork that borrows and copies can be bad, of course – but it’s not because it isn’t original enough. When Richard Prince printed photographs of people from Instagram, often models, photographer and other artists, he faced an artistic backlash and legal problems. His artwork couldn’t have existed without others, but didn’t offer any fair exchange of artistic control or monetary reward – and the power dynamic between art world powerhouse Prince profiting off the images of younger, female models was gross, and all-too-familiar to the patriarchal art history that came before him. They eventually sued him.

Originality, and the archetype of the individual, visionary genius, is the biggest lie in art. So few good artists believe in it anyway. The big problem with art today isn’t about originality; it needs to be better ethically and politically, and to have something to say about the world in bold and beautiful ways.

AGAINST – CHAMPIONING ORIGINALITY GIVES YOUNG CREATIVES POWER

Text by Dominic Cadogan

Should we encourage creativity regardless of where the idea has come from, disregarding the original source? In short, no – in the fashion world, as Kanye well knows, originality and newness literally keep things turning. It’s an extremely overused quote, but Oscar Wilde’s statement “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months” definitely still applies today. The industry is obsessed with finding the next new thing. This might put undue pressure on designers to churn out fresh ideas, but it’s exciting that newness is championed in the way it is, as it means that even those who are still in education have the chance to bring their designs to the table.

Take Central Saint Martins students Conner Ives and Harris Reed, for example. Before they’ve even graduated, the pair have already received praise for their recognisable and original designs and should be given the right platform to explore that. Had they not been as fortunate, their designs could have easily been copied by high street brands like Zara, depriving them of the vital exposure needed to launch their careers post-education – and where does that leave them?

It’s impossible to have to conversations around originality and copying culture without referencing Instagram account Diet Prada – fashion’s unofficial whistleblower. Although it occasionally veers into smugness, the intention is to create discourse around something that is often ignored: the fact that there are those within the fashion industry, at both the high and low end, who get away with copying ideas and not crediting.

“It shouldn’t go unmentioned that West is in a position of privilege, and could easily afford for his ideas to be used and not be credited or even paid” – Dominic Cadogan

In the case of Dapper Dan, he is finally getting retribution after previously facing problems for his designs. Working as a bootlegger in the 80s, Dan was famous for creating looks out of Louis Vuitton and Fendi materials – yes, there’s a difference between that and copying – but was eventually forced to shut his atelier after a slew of legal actions taken against him. Thanks to Gucci – who were ironically called out for copying themselves – paying homage to one of his classic designs, though, the bootlegger has since been the face of the Italian house’s tailoring campaign, has a biopic coming, and has now reopened his Harlem atelier, creating clothes with official Gucci materials. Sure, it’s great that the story has come full circle, but Dan being essentially out of work since 1992 could have been easily avoided had Louis Vuitton or Fendi brought his expertise on-board when the designer was at his prime.

Kanye may be right that we shouldn’t be focussing on external validation when it comes to creativity, but at the same time, if you need to “borrow” an idea, is it too hard to credit people for them? Or even better, hire them in some capacity to help you elevate it, if they aren’t able to do so themselves?

It shouldn’t go unmentioned that West is in a position of privilege, and could easily afford for his ideas to be used and not be credited or even paid. If all his beats for his debut album, The College Dropout, had been used by a bigger contemporary artist at the time with no credit, it’s difficult to see him holding the same opinions back then. Thinking like Wests’ encourages the kind of corporate bullying we see when brands like Zara and Nasty Gal rip off independent artists? With the resources (and legal teams) to avoid taking responsibility, let’s not forget Nasty Gal founder’s response to being accused of copying: “Forgive us for never having heard of you… Congrats, you’ve been knocked off. It’s a rite of passage”

Fashion’s fixation on originality may be over-ambitious, as it moves at a speed that often feels unsustainable. But, on the whole, newness should always be championed. It’s much better than the alternative: a world full of people receiving praise for work they didn’t think of themselves. Nurturing originality is one of the core values of the creative industries – when we allow innovative ideas to prosper, it means you can make waves in culture whether you’ve just started out, or you’ve been established for years.