Originality is a paradox in the art world. It is impossible to create art that in some way is not referential. Seeking originality has become a goal for many artists; but, perhaps the real goal should be to create work that is new, but not original.
The creation of a completely original work of art is unachievable because art is the process of composing existing elements into new and interesting configurations. It is the artist’s ability to reposition the elements of art, inspirations, languages, symbols and popular cultures in the most pleasing and successful way. This is what determines the effectiveness of a piece of art.
Originality can be see as the opposite of plagiarism. If the artist fears being called a plagiarist, then rejecting references might be the safe way to go. However, refraining from using sources of inspiration and references can be detrimental to the artist. Allusions of a social and cultural nature are rich sources for the artist. If artists isolate themselves in the hope of making art that is unlike anything else before it, the artist will most likely produce art they have already done many times before.
Campbell’s Soup Can Series, Andy Warhol, 1962
The artist need not be disappointed or discouraged. Art can still be successful, even if it is unoriginal. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can series from 1962 is a perfect example. The art is nothing but a copy of the soup maker’s labels; but, these pieces of art remain very desirable to collectors and the public as a whole. Warhol made something new out of something old and the fact that he chose soup can labels makes no difference at all. However, the Campbell’s Soup Can series is very unoriginal art by any standard.
Maybe originality is so highly prized because an original is considered to be special. But, an original does not have to be an original. After all, building upon what already exists is more productive than starting from scratch.