Artists, writers, all creative persons struggle with the question of originality. “Am I creating something unique, earth shattering?” And the chances are, you’re not. But is that really all that important? Consider what would happen if everything we did was unique, new, never seen before. It would likely be incomprehensible. Concepts are built on a foundation of past ideas.
The visual arts provide the simplest example. Primitive art eventually led to realism, which led to impressionism, which led to abstraction, which led to minimalism, which led to conceptualism. Obviously these movements have branched in hundreds of tangential directions too. But the point is, one needs a reference point to step to the next level. The abstract movement would have been completely unique in the 19th Century, but would have also been discarded out of hand. Why, because there was no foundation yet, it was too big a leap, it needed the smaller steps that got us there as a society to appreciate it.
We see this in many other forms, certainly in writing. How many ways can writers rearrange the several hundred thousand English words and still be unique. Though the number is large, it is not infinite. It is math, a finite number of words combine into a finite possible mix. Yet, experience and intuition tells us this is not true. We will not run out of new stories, new ideas. This is because we are continuing to pile slight variations on top of a very broad foundation – a foundation that can grow infinitely.
Not all that long ago, most believed the sun and stars rotated around the earth. Copernicus and Galileo proved otherwise. Now, without individual proof or experimentation, we all “know” that the earth rotates around the sun, that the earth is round, that the moon is made of rock and not cheese. A million little factoids like that. They are our foundation, our jumping off point of a platform that continues to broaden.
Consider technology. We take for granted that we can carry around a portable Television studio disguised as a phone in our pocket, that we can use it to speak to almost anyone in the world just by pressing a combination of numbers. My parents grew up before computers. They use them, but don’t quite have the easy understanding my generation does. My children grew up with small portable devices and apps. They have an ease with them I can’t match. Their foundation is larger than mine. They add to this broader base easier, not bogged down in trying to get their heads around what is now commonplace to them, but still new to me.
These incremental additions are tiny bits of originality. And they are very valuable both culturally and artistically. Our whole base of knowledge is expanding, because we are a society and not just a mass of individuals, we share information, pass it not only to each other, but forward to our children. And the larger the base, the more possibility for incremental original additions. Think of our foundation of knowledge as a city. Long ago, it was a tiny village, it grew into a town, then a city, now it is a teaming metropolis. We can add a window, a building, or just paint a wall, but there are increasingly more ways to add to and change it. And the larger the metropolis, the more possibilities for change, for originality.
Every once in a while, a brilliant man or woman adds something completely unique to the whole, people like Homer, Newton, Joan of Arc, da Vinci, Shakespeare, or Einstein. But the geniuses stand out, because they are so rare. Most of the originality we experience is not from these rare geniuses, but from small additions, the ones each of us contribute as microscopic bits of brilliance.