How Important is Originality in the Art Room?

 
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Let’s start with a truth. As teachers, we have so much to juggle: When do I step in and correct this behavior? How and when will I start the new project? Where should this student sit? The list could go on forever. In fact, it’s said that teachers make 1,500 educational decisions every single day. I think it’s fair to say that for everything we do as teachers, there’s probably something we’re neglecting or avoiding, as our time and energy is finite. We’ve got to pick our battles. It’s all a balancing act.  

One of the overwhelming, untouched laws of most art rooms is the sacred status of student originality. I think most people use originality and creativity interchangeably, but I think originality has a bit more weight and stigma to it. Originality, by its very definition, implies that nothing else like it exists–it is the first of its origin. Creativity can be a bit more inclusive, with such fuzzy exceptions like appropriation and parody.

 

If we as teachers demand originality of all of our students at all times, are we in fact neglecting or avoiding other issues? Think specifically about working with difficult or stubborn students and how frustrated they must feel when we adopt an unflinching adherence to originality. Do any other subjects during the day operate this way?

Are students expected to add something to the entire field of science that is completely original?

Of course not. That’s ridiculous.

But we still adhere to this notion that students, and here I’m thinking specifically of middle school kids, have to come up with something completely original in art on a weekly basis.
 

So let’s look at the pros and cons of pushing originality.

 

The Pros of Pushing Originality

 
The pros of teaching originality are pretty obvious. An art program that only focuses on building skills by copying famous works or teacher examples is missing out on a huge piece of what the arts teach students–skills like creativity, critical thinking, and complex communication. These skills happen naturally and frequently when students come up with original ideas. But, I’d argue those same skills can develop, albeit on a smaller scale, even if students aren’t always being 100% original.
 
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The Pitfalls of Pushing Originality

 
So, what could possibly be wrong with pushing originality? Let’s think about students that have a difficult time starting new projects. They struggle to come up with new ideas. They’ve been told what to do and how to think for so long that when we present them with limitless opportunities, they can get bogged down.

I’ve always been a firm believer that kids would rather be seen as tough than struggling, especially by their peers. So, when students feel stuck on a project, motivation drops and behavioral issues sprout up. The exception here might be some of our gifted and naturally engaged students. However, rarely is a class comprised only of these types of students.

What if instead of holding onto originality, we could find ways for students to ease into creating without feeling like they’ve got to reinvent the wheel? What if we tap into their interests and modify their assignments? I like to think about it in this way: I don’t have a problem with students working around their own limitations in skill. This might include using a photocopier, light box, or projector to get assist with deficiencies in drawing. In the same vein, I don’t have an issue with students borrowing and appropriating from pop culture when it comes to creating artwork, especially if it gets them out of the rut of self-doubt and apathy. In fact, one could argue that when our students use imagery from their visual culture it’s akin to what Pop Art and Post-Modern Artists have been doing for some time.
 
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Students experience joy and learning through making. If we place originality as the gatekeeper of making, then we’re prematurely cutting off a good number of students.  

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So where do you stand on the issue of adhering to student originality?  

Have you ever lowered the bar or done away with originality to jumpstart your students’ learning? Was it a successful gambit?

 
 
 

Andrew McCormick

This article was written by former AOE writer Andrew McCormick, a STEAM, PBL, and tech integration specialist.

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  • Ms. P

    I think originality, especially at the high school level, is something worth speaking on and preaching when necessary. Specifically for those students that are participating in contests where originality is a key component, having an understanding of what that means today is very important.

    On the other hand, for those students that are say taking an Art 1 course, struggling either with behavior or understanding skills and likely taking the course for a credit to graduate, being more lenient with originality is probably a better option. It just isn’t a battle you have time to fight for that specific student. But each teacher is different, each student is unique, and each situation demands a different response.

    • Andrew McCormick

      Totally agree. We’ve got to know our students. Some will take to originality right away while other need that incremental ramping up to it. If we adhere to the same levels o originality for all students, you end up with art classes where only kids who are “good at art” (in their own words). I think everyone benefits from an arts education and I always want to encourage all students to jump in and create and learn.

  • Maggie HarlowVogt

    This is a constant debate with students. We often slide into talking about music and when you nee to pay the artist. If you are performing for you friends or yourself…no need to worry about performing someone else’s artistic property. Once you perform a “cover” (single reference) of someone’s work for a broader audience, you need to give the credit or money. It is not your creative property…you are just demonstrating you skill to perform someone else’s work. The “mix” tape is a group of covers if compiled to create meaning or to help develop style…still need to credit or pay. (Unless it is your artistic property) A mashup, creative arrangement of parts (3 or 4 references) of other people’s work. Higher on the creative scale, but still not fully yours… If you borrow a phase and it is direct reference it should be credited. Inspired appropriation, taking a pattern, rhythm, pose, technique or composition from many influences (many sources) and using it to create personal meaning and the original references are harder to distinguish but you might say it is in the style of an artist or movement but definitely not that looks or sounds like this specific work by this specific person. Singer Songwriters are the highest level of musical creativity…but they represent only 10-15% of performers. The same in art. What is the intent and who is the audience…that is what should drive the level of originality and challenge. If you are teaching creativity then you should expect students to solve visual problems using multiple sources. If developing skill only consider the skill and if the student can copy or create their own source material. Technology without the internet! Use that phone cameraeach composition

    • Andrew McCormick

      Hi Maggie! The music analogy is spot on… especially thinking about hip-hop and how artists will sample and appropriate from other sources. One could argue that there’s no such thing as a totally original idea. No ideas are born in a vacuum and everything comes from something else.

  • Dennis Earl Fehr

    One reliable option is to look at art history, including the current day. During much of Europe’s Middle Ages, originality was considered the sin of pride. Even signing one’s work was considered an act of vanity, an attempt by the Devil to take away glory from God (which is why art historians have a devil of a time attributing Medieval artworks).
    Likewise at various times during China’s history, fidelity to exemplars (i.e., exact copying) was the sign of a great artist. That remains a widely held axiom among today’s traditional Chinese artists.
    In the West the Renaissance made creativity a virtue, and that remained the case until the 1960s, when Pop artists rejected abstraction in the name of reproducing objects that already existed. Since then we have had Conceptual art, Appropriation (direct copying of existent work, changing only its purpose), art about art, blurring of the lines between fine, folk, and commercial art, and so on. Creativity today is clearly not as valued as it has been in the past. My decades as an art teacher have taught me to encourage creativity, but respect the need for practices such as tracing and copying. I learned that, when students no longer need to do those things, they stop of their own accord. After all, it’s a lot more fun to draw freehand.

    • Andrew McCormick

      Dennis, I love the context. It got me thinking about a hierarchy in our classes. I think students subconsciously know this structure exists and they do as you said, stop of their own accord. Unskilled (for lack of a better word) and unoriginal would be the lowest rung. Skilled and unoriginal is the next step that teachers can help some of the struggling students get to… and this is where this article fits in. Then there is the top, skilled and original. One could argue that I skipped unskilled and original but I’ve found that is a stage students rarely pull off. They often feel that without a handle on skill it is tricky to be original.

  • ArtTeacher.tv

    I hate fan art (Hha), and I’m not afraid to announce it to the world. Students can make absolutely anything in my classroom, but if a student wants to make fan art I will not grade it. Sorry Johnny Depp and Drake.

    http://www.ArtTeacher.TV

    • Andrew McCormick

      Ha! I’m sure Drake will be okay with that. Seriously, I do like the idea of allowing unoriginal work but not necessarily grading it.

  • Daryn Pake Martin

    I love the concept that Artists Steal and that there are few “totally original” ideas. I mean, how many times have you come up with an awesome “original” lesson plan and then when searching other topics find the same project done by another teacher? Happens to me. All. The. Time. We as teachers borrow (steal) and adapt lessons by other teachers. All. The. Time. To me, this is no different than letting my students adapt what already exists. Where I tend to draw the line is copyrighted characters. I don’t allow that in my room unless it’s “Free Chioce” Time.

    • Andrew McCormick

      Totally agree. I think it’s important that we push each student to be as original as possible while also recognizes that nothing happens in a vacuum. We can model the correct way artists are inspired by, borrow, steal, appropriate, misappropriate ideas.

  • E Gibbons

    I believe the statement you included is not apt for the discussion and leads us astray. “Are students expected to add something to the entire field of science that is completely original? Of course not. That’s ridiculous.”

    Art IS NOT science, or Math… Art is different for a good an important reason. Science and math tend to have convergent answers, answers that point to one conclusion. 2 + 2 = 4. Energy in = energy out.

    A problem in art can, and should, have many possible “right” answers. What would a memorial look like if you designed it for someone you admired? What does the Jabberwocky look like in Alice in Wonderland? How would you paint your self portrait in the style of a famous artist you admire in history? What would a gargoyle look like that could protect you from something you fear?

    There are no single answers, these approaches, questions, set up Divergent Answers… and the world if full of such situations. Art helps student understand the deep connections to all content and in a world where there is not just one way to cure cancer, win an election, police a neighborhood, raise a child…

    I would argue that an art program that does not include originality/personalization as a component of EVERY project is lacking (This I know will piss people off) I do not believe in having students waste time on color wheels (There I said it, don’t hate me), when one can limit students to just primaries. They will discover the properties of color through experience and a color wheel can be put on the wall. Why should everyone make an owl, when they could instead make a bird that expresses a bit of themselves? But I “diverge.”

    I think originality/personalization is important, the life-blood of an art education program.

    For sample of what I am speaking about feel free to peek at http://www.artedguru.com.

  • I teach middle school. Starting with 6th grade I strongly push for originality. I make a strong separation between drawings they do for fun and work that is a project in my class. I spend a lot of time doing things to help them think creatively, and build skills from direct observation. I also encourage a lot of drawing from memory before going to the internet to look at final details- usually for animals. My focus is on creativity and process. Skill development happens over time.

    For kids that really have a hard time, I will let them use a favorite game, show, ect as inspiration but put it in term of, “you’ve been hired to design a new character for ______.” This way they get to create in the style but are still bringing something new onto it.

    I encourage them to keep a sketch book and steal from themselves.

  • Kathy

    For my K through 4 students I want them to work at their own level of ability and develop skills to make original art at all times. I do not allow them to copy from “the masters,” from photos, or from me, and they do not trace. I do demos, but do not leave my examples out to be copied. I show them peer examples from previous years– on Artsonia. I feel that they are learning from the beginning to recognize what art is about and grow in their skills with my help, but I do not touch their work. Many practices of professional artists to students in art school are not appropriate for my students. Writing teachers do not allow students to copy from the encyclopedia. Research is permitted but not copying. I feel that we shortchange our students when we do not allow them to make art at their own ability level. Learning is more important to nme than an impressive product achieved through tracing a photo—exactly what does the child learn if they do not even learn how to draw?

    • Andrew McCormick

      I agree with so much of this. But at an older level I’ve seen kids completely shut down and resist making work because they’re having a hard time connecting to a big idea and making a meaningful project. With these students, I’ve lowered the bar of originality and given in to their desire to make “fan art” art that appropriates from some of their pop culture world (always requiring a new spin or take- I’m not cool with simple copying from Pinterest or online imagery). While I’ve struggled to allow this sort of end around the originality problem… it does get these students into making and creating. In this process their learning skill and I hope ways to be responsive to their materials and ultimately more creative with the next project.

  • Mizz Schwartz

    In my art space we use the word “inspire” all the time. Students are inspired by a famous artist, a famous artwork, a peer, the teacher etc. and that is okay. Sometimes kids amaze me, but most times they need the crutch and dont want to copy. Inspired becomes a safe word when explaining what the student did in their art and makes it acceptable.

  • Rebecca Williams

    I like to think I teach technical art skills and I do so to encourage students to communicate visually. If students are learning a method, and they are experimenting with how to get something done, they may not want to be distracted by having to express an original idea at the same time. When a student is learning to write, they don’t have to come up with poetry or a persuasive paragraph, or a novel. It starts with how to hold a pencil and write. With a lot of what I teach at the lower levels, there are those basic building blocks. I don’t want to lose sight of the end goal of communicating ideas either in poetic artistic imagery or more prosaic, practical imagery like graphic designs for marketing. I figure I introduce them to visual communication- I want to give them a solid understanding of tools and processes at their disposal, and them also encourage them to take and run with the expressive parts….so as students get to upper elementary I would like to start challenging them not only to be creative for creativity’s sake, but also I would want other projects that require creativity with a purpose…hopefully it his gives kids a chance to experience various ways to live an artistic life, and something will resonate.

    • Andrew McCormick

      Really well put. I like the “creativity with a purpose.” I wonder though if you think creativity and originality are interchangeable or if they are different?

      • Rebecca Williams

        Thanks. well, I might say creativity might imply more intention than originality, but I would not quibble over someone using the words interchangeably personally.

        • Lisa R.

          Agreed Rebecca! No quibbles here. I believe that creativity = originality with a purpose.

  • Lathem_Und

    I haven’t yet attempted this with my students, but how about re-contextualizing unoriginal work as practice/skill-building? And perhaps building this stage of skill-building into the process? For myself, I like to copy art to build fluency. I also think there is a long tradition of copy/study work in art education that has value.