Homages & derivatives v. the exceedingly rare original work of art

by Michael James Hawk

When is a Work of art truly original? Put another way: when is a Work not derivative of someone else’s work?

michael james hawk, solar (2001)

It is hard not to be influenced by other’s work, especially when the Work is memorable, or stunning. We all become attracted to Works that speak to us deeply in Form Language. We absorb elements of those deeply-felt, deeply-held images into our minds. And often unknowingly, we regurgitate those spatial or stylistic elements into our own work, creating homages and lineages of the original. It is very hard to escape this transmission, and re-transmission, of culture.

Maddeningly, we are circumscribed to a fixed set of ideas transmitted by our Culture. Our accumulated knowledge in this space-time dictates the idea-palette to work with. We will take artistic risks often within the bounds of what has been taught to us as acceptable risk via mentors [institutional knowledge], books and schools. We can only use what is known to create Works. We are trapped in Time.

Isn’t it common knowledge, a truism, that Art’s potential is limitless? I am struck at how limited the range of expression is.

What is the list of images I can portray in Art, anyways? It is a rather fixed list: the body, the gender, the animal, the lovers, the group, the life scene (birth, sex, death), the sky, the darkness, the colour field, landscape feature, form itself, the molecular, the geometric, the symmetric, light/shadow study, and the retransfiguration of all of these (by filter, by color, by medium, by process). Ask me to create something truly new, not derivative: that is very difficult.

Why do you think categories and taxonomies exist to group Artistic works? Because they lend themselves to such designations.

At this stage in my life, I have convinced myself that I can create some signature-styled portraits, pretty damn near my own creations — but on inspection, I can usually trace other artists’ genetics in my Work, from all the ideas I have observed and read in my lifetime (vis-a-vis Derrida’s Deconstructionism). Rarely can I witness a totally new direction, a new initiative, to anything I have ever encountered.

heliotrope, michael james hawk (2007)

I get excited when this happens. I say to myself: this new work is truly NOT derivative! Of course, if I had access to the entire history of creative work — all the drafts of all the works of every artist and would-be-artist who have ever lived, I might uncover the original DNA of the new work I celebrate. That would not surprise me.

We, as humans, have a fixed set of experiences. We have a fixed set of tools. We have a fixed set of colours. We have a fixed set of styles. We have a fixed set of archetypal themes. We have a fixed sensory range. We are human, and thus we are bound to repeat ourselves. Don’t think Picasso or Moore were the first Primitives. Don’t think Rodin and Michelangelo were the first Egyptians. Don’t think Manet was the first Eroticist. Don’t think that Braque was the first Cubist. Don’t think Valesquez was the first Sensualist. And so on.

There are true and utter Originals — paradigm destroyers, and they are rare. Their actual values are priceless, beyond the tens of millions of dollars that are commanded for the most popular [albeit admittedly vibrant, breathing] works. Yes, save the Picassos, but save the Originals, too! And, most importantly, celebrate the messages of the Originals, and of the Picassos, that speak to the Humanity of us — about the Humanity of us.

Where we are going. This evolutionary existential animal of progress.

Michael James Hawk is an artist who lives in Seattle. Media he currently works in include: wire figurative sculpture, organic gourd-like wire lamps, hydrocal plaster figurative sculpture, clay set-ups for bronze figurative sculpture, modal-animated poetry films, acrylic painting, and spraypaint abstract.

2 replies »

  1. Hello, Thankyou for the interesting analysis. I believe, however, that some of the ideas expressed may be a little underated. I am an artist (painter) I attended art school many years ago(95) I learned very little as far as painting technique goes, indeed I have taught myself. I have been influenced consciously and sub consciously by the whole of art history and also by my peers and other seen imagery. My work is predominately figuritive and realist, and in this sense, owes much to traditional doctrines. In this capacity it may be possible to put my work into a catagory, and state that it may not be original in design or concept, However,’ I ‘ produced the work, ‘ I ‘ made the image, therefore, the painting ‘is’, unique. Originality is inate to the individual artist, there cannot be 2 paintings , exactly, the same. Secondly, the very nature of putting marks down by an individual, nessesitates original style. Style maybe construed by other imagery to an extent, but true style happens when an artist lives their work and becomes senonemous with themselves, its not a thinking thing, it happens naturally, a fingerprint of the whole of an experience, an individual, and unique experience.