Originality’s Origins

Originality always happens as a byproduct of the search for the answers to a technical or aesthetic problem.

— Robert Kulicke

When you paint a pear, how original can you be?

It depends on your definition of “original.”

Like a rose, a pear is a pear is a pear.

And, like a rose, a painting of a pear is a painting of a pear.

But it’s also a page in art history.

That’s because painting, as the painter Robert Kulicke observed, borrows from the past.

It can do no less.

No painting is an “invention,” Kulicke said.

“Invention implies something coming from nothing—and that’s never happened.”

If there’s any hint of invention in a painting, it’s a byproduct of borrowing in order to problem-solve, Kulicke also observed.

Grade-school teachers mislead us, I think, by equating creativity with originality, when creative acts are, in fact, a kind of borrowing.

Before painting became my passion, I supported myself as an ad writer, a job I relished.

Early on, I realized that writing an ad was not unlike professional remodeling.

The client had a simple problem—flagging sales—and wanted the problem solved. She wanted you to boost sales—not create a different company, devise some new medium, or craft the Great American Novel. No, no, no.  As a “hired gun,” my job was to solve the client’s problem, and to do so within narrow constraints—but also to solve the problem in a wholly “fresh” way, a way she’d never seen before.

And I solved my clients’ problems—always—by borrowing from sung and unsung ad writers of the past. (Ad writers are, in fact, encouraged to keep a healthy “swipe file” to help them solve clients’ problems. Mine filled five boxes.)

Despite having a new career, I realize today that I’m still just problem-solving. A lot more paraphernalia is required—Jerry’s Artarama is making a small fortune from me—but the job’s pretty much the same as writing ads. I’m happy—honored, is more accurate—to tackle technical and aesthetic problems by borrowing and adapting what’s preceded me.

That means I’m happy to offer you original still life paintings so long as you don’t put too much stock in the word “original.”

Yes, my paintings are all original, but only in the sense that nothing is.

They owe their existence to paintings past: to the rich inheritance every living painter receives from his or her forebears and contemporaries.

After all, the word “original” once meant “inherited.”

Medieval speakers of English borrowed the word from the Latin originalis, which meant “marking the start,” in order to describe man’s abysmal origin and inheritance, “Original Sin.”

It was only after the Church’s influence waned during the Enlightenment that English speakers started using “original” to mean “fresh” or “novel” or “new.”

But “original” originally meant “inherited.”

Above: Pear. Original oil painting on canvas. 12 x 16 inches. $290. Add it to your collection!

Robert Kulicke, Green Pear Still Life , 1957