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  Originality (from Latin origo, ‘source’) has two meanings, in the criticism and appreciation of the arts. In general, it is almost a synonym for ‘uniqueness’ and refers to the idea that a given creator, or the work created, is one of a kind, exhibiting characteristics shared by no others. This is a Western notion, and one which belongs to the last two or three hundred years only. It is related to the idea of the artist as genius, someone using unique gifts to reach as closely as possible to the ‘ideal’ form which exists, in philosophical terms at least, for his or her particular form of artistic endeavour. In other traditions, and in the West until the Renaissance, this kind of originality was not required: artists, and thinkers of all kinds, were part of a continuum of creativity and invention, and their work was legitimized by its relationship (deferential or hostile) to the whole field. It would never have occurred to Aeschylus, say, or Omar Khayyám, or Hiroshige, to think of themselves as ‘originals’ or of their work as ‘original’. Notions of excellence had more to do with the execution of the work than with its conception; plagiarism, now one of the cardinal artistic sins, was regarded as natural, even a form of flattery: drawing on the common pool of which both your own work, and the work you were borrowing, were part.

In fine art, originality has a second, and far more useful, meaning. Critics in 17th-century Europe, following Neo-Platonist philosophers, defined it as the opposite of the servile copying of nature, and an integral part of the artist\'s powers of invention. This meaning has been taken up in recent years by those who wish to dissociate originality in art from authenticity, thereby widening the parameters of the discipline to include all art, whether ‘original’ (and indeed ‘fine’) or not. PD MG KMcL

See also connoisseurship; idealism.



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