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The Anxiety of Originality

Made in L.A., 2012 Hammer Museum Biennial –

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the education and subsequent “originality” of an artist  depended heavily on the practice of copying from the Masters. Even Cezanne and Matisse openly acknowledged their artistic debts. As epater le bourgeoisie became a requirement of serious Modernist art, however, significations of genius and inventiveness were tied less to technical mastery and more to unpredictability, novelty and eccentricity. Heavily dependent on a cult of individualism and its supposed position outside of mainstream culture, the myth of originality propelled the succession of Modernist movements with its serial overthrowing or “clean breaks” with tradition. The artist’s task, then, was to anxiously struggle to ally him or herself with a radical movement while convincingly defining and projecting those efforts originally; uniqueness was assured by suppressing or downplaying sources and affinities. As late as the 60’s and 70’s Conceptualism and Minimalism were being heralded as visionary leaps in artistic perception.

Please click on the artwork to enlarge for artist and artwork details.

In 1981 critic Rosalind Krauss published The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths asserting a profound skepticism toward “vanguardist discourse” and “parables of absolute self-creation.”  Krauss exposed this situation as a fiction, with certain modernist works such as Ad Reinhardt’s reductivist paintings, functioning as “pictures” or representations of the originary. She continued, ”.. we can see that modernism and the avant-garde are functions of what we could call the discourse of originality, and that this discourse serves much wider interests – and is thus fueled by more diverse institutions – than the restricted circle of professional art-making. The Theme of Originality, encompassing as it does the notions of authenticity, originals, and origins, is the shared discursive practice of the museum, the historian, and the maker of art.”

Post-structuralist, feminist interrogations and critiques of originality such as Krauss’s facilitated the breakdown of the white male dominated hierarchy in the artworld resulting in an unprecedented expansion of artists, arts higher education, galleries, museum attendance, and collectors. During the 80’s and 90’s, dismantling the fiction of originality was a recurring theme in much contemporary art. Looming questions revolved around the possibilities of actually creating original works from a unique identity in the age of ubiquitous mass media images.  Additionally, given the vast amounts of source material available to artists as well as the hyperbolic PR being churned out by a marketing system, critical scrutiny of artistic activity had to be reframed to retain a credibile counter voice.

Postmodernism and pluralism admitted all historical styles/cultures as fair game. European and American painters borrowed indiscriminately from their rich pasts and their “neo-expressionist” pastiches attempted to resuscitate past avant gardes now devoid of their previous power to critique and undermine societal norms. The myth of originality had simply resurfaced, appropriated as a marketing tool. Under the guise of presenting the “new”, previous movements could now be seen as unfinished projects or as essential to defining a distinct —and marketable— national identity with movements like the “Trans Avant Garde” or “Neo-Geo” the new brands. As Penelope Alfrey observes: “The myth of originality in art and design has considerable commercial value as a selling ploy, but the reality is that copying sustains the economy of commerce—without it, less would be produced, manufactured and consumed, and fewer works of art would be exhibited.”

In the past three decades, a shift from the emphasis on artists’ creating originally to a global art marketing machine’s enlistment of older originality narratives and signs of originality has occurred. Artists, recognizing that they are no longer supported by a critical Modernist discourse claiming originality, have embraced a kind of replacement for originality, “hybridity”.  It can be argued, of course, that all originality in the arts stems from the conjoining/hybridizing of several non-related influences, styles, media resulting in an object or experience heretofore unseen. Much contemporary art is now more explicit or transparent about that definition and comfortably finds its originality or novelty expressed in intercommunication and interconnectivity, an ever expanding system of references and linkages. In painting, for example, instead of a single approach dominating a particular period as in Abstract Expressionism, genres are playfully and endlessly comingled. Interdisciplinary installations have the widest number of possibilities with all imaginable materials, media, venues, and scales producing art experiences on theatrical and technological levels previously unimagined. The dissolution of previous definitions of originality as subverting the status quo of a preceding stylistic approach, has ironically produced some of the most compelling artworks in recent memory. Unleashed from the language of pure formal invention and notions of linear progress, contemporary artmaking is unrestrained, implementing  seemingly infinite combinations of cultural and artistic influences, politics, media, technological advances, and spectacular visual effects.


Not surprisingly, a flood of spectacle driven, crowd pleasing artworks has helped fuel an increasing number of global style biennials. Harnessed to corporate sponsors, high profile cultural institutions like the Whitney, hyper endowed foundations, and localities intent on increasing tourism and revenues, biennials have proliferated in places as diverse as Havana and Johannesburg. Julian Stallabrass’s Art Incorporated  details how “The extraordinary proliferation of biennales is driven by the same forces that have caused new museums to spring up like mushrooms, and old ones to expand and rebuild. Governments are well aware that cities increasingly compete on a global scale against one another for investment, the location of company headquarters, and tourism…the most successful cities must secure, along with economic dynamism, a wide variety of cultural and sporting fixtures.”  In order to compete in this milieu, the art must be instantly recognizable as biennial worthy art but as Stallabrass tells us, “The filtering of local material through the art system produces homogeneity.”  Unbelievably, Los Angeles is only now hosting its first biennial (not counting the Orange County Museum of Art’s past California Biennial) entitled “Made in L.A”. Organized by the Hammer Museum and LA><ART the three venue exhibition is being promoted as a “large scale survey of Los Angeles based artists” emphasizing “the significance of art in L.A.” especially the work of emerging and under recognized artists. As Pierre Bourdieu has written, however, in order for any newcomer in art to achieve recognition, it is essential to “create a new position beyond the positions presently occupied”. In an especially crowded playing field, one must produce distinctive signs and emblems fabricating rupture, difference, and discontinuity with previous dominant figures. Therefore, the “Made in L.A.” curators explain, “The city is home to some of the most original and innovative (my italics) artists working today…..”Made in L.A. 2012” confirms that Los Angeles is one of the leading cultural capitals.” The massive catalogue produced by a committee of five curators/writers that accompanies the sprawling 60 artist show describes how certain preoccupations such as “archeology, materiality, mythology, theatricality, and subjectivity” surfaced as key elements in these artists’ practices, providing “a rich itinerary of the now.” The “now” is actually a shopping list of the most prominent tendencies in contemporary art and clichéd buzzwords abound: “disrupts”, “archiving”, “research”, “body politics”, “destabilization”, “performativity”, etc.. Moreover, we are told, we see “rigorous art historical critiques..and innovative transformation of traditional mediums and forms.” Partly accounting for this originality and innovation, they claim, is L.A.’s historical geographical, commercial, and critical marginalization from the rest of the artworld.  In this muddled, frequently contradictory introduction with its numerous unsupported assumptions, we get Hollywood style hype (Head Curator Anne Philbin recently told the L.A. Times that this biennial is our Oscars, our Emmys), describing Los Angeles as fountainhead of quirky, eccentric, unique, unorthodox art…a “breeding ground for experimentation.” In their discussion of each artist, there are seldom comparisons to New York or international artists whose work is an antecedent to much of the derivative work here, although they freely give credit to California home team artists such as John Baldessari, Ken Price, Paul McCarthy, and Mike Kelley (Occasionally an artist like Simone Forti actually worked with major East Coast figures like Merce Cunningham, and Allan Kaprow so the connection is disclosed and we are allowed the historical insight into the evolution of the body’s role in such performance art).

In a mind bending tautology, this biennial is so intent on proving the worth and originality of its choices –especially the younger, more recently engineered MFA’s – they have actually deprived readers and viewers of the full context in order to critically analyze what is in front of them.  For example, Liz Glynn, an ambitious young sculptor uses stacked wooden crates to create outsized pyramidal forms and tunnel like constructions in a “pseudo archeological” approach which often incorporates performance. The formal and conceptual resemblance to the work of Jackie Ferrara, Alice Aycock, and Mary Miss of the 1970’s and 80’s is striking but never discussed. Although it may have threatened Ms. Glynn’s possible award of the $100,000 to be given the most deserving artist in the biennial, understanding the artistic roots of her work—and its hybridity– would impart other kinds of validity—a conversation about how ideas morph and are reinvigorated with continuing investigation, how image/art historical references accessibility and changing gender perceptions challenge us as viewers and artists to explore new meanings for universal forms. The same could be said of the majority of the Biennial artists: Jill Spector’s assemblaged homages to Rauschenberg, Morgan Fisher’s Ellsworth Kelly-ish monochromes and Sol Lewitt-ish installations, Breanna Youngblood’s sculptural typography recalling Jack Pierson, Kate Costello’s photographic inspiration in Cindy Sherman, Cody Trepte’s  neo-conceptual rifts on Bruce Nauman, Alison Miller’s cartoonish abstractions’ legacy to Elizabeth Murray and Jonathan Lasker, the convergence of Brian Sharp with older artist Mary Heilman and this year’s Whitney hit, Andrew Masulo, Analia Saban’s painting /object investigations’ similarities to Angela de la Cruz – to name only a few. Most contemporary artwork is inherently derivative and part of its appreciation today is reading into it the subtle relationships, issues, and changes an artist brings to his/her chosen discipline. So Brian Sharp is not in the exact mold of his Minimalist predecessors by allowing a freehand, organic paint application.  Instead of pimping these artists as “unique” – which many are certainly not – a more compelling and holistic dialogue about contemporary painting might emerge. We might find resonance in Raphael Rubenstein’s idea that the unfinished, even incompetent look of much painting today has to do with a recent anxiety about the possibility of making great painting under the tyranny of its history, but the equal impossibility of not painting. Unmooring art from its full history and these notions enforces a weightlessness to the whole enterprise. Finding out what painting is and the forces and far ranging references that inform and shape its practice today and looking at the spaces in between could be more important than branding.


Exploiting myths of originality “Made in L.A.” identifies  “subjectivity” as one preoccupation of L.A. artists: “  Los Angeles makes it easy to individualize…..[promoting] a kind of self imagination that imposes itself over any universal sensation….in subjectivity coercive ideals  give way to personal experience…..evident in the eccentric work of L.A. artists.”  While an observable non-slickness permeates a number of the works such as Joel Otterness’s humorous odes to overtly decorative and domestic objects and their display or Carolyn Thomas’s  arrangements of crude clay vessels, questions arise as to whether relating something “personal” or promoting the handmade equate with uniqueness and eccentricity.

The conflation of originality with youth and childlike simplicity and primitivism becomes extremely pronounced in quite a few works here.  Part of the ready acceptance for such approaches derives from early avant gardists like the German Expressionists whose work was initially received with disdain for its resemblances to unsophisticated and degenerate art. A century later, low-tech, uber handcrafting is positioned as counteractive to technologically driven culture as well as a guarantor of serious art. This overdetermined strategy is rife with overt appropriations from folk art and other cultures such as we find here in Zach Harris’s mystical abstractions with patterned frames  Certainly since Picasso’s adoption of African art forms acclaimed in the groundbreaking and provocative Demoiselles D’Avignon, primitivism has been perceived as a wellspring of originality and creativity.  Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle fabricates objects, pictures, musical instruments and narratives from a fictionalized West African land of her ancestors. The look is pseudo African but with Western influences; the intent is an” exploration of myth-making”. Roy Dowell’s sculptural forays in paper mache’, wood, glitter and paint borrow heavily from his personal collection of African and Mexican art. The writers go to lengths to distance Dowell from the kind of colonial era appropriation Picasso was so guilty of and to carefully position Dowell as one who rather “confront[s] that history in a way that values the integrity of those sources” via some sort of free intermingling of the artist and his possessions. Aside from the curator’s statements that the sculptures do this, it is unclear how this happens. What this display does provoke, though, are many unsettling questions about the endless mining of Third World imagery for First World purposes –a kind of neo-colonialist mentality promoting global neo-liberal values or what Julian Stallabrass calls “ the linked virtues of multi-culturalism” in which  “diversity is normalized while its critical content is sidestepped.”

Described as having “a highly original aesthetic” ceramicist Rubi Neri makes primitivistic grade- school style heads and paintings that recall the brute expressionism of George McNeil or Jean Dubuffet half a century ago. The adolescent and noble child are abundantly represented: Nzuji de Magalhaes decorates the instruments she uses in her performances with motifs and images that can only be described as naïve and folkloric.  Erica Vogt (though an engaging video artist), Simone Forti and Scoli Acosta mimic juvenile drawing and subject matter that, in Acosta’s case, are said to “express his internal experience of the external world.”  The inner child and regression has replaced the rebellion that signaled Modernist innovation.

Further wishing to market its sense of youthful insouciance and impetuosity as originality, the curators describe the “history” behind the amateurish work of Sarah Cain with its use of “store bought canvases [that] was a gesture of resistance to the heroic history of painting, an intentional snub of both virtuosity and inspiration, concepts that have perpetuated the myth of abstract painting for so long.” Really, one needs only to buy art supplies at the local outlet to challenge the entire history of painting.  Perhaps in the near total exclusion of any work that is virtuosic, viewers might benefit from an analysis of why de-skilled, slapdash work like Cain’s is preferable or more relevant to contemporary art than the highly accomplished, laboriously executed. Could it all be about looking “fresh” and forever young –L.A.’s  recipe for relevance?

Made in L.A.” does actually exhibit a number of very accomplished, museum worthy artworks. Koki Tanaka’s mesmerizing environment of hanging mirrors and accompanying video of marimba instrumentation is physically, psychically, and visually absorbing. David Snyder’s funhouse of cacophonous competing videos build on the coolness of Naim June Paik’s earlier stacked monitors to wryly comment on the chaos of living in information age. The muralesque paintings of Mokgosi Meleko put beautiful, heroic European style painting to the task of interrogating colonialism in Africa, attempting to recover through scale and esthetics some of the radicality painting once enjoyed. Ensconced in her own discreet space, the evocative, superbly crafted sculptures of Lisa Williamson transform everyday objects such as draped cloth on a pole or ledge into objects of serene contemplation. The obsessively drafted, mathematically precise drawings of Chana Horowitz create patterned music-like fields demanding close and sustained viewing. One wonders if a smaller, more concentrated show of carefully selected artists without all the hooey about L.A. would have revealed more about creating art in any large globalized city today.


Perhaps Cayetano Ferrer whose dazzling light montages and hypnotic, crazy quilt, mosaic carpet composed of scraps and remnants of Las Vegas casino carpeting most represents the ethos of this biennial. A patchwork of Baroque designs, Chinese, Islamic and modern motifs, the oversized floor piece is a collage of time and place that embodies the indiscriminate, totally hybridized commercial environment of Vegas. Essential to keeping the experience “new” and exciting, Vegas keeps reinventing itself with its endless hybridizing , luring the consumer for repeat visits.  In complete servitude to capital, art institutions, such as MOCA to name the most recently debated, now resort to defining themselves similarily. The manufactured originality instrumental in maintaining art institutions and endeavors such as “Made in L.A.”, the salesmanship in lieu of scholarship, means we as viewers should now be more anxious about what we are looking at.



1. The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Myths by Rosalind Krauss

2.  Petrarch’s Apes: Originality, Plagiarism and Copyright Principles Within Visual Culture by Penelope Athey

3. Art Incorporated by Julian Stallabrass

4.  Made in L.A. 2012 Catalog, Hammer Museum

5. Los Angeles Times

6. Being Different, Pierre Bourdieu



  1. Thank you! Couldn’t agree more.

  2. “near total exclusion of any work that is virtuosic, viewers might benefit from an analysis of why de-skilled, slapdash work like Cain’s is preferable or more relevant to contemporary art than the highly accomplished, laboriously executed. Could it all be about looking “fresh” and forever young –L.A.’s recipe for relevance?”

    ever notice how no one ever tells their kid no anymore?

  3. This is a good piece! Thank you!

  4. Coleen Sterritt says:


  5. Nowadays there is perhaps more originality & certainly more potency in curatorial/critical texts than the works they describe. I have always believed important works invite silence whilst those of the lesser kind demand the apology of the word.

  6. Wonderful article! Thank you. I’ll recommend it to my students. Much of this work is a hybrid of short-term memory, market demands and the emperor’s new clothes.

  7. Thanks for this alternative perspective. I agree with so much of it!

  8. Catherine Ruane says:

    Constance, you point, “—a conversation about how ideas morph and are reinvigorated with continuing investigation…..” makes a lot of sense to me. With our arena of appropriations in visual arts and resampling in the world of music there is a persistent flow of history being rehashed as part of the contemporary.

  9. Came across this in Jane Hirschfield’s book NINE GATES and thought it might be of interest, although with a ‘well, maybe’ attached, at least in my mind) —

    ‘The word original comes from the Latin verb oriri, “to rise,” which refers especially to the rising of the sun and moon; but it reaches English through the noun origo — the rising of a spring from its source in the earth. Each root contributes its flavor. The first is intermittent and repeated, the second a continuous flow. One offers a sense of time that is cyclical, arriving and leaving; the other is timeless. One tells the old debate of light and darkness; the other murmurs of a sustaining essence, water’s steady, unaccountable emergence from rocky earth. The paradox of originality is that it points to the newly appearing and to a continuance free of time and says within itself that they are one.’

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