A Philosopher's Blog

Originality & Authenticity

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2010

It has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that “good poets borrow, great poets steal.”As such, it makes perfect sense that David Shields would “write” Reality Hunger. This book was created by taking what others (ranging from Elvis to Yeats) wrote or said and combining it into a single work. While he did not want the work to properly cite the original sources, the publisher’s lawyers decided otherwise (for obvious reasons).

Since I am a professor, I tend to see this sort of thing as plagiarism rather than a creative work (although I have seen some creative attempts at plagiarism). However, some folks do not see it this way.

One recent example is provided by Helene Hegemann. Her book, Axolotl Roadkill, allegedly contains plagiarized text. In her defense, she asserted that “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” This remark nicely mixes “there is nothing new under the sun” with Tolstoy’s view that sincerity is of critical importance in art. However, Tolstoy did have the view that originality was important, as did many other great writers including Edgar Allan Poe.

While Hegemann’s remark can be dismissed as an artist’s hyperbole (or an attempt to justify plagiarism) she does raise an interesting point about art.

On one hand, it can be argued that there is no originality. After all, artists recycle old ideas that themselves are ultimately just imitations of life. True, it might be said, artists can put together old content in new ways (such as Avatar) and achieve great success. But, this sort of originality cannot be considered true (or authentic originality).

In regards to authenticity, perhaps that is what matters-to speak in a genuine voice and, presumably, with the sincerity that Tolstoy praised.

On the other hand, originality does seem to be possible in various degrees. After all, it is easy enough to distinguish between outright copying and works that provide some new element. Having graded papers for years, I have a rather clear insight into that sort of distinction. Also, if there is no originality, there would seem to be little reason to buy or experience “new” works, because there would be no such things. We would be wiser to save our money and avail ourselves of the art already in the public domain.

As far as authenticity goes, that presumably means that the work presents what the artist really thinks or feels. Presumably people can feel and think the same things, so the work of another could, for example, be an authentic expression of what Hegemann thought or felt. However, this hardly seems to be the grounds for claiming authorship. After all, suppose a student of mine turned in a paper she copied from the internet claiming that it authentically expressed her views on Descartes’ skeptical arguments in the First Meditation. Even if this claim were true, she would hardly be entitled to claim the work on her own. After all, if I see someone doing a job and say “gosh, I would work just like that” I am hardly entitled to a cut of his paycheck.

Interestingly enough, I have had students try that approach-they have said that the text they copied expressed their view and hence they regarded it as acceptable to copy it without citing the source. Obviously, I did not buy that reasoning. After all, if I caught a student copying off another student’s test, I would not accept “well, those are the answers I would have put anyway” as a legitimate excuse. The same would seem to apply in art as well.

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8 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 29, 2010 at 9:21 am

    CS Lewis said with regards to originality in writing, that if one wrote from an authentic and honest viewpoint, he or she would have little worry in being original.

    Movies and books seem cheap when they lack authenticity. That is, they draw energy from an outside source other than the author or director. Just as I said in regards to war movies trying to draw solely from the Iraq War rage. These stories have little emotional impact because the author director feel nothing. They only try to tap into an outside image (one that the public may hold) and assume that what they are writing or putting on screen is what the public feels. The result is flat art that leaves me walking away and asking: “What was the point?”

    Let’s consider one of my favorite authors, George Orwell. He felt strongly about the subjects he wrote on and it resulted in incredibly original work. He also experienced those very things, as he documented in his underrated masterpiece, “Homage to Catalonia.”

    I think this is all that is required to be original, if not correct. Write truth as you know it.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 29, 2010 at 3:20 pm

      While authenticity can positively impact originality, this assumes that the person actually has some originality. After all, a person could be 100% authentic, but completely unoriginal (lacking in imagination, for example).

  2. T. J. Babson said, on March 29, 2010 at 9:44 am

    It should be pointed out that one can be deeply influenced by previous writers and artists and yet still be strikingly original.

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 29, 2010 at 10:55 am

      I’ll take that a step further. I doubt there’s a true artist alive who’s not deeply influenced by the artists who have come before him. The influence of history’s artists suffuses the world around us. To avoid that influence, one would have to ignore one’s senses.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on March 29, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    For Magus:


    Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    Never us a long word where a short one will do.
    If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
    – “Politics and the English Language”

    In every sentence that you write, ask yourself,

    What am I trying to say?
    What words will express it?
    What image or idiom will make it clearer?
    Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
    Could I put it more shortly?
    Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

  4. P.E.N.Name said, on March 29, 2010 at 8:39 pm


    The work was commissioned. The stories depicted were older than the Bible. The artistic techniques used were not new.

    Artistic originality? Original artistry? The crown of craftsmanship?

    Can one deny the overwhelming beauty of the final product?

  5. hamlynart said, on July 18, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Hi Michael,

    Well, I suppose that is it. 2,500 years of art settled with a single, short blog post. Thank goodness I still have hillwalking. 😉

    I’m willing to suggest that your position stems almost entirely from your role as a professor rather than a thorough examination of plagiarism as such. I’d also encourage you to set your students the genuinely creative task of producing something of originality, sincerity and authenticity by only using appropriated texts. I’d be willing to bet that they’d rise to the challenge and amaze you.

    To be more specific, I think you’re oversimplifying things rather. The issue revolves around relationships between the author and the work they produce but most especially how we ascribe value to this product and therefore originality, authenticity or skill to the author. (Indeed, we call someone original but in fact it is not they who are original but their work).

    If there were no authors there would be no problem (think of fairytales for instance). The problem arises when we make (or feel we need to make) judgements about people based on what they have produced. If they attempt to deceive us, then we should certainly be suspicious, but there are still criteria we can apply to determine if the deception is substantive. And this is the crucial point I believe: substantiveness.

    Rather than condemning plagiarism, I’d argue that we need to acknowledge it, but at the same time to point out that when it works for creative people it’s because it is either not substantive in relation to their overall creativity or because they’ve employed such skill in its manipulation that they deserve admiration for the transformation they have wrought. Personally I don’t really care whether so-and-so has plagiarised something. What I want to know is if it has substantially more to offer than the original. This is why Shakespeare, Robbie Burns, Bob Dylan and countless others are admired to such a high degree despite the fact that they’ve plagiarized mercilessly.

    Sincerity barely comes into the matter, and Tolstoy is probably not the best choice for reflections upon the sincerity anyway. Since Orwell has already been quoted above, perhaps I might refer to his essay on Tolstoy’s attack on Shakespeare:

    “Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’,’ important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses.”

    I’ve also written a blog post in defense of plagiarism here (http://thoughtsonartandteaching.blogspot.com/2010/02/in-defence-of-plagiarism.html). It’s longer than my “Philosophy is Quite Useless” one so you might be more inclined to find it engaging. 🙂

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