Is Originality Dead? (Ep. 001)

Andrew and Tim are excited to be debuting the first episode of Art Ed Radio. They tackle the age-old question of originality, what purpose it serves in the art room, and what we can do to ensure that our students are creating original work. Listen for the guys talking about Chuck Close (11:45), Andrew working weightlifting into the conversation (16:00), Tim talking about his mantra of “make it your own” (21:00), and why originality is worth striving for–even if it doesn’t always come easily (25:45). Full Episode Transcript Below

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Today we’re going to ask and possibly answer, the question, is originality dead? We’ll also delve in to the questions of what purpose does originality serve in the art room, and what can we do as teachers to ensure that our students are being original? Andrew McCormick, my Art Ed Radio co-host will join us in just a few minutes to answer these questions and talk about how we are dealing with originality in our classrooms to set our students up for success.

Let’s begin with our big question, is originality dead? I would say that they may not be dead yet, but is certainly on its last throes of life. We see that fact manifested all the time in our art room. Without support, without scaffolding, kids think to revert to the most cliché, most overdone subjects that you can ever think of. Part of that I think is because we prefer the familiar and the comfortable in our life, both teachers and students alike, but honestly, if we can break away from that, that is what makes a new original work so much more are satisfying.

That raises a question, how do we get kids to that point? For me, I think that, while kids may not have new ideas for subject matter, they definitely can have a personal voice or personal take on something that already exists. It may seem like kind of a daunting tasks, but there are really good ways to have the students make it their own and we’ll talk a little bit more about that later, but that is a mantra that really runs through my art room all four years the kids are in school with me.

At the high school level, I always tell kids when they bring me an idea, “How can you make it your own?” I really do a lot of work to encourage that original voice and that original take on something, even if it does already exist. Now one incredible video that works as a great resource for my classroom that I can share with you is called Everything Is A Remix by Kirby Ferguson.

Basically, it is a little mini-documentary that talks about how everything that’s done in the creative world, whether it’d be in music, film, art, whatever, has already been done before and everything has been done so often that you’re not going to be able to find anything original. It starts with a little bit of hip-hop history, which my kids really get into, but it talks about a lot of old hip-hop songs, a lot of old rap songs that are sampling the same beat or the same bassline over and over and over again.

Even if they’re just doing it once or twice at the beginning, it eventually gets sampled over and over and over by dozens of songs throughout decades honestly. It talks about classic rock with Led Zeppelin and how they take from earlier songs, then once Led Zeppelin has created this, then bands after that had taken from them. Like we said, things had been done so often and so many times it’s very, very difficult to find anything original.

It also dives in to a little bit about filmmaking with Quentin Tarantino and all the influences he brings in to his movies, and Star Wars and everything they have taken from old movies to kind of make it what it is. It all comes back to that point where some things are originally being copied, and even if they aren’t being copied, intentionally, you can still probably find someone else who did it first.

[inaudible 00:03:50] comes a point where he says that trying to be original is basically futile, and it’s not because we don’t have the capacity to be creative, but just because everyone has been influenced by everything and inspired by everything that has come before and the opportunity just isn’t there to come up with those original ideas.

When we take them into account, if we have that in mind when we’re dealing with our classroom, is it fair to our students to expect them to come up with original ideas? How do we have students to make it their own? For me, it comes down to three different ideas: appropriation, transformation, and subversion. I want to tell you just a little bit about how I kind of use some of these terms or why I may stay away from some of these terms, and concepts, and ideas in my classroom.

For me, appropriation is really, really difficult to teach and it’s even more difficult for my students to understand. Because of that, I generally will stay away from them in my classroom, because with appropriation, always come the concept of recontextualization, and that is not a concept that’s easily understood by my students. It’s tough for them to realize that if we’re appropriating something, all the sudden it has a new context and a new meaning. They’re just looking at it, “That’s exactly the same as it was before,” like, “How is that not copying?” It’s really tough for them to wrap their minds around it, so I guess that’s something that I kind of stay away from.

Transformation on the other hand, it’s not something I like. I think it can be done all right in the classroom, but I think you’re kind of walking a fine line, because you’re kind of running that risk of just flat out copying. You need to make sure if you’re trying to transform something that you can change it enough to make it original, like is it advanced thinking if your students are just changing materials or just changing the format? If you’re doing the exact same image, like what are students really learning?

You really need to kind of dive deep into that concept or transformation and really, not just change the materials, but attempt to try and change the meaning of what’s out there. Again, that’s something that can be difficult for students, so as a teacher, I think you kind of need to walk the fine line if you’re jumping into the transformation. Now, for me, the way to go is really subversion and if you can take a general idea and kind of flip it on inside and try and look at things in a new way, that’s a great way to go.

I love to take traditional portraits and try and do new things with them. Right now, in my classroom, we’re working on the portraits where could smash their face against the window and draw themselves with distorted features. I have a ton of projects that do similar things like that where you take a traditional idea. We kind of flip it on its head and do something new with it. If you can subvert that original idea, I think that’s one way for kids to have an original take or original approach to something that’s always traditionally done.

I think if you can do that, you’re hoping to create some original thoughts. Kids can take your ideas and run with them, and I think that originality is one of the keys to a really successful art room and that goes for both the students and the teacher. We obviously want our kids to come up with original ideas, but we need to ask ourselves, “What am I doing not only to present original ideas myself, but what am I doing to encourage kids to come up with their own original ideas?”

I think a lot of that comes back to, “Can we solve that problem? Can we present those original ideas by creating good lessons, good prompts, good themes, whatever it may be?” If you can allow kids to sort of think and diverge in answers, like if you have a project that can spread out and take a lot of different approaches. That’s where you’re going to approach that idea of originality, and if you can get your kids to be thinking in a lot of different ways, that’s where that originality is going to come from.

I was thinking about a lot of these ideas and a lot of these questions. I really do want to run them by my friend Andrew McCormick. I’m going to try and get him on here. He’s big into STEAM education, he loves Lego competitions, gardening, and he’s got a great OT. Honestly, I can’t think of anybody better to have on the show to discuss originality.

So now, please welcome to the show Mr. Andrew McCormick. I probably know him from all of our time co-hosting AOE Live together. He is an eighth and ninth grade art teacher in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Andrew, you’re going to be with me a lot, but for the first time, welcome. How are you?

Andrew: Hey, man. I’m doing good. It’s nice to be back in the saddle podcasting with you. We took a little bit of time off and we’re ready to relaunch this thing and do it up hopefully a little bit better technical and audio-wise, so yeah, I’m happy to be here.

Tim: Good. I’m pretty excited about it, listeners, get used to us being together, because more often than not, it’s going to be Andrew and I co-hosting this show. Anyway, today, we’re talking about originality and Andrew, specifically, I wanted to talk about the article that you wrote back in September in on The Art of Ed, called How Important is Originality in the Art Room? I love the article and I know you talked a lot about all the decisions we make in the art room, and where does originality fall, and sort of that spectrum.

Like if we’re trying to get kids to create work, how important is originality? Would you rather have kids stuck with that idea of this has to be original, or would you rather them just kind of start making something even if it wasn’t the most original? Does that do a good job sort of summarizing your point [crosstalk 00:10:16]?

Andrew: Yeah, I mean that’s conundrum and I think, sometimes we run into art teachers, and teachers in general, or parents, or students who kind of think that originality and craft, originality and skill even have to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. I think you and I would both agree that that notion of either/or is kind of … It’s a fallacy. You can’t be that, but it is something that we have to weigh and take into consideration, because I know that I have had plenty of students who get so kind of derailed and see the obstacles of, “Oh, this has to be original, this has to be creative.”

They haven’t had a whole lot of practice and a whole of scaffolding in other classes in being original, and then all of a sudden, here you are as an art teacher whether you’re middle school, high school, elementary saying, “All right. On Tuesday, 45 minutes. Be totally original,” and some kids are just like [inaudible 00:11:17], like overwhelmed by those choices. Now there are some students who are completely ready for that. Every open-ended assignment you give them, they’re going to knock out the park, and they’re going to the beat of their own drum, and they’re original 24/7.

You have some other kids who took art and are taking art, and they struggle with that, and to lower the bar of that obstacle I think can really help a lot of kids just get going. There’s this great video out there that has Chuck Close talking for about five minutes, and he has code in there, and I’ll probably butcher it. We could tell a link on that and people could check it out. He doesn’t say that originality is overrated, but inspiration is overrated. He said, “Art is just about showing up and doing the work.” I think we have this myth about being inspired and being taken away by the spirit of inspiration.

Sometimes like you just got to do it, you got to get down to work. I would love in an ideal world for every student I ever work with to be a 100% original all of the time, but we just know that’s not the case. If you can lower the bar, some case just like Chuck Close said like they just start doing work and they get into it, and then through the working, through the hands, through the touching a clay, the manipulating paint, they start to make choices and decisions that they weren’t going to make if they never got out the starting block because they were so frustrated with that originality, kind of hurdle, right?

Tim: Right, and so … Okay, I think the Chuck Close quote. I’m going off the top of my head here. I think it’s, “Amateurs sit around and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Andrew: Holy cow. Did you pull that off the top of your head or did you [crosstalk 00:13:13]?

Tim: Well, it’s a quote I really, really like.

Andrew: Yeah. Well, thanks for one upping me as I bring this video up. Actually, you did it all wrong, but yeah, I love that quote. It’s so great.

Tim: Yeah. I’m not trying to show up here. No, I think that’s an important thought, and so I guess my question for you then is do you see copying as part of a strategy? Can that be part of scaffolding to really help your students work toward that idea of originality? Is that something that they need to go through first?

Andrew: That’s such a good question, because like copying has such like dirty connotation.

Tim: Yeah, it is.

Andrew: The same as like tracing, like, “Oh, my god.” I don’t know that I like the word copying. Maybe we can talk about like a more teacher guided exercise. I can even, like applicable to my classroom right now. I’m starting a new semester, I mean I’m day one into it and one of the first projects I want to do is really open-ended, and I just thought, “I’ve been experimenting with choice a whole lot lately,” and to some degree, I feel like there’s been a deep and some of the quality of some of the work.

When I’ve been steering the ship, I kind of knew how to get the results I wanted out of the kids, but they weren’t putting their own spin and flavor on it. I was kind of directing it too much, so I thought I kind of want my cake and I want to eat it too, so I thought about, “What if I did a week-long little mini exercise or project that was really like we’re all going to kind of do it like this, so we learn some skills.”

Now you might say that that’s copying. If it looks like teacher’s exercise and you did a really good job and you get an A, but I just don’t think I would wait it and think as much of it, as then once we’re done with that week-long exercise, that project, we’ll now then turn them loose and say, “Well, now you’ve got this kind of big idea to grapple with and I’ve walked you through this exercise to possibly use or maybe go somewhere else.”

That’s what I’ve been thinking about scaffolding, give them something small, quick, fast that is very much skill-related, and then move on to something that’s a little more open-ended, so they feel confident in the skills that they have acquired, and then they can move on to that more open-ended original thing. Some of those kids who struggle with originality can fall back and kind of do an imitation of that exercise.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: I was up late a couple nights ago and I wrote this like long rant about grading and differentiation in the classroom, and I likened it to lifting weights in the gym. You have some students who are hurt. I know it’s a totally logical analogy, right?

Tim: [crosstalk 00:16:10] No. No, I’m into this. I want to know where this is going.

Andrew: You have some students who are maybe naturally strong, let’s say physically strong, and they go to the gym, they are lifting really heavyweights, and they’re maxing out, and they’re exhausted. Then you have another kid who shows up, little more string bean, little more scrawny. They are lifting much lighter weight but also equally exhausted at the end of the workout, and that’s what art is. You have some students who are naturally gifted, and they are going to naturally push themselves to make something that is like right up to the limit of what they can kind of handle and are ready to do.

Then you have the students who struggle with originality, and I hate to say the weaker students, but in the analogy you know what I mean. They may not make as original artwork, but for them, they were also exhausted at the end of the process, so while the artwork might look totally different, you might say, “Well, on my fancy Rubric here, this kid gets a five out of five on originality, and you drew a picture of Lebron James from the Internet and that’s not very original,” but for that student, that was about all that they could handle, so the weights look different, but the level of work and exertion is exactly the same.

Tim: All right. Yeah, I think that’s a good analogy. I like that.

Andrew: No. No, I’m sure I lost everybody on that. They are just like, “What the heck is he talking about, lifting weights and Lebron James?” That is one of the things I love about teaching art is, I do feel like it lends itself to a really easy, organic, self-differentiation. Kids who are just naturally talented are going to find ways to push themselves, and kids that struggle are also going to find ways to push themselves.

Tim: Yeah, and I think that’s good. I want to delve into that a little bit more, but before we do that, since we’re talking about choice, I do want to take this chance, let everyone know this episode is brought to you by AOE’s Online Course, Choice-Based Art Education. If you need to grab credits or professional hours and you want to learn more about offering more choice to your students, consider taking Choice-Based Art Education. The class will cover a variety of educational pedagogy that offer choice and allow you to design a plan that works for you.

Class worth three credits and runs for five weeks with classes starting on the first of each month. Learn more by going to, and clicking on the Classes tab. All right. Now, Andrew, jumping back into that idea about choice and you talked about sort of that self-selective differentiation. Do you think that allowing choice in your classroom can encourage creativity? Like do kids sort of find their niche with the more choice that you give them?

Andrew: I might actually shock you with my answer here. I think it’s like NetZero game, like some kids are going to push themselves and some kids aren’t. I think when I first started adopting a more choice-based and TAB approach, although, I’m definitely more choice-based. I would say I kind of felt like it was like the fix-all, cure-all and, “Boy, every kid is going to be engaged.”

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: I still had to work pretty hard to get kids engaged. I’ve always found like the goods who were good anyway were going to really run with it, they might run further with it, and it did help out the kids who maybe lack some motivation or originality, but it didn’t completely make them into lick rock stars overnight because they have no sort of … I keep saying the word scaffolding, but they have no sort of like understanding or practice at being original.

This happened to me and it’s happened to a lot of teachers that are experimenting with TAB and choice. You give students a theme, you give them a topic. The students do some research. Inevitably, they end up on Pinterest and say, “I want to make that. That is exactly what I want to make,” and it’s like, “Aah.” In the whole universe of possibilities, you’ve chosen something that already exist and you just want to recreate it. That’s not really original.

I don’t know. I mean I think it probably depends on the teacher and how you run your choice. It can definitely help, but you can also fall into same pitfalls of students just not being original, not thinking, imitating, and kind of grabbing things and just reproducing them. It can help but I think it probably depends more on the teacher and how they facilitate it.

Tim: Yeah. Well, I want to jump in. I want to tell you a little bit about that, because I talked in the introduction of this show about how kids will come to you with those ideas, like, “Oh, I want to do this.” What I always say to them is how can you make it your own? I repeat that ad nauseam, like every time they bring me something, I’m like, “What can you do to change it? What can you do to better it? What’s your original take? What’s your voice have to say about this?”

It always just boils down to make it your own, and one of the great things about high school is getting to work with kids year after year after year, and all through that first year, I’m just telling, “Make it your own, make it your own,” and then the second year, they’ll come to me and will be like, “Oh, what about this?” I’m like, “What am I going to tell you?” I’m like, “Make it your own,” and then by the third and fourth year, they don’t even ask anymore.

Really, you just sort of have to, I think keep pushing them [inaudible 00:21:43] because I think originality is I guess inherently a little bit risky, but when you can continue to push kids outside of their comfort zone, they get over that risk and they do start to kind of take those ideas, run with them, and take those things, and they really do find ways to make it their own. It may be just a matter of finding that starting point, and then taking it from there, but I think it’s possible for all of our kids with enough effort to start making original work.

Andrew: Well, I like that as a mantra to give to kids, like I’m going to steal that because I had an encounter with a student just a while ago. We had like a week left into semester and she had done all her assignments. She was kind of one of those kids who’s always done a little early and I said, “All right, great. Now you get to make artwork. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m not putting any limitations on it. What do you want to make?” I know we’re going to talk about this at some point, the sort of cliches as art teachers we see all the time.

It was Pinterest and it was the melted crayon over the boy and the girl and the umbrella, and I’m like, “No. No,” like I’ve seen 10,000 people make that same piece of artwork. No, and I said, “What would you do to do something similar to that that would be unique and not just the same old thing?” You would have thought I was asking her to translate the Bible into Portuguese, the look she’s in. She was just like, “What do you mean I can’t do this?”

It was about a five, six-minute conversation of like, “Okay, here is why this is not going to be good,” [inaudible 00:23:27] some experience and finally she came up with something that was kind of like in the same wheelhouse, but totally different and her own and unique. I was like, “You’re welcome.” You’re welcome that I did not allow you to do that [inaudible 00:23:40], like how I pushed you a little bit.

I just think it’s one of those things I’d never had her in class before, and she was a ninth grader. I can imagine that having her again as a tenth grader or eleventh grader, which I don’t have the luxury of doing, but I can say like, “Remember that time you came at me with that really stupid melted crayon umbrella idea?” This is kind of one of those moments, like you got to bring something a little more original to the table.

But at the same time, if you want kids to be engaged and like artwork, it’s like every once in a while, you’re going to have some of those. It is okay that you don’t have 20 students, 8 projects, all 160 projects are 100% original. You’re going to have some things in there that the kids love where it’s like not super original, but if the end result is that they want to keep making, they want to keep exploring, they’re building on some successes, and some confidences. Maybe lowering that bar to originality wasn’t such a bad idea every once in a while.

I think everything’s in moderation and you got to weigh into a fact, “If I lower it here, can this kid run with it,” and, “How many times have we kind of lower the bar for this kid? Maybe I need to add a little resistance to it,” so it’s a juggling act for sure. Now I’m just mixing metaphors. Now I got weightlifting, juggling, balancing act. What is this, a trapeze?

Tim: No, it works. It works. Somehow, you managed to pull it all together and mix them to it all.

Andrew: Yeah. I don’t know about that.

Tim: But I think that’s a good spot for us to head out on, so Andrew, thank you very much for joining me on this one and we’ll talk to you again in a couple weeks.

Andrew: Yeah. My pleasure, man. I like this format, kind of short and sweet, get in, get out. I think this is going to be a lot of fun, so looking forward to the rest of the season.

Tim: Yeah, going to be good. Thank you.

Andrew: All right. See you.

Tim: All right. That was a great interview. Love talking to that guy. A few thoughts for you before we go. Originality is something that we should strive for in the art room, but not necessarily something that we’re going to get to easily. It’s really difficult to capture and if we go back to the idea from the intro with Kirby Ferguson, everything is a remix, the idea of originality might not even exist. Personally, I disagree with that because I think an original voice can be found in the art room and we just need to set our students up to be able to find that themselves.

That might be the ideas I talked throughout before with appropriation, or transformation, or subversion, or even just that mantra of make it your own. We can take down those roadblocks that Andrew talked about and set our students up for success with work that may not be completely original, but it’s a stepping stone for them. It’s a way to get them there and as long as they’re making and they’re creating, they will get there eventually.

We may never create something that’s truly original, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it our best attempt. The kids in our classroom don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They need to embrace what has come before and they need to speak about it in a personal and powerful way, because they have their own voice and their own take as what makes things created, makes things original, and that’s what we should strive for in our art room.

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