The Cult of Originality

Creation of Adam

A lil’ illustrated essay by Nina Paley – keep reading


I hear this a lot:
MICHAELANGELO WAS A GENIUS! A singular auteur! Wholly original!


How peculiar, then, that his works showed up in Europe in the 16th Century,


rather than ancient Egypt or Sumeria or Persia, or in the Lascaux Caves.


How “original” was Michaelangelo? He used the language and techniques of his time. He carried ideas passed to him by his neighbors. He didn’t create in a vacuum.



Under our glorious commercial content system, here’s how a gatekeeper (media executive) responds to an even slightly “original” idea:


What voices, what geniuses, have been lost in the 20th Century thanks to this system?

In the conventional media business, artists compete for money and the attention of the executives who control production and distribution. Thus, artists cater to executives. Executives are their audience. Works that please a handful of executives get funded and are what we get to see. If something’s on TV, it’s because some TV executive liked it, not because you liked it.


Free Content also competes for audiences, and the competition is fierce. Luckily even small “niche” audiences (and individuals) can support works, so there’s a lot more room for quirky, visionary art. In contrast, Big Media executives seek the broadest range possible, the lowest common denominator. Most importantly, Free Cultural works compete for your attention, not executives’ attention.


The gatekeepers are still there, but Free Content goes around them.



Nothing is original. For a work to have meaning, it must use language – it must “make sense.” It needs to work with memes already living in the host mind: language, images, melodies, patterns. It can’t be wholly original. It can hardly be original at all.


There are 7 billion humans on earth. Most of them look familiar, because humans are mostly the same – unoriginal copies – otherwise we wouldn’t be human. A human with a spiral shell and slimy, slug-like body would, by human standards, be quite original. They also wouldn’t be human.



In Impro – one of my favorite books, please read it – Keith Johnstone writes that when improvisers try to be original, they fail. “Don’t be original; be obvious.” When you state the obvious, you actually seem original. Paradoxical, eh? Likewise, the more specific the feelings, experiences, stories – the more universal they appear.

The trick is, what’s completely obvious to you isn’t obvious to anyone else. Many people can tell exactly the same story about exactly the same event, but if each speaks from their authentic point of view, each story will seem “original.”


For example, audiences see completely different movies while watching my film, Sita Sings the Blues. Hindu fundamentalists see Hindu-hating desecration. Christian fundamentalists see the “Hindu Word” spread where they think the “Christian Word” should be.

Perception is creative. Not purposely, consciously creative – we don’t ask people to be “original” while perceiving – but in fact most originality lies in perception. We’re not aware of exactly what makes us unique, but we know that 2 objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. That means no two people, no two minds, have the exact same point of view (nor the same history).


Ever had an argument? What’s obvious to you is not obvious to your opponent, making your argument seem “original.” Or “stupid.”


So many different points of view! The world is teeming with originality. Art is a miraculous transmission of a unique point of view to others. Normally people stick to their own point of view and reject others’ as stupid or crazy. But a successful work of art miraculously bridges that gap, and instead of rejecting the other, the audience accepts it – and sometimes even loves it.


The artists’ challenge is to take ideas other people say are stupid, and manifest them anyway. The more original an idea, the more people will say it is stupid, and the more the artist must overcome to love it into being anyway.

Most “original” ideas are already out there, being scorned. Who’s going to work at manifesting an idea others have already said is stupid? All new ideas are rejected initially. Artists merely champion those lost, downtrodden little memes nobody else loves.


Maybe an artist gives a home to a meme everyone else is turning away. They feed and nurture it. It arrives in their mind as a spore from the commons (the “zeitgeist”); they don’t actually originate it. The idea is in “the ether,” but most minds reject it, can’t feed it, or don’t offer it fertile soil in which to take root. For whatever reason, the artist does. They allow it to fruit and release seeds – art. And then they are praised as “original.”




So, what’s original?
We can’t know what’s original. We can only know what’s honest.


In my case, if something seems obvious and true, but I don’t see it reflected outside myself, then I try to manifest it. If I find myself arguing a lot, getting angry and angering others while simply telling the obvious truth, then I suspect whatever idea I’m speaking for would be better expressed in art. My most successful, “original” artworks were all ideas I’d discussed with others ad nauseum (the other parties’ nauseum, since they couldn’t see what I saw and rejected the concepts in conversation). Yet no matter how much others insisted said ideas were stupid, or crazy, or not worth thinking about, the ideas continued to press themselves on me as true. I wouldn’t need to give them a voice if I could hear them outside myself.
My ideas on Free Culture are not original, they’re just not popular – yet. They’re “in the ether” right now, and I’m articulating them because someone needs to.

Many have tried to argue me out of these ideas, describing a reality unlike the one I actually observe. I want to fit in; I want to live on the same planet as everyone else. But some truths don’t go away no matter how much others tell me they don’t exist.


I write this not to be “original,” but to share what I perceive as true. I share an idea because I am lonely. The less my reality is reflected back to me, the lonelier I become. I want to find “my people,” people who can see what I see, who know what I know. Because the arguing gets tiring. And it turns out that many who argue with me do see what I see and know what I know – they just aren’t aware of it yet.
Art gives others a chance to see that reality reflected back at them, and if they recognize it – if it reflects what they already know – they will love it. When art really succeeds, it merely expresses what we already know, but didn’t know we knew. Art gives language to thoughts we share. Once it’s language, it can spread and grow and be built on. Art is useful to ideas. It embodies them – gives them bodies, legs to walk around on their own.


How important is it to say something no one’s ever said before? Not very. The most important human communications are the oldest and least original. Some things have to be said over and over again; we never tire of them, because we never fully learn them. I think every human message boils down to one, that can’t be said enough: I love you.

That’s why people go to museums and cinemas and theaters and concert halls, churches and temples and ashrams and mosques and 12-step meetings. We need to hear it, over and over again. If we’re lucky, for a few seconds or even a fraction of a second we “get” it. Then maybe we’ll repeat it to others. But very quickly we forget it and need to hear it again.


We don’t care if it’s “original.” We just want it to be sincere.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

83 thoughts on “The Cult of Originality”

  1. George Carlin made a career largely out of stating the obvious—and he frankly admitted it during his routines. “Anything we all know, but we don’t talk about, is funny, man!” And Carlin was truly a groundbreaking comedian.

  2. Fab posting, couldn’t agree more. (Though let’s not ignore how original the posting is — in a good way!) I blame the fetish for orginality on the Romantics and modernists, but maybe that’s just me.

    A fab quote from one of my favorite art-thinkers, Leon Krier:

    “As is the case with all good things in life — love, good manners, language, cooking — personal creativity is required only rarely.”

    More here:

  3. As the overpopulation, over-consumption boiler heats up, Cartoony and Funny Thinkers in general are becoming the new Walter Cronkites. The medium of cartoon screaming is the only one that can express the friction quickly and cheaply to a wary and ambivalent audience without sapping their energy. The cartoon leaves them with a greater understanding and some renewed energy to possibly do something about it.

  4. Wait… can art get someone to see the same perspective as the artist, or not? You argue pretty strongly (and I’m inclined to agree) that such a thing is impossible–but immediately thereafter, the rainbow-head picture seems to contradict it. Clarify?

  5. There are brief moments of mutual-POV-understanding, but they are not rational and occur through the mysterious transcendent connection of Art. Art allows us to share our realities for brief, fleeting, beautiful moments.

  6. Wow. I’m a bigger and bigger fan everyday.

    I find it fascinating how you bridge from free culture, creation and originality to the “I love you.” For me, the bridge is the notion of creation, of “giving birth in beauty.” as Plato puts it… the productive output of a generative love, whether expressed through art or through our bodies.

    Anyways, I won’t ramble on about philosophy and theology here, but I find it fascinating and inspiring that you’re thinking a lot of the same things I am. (I suppose it doesn’t matter if I’m original, as long as I’m sincere! 😉

  7. I got this as a link from someone on Facebook– what a fun, effective way you have of putting forth material to mull over. I am going to share it with friends, too, with a plug for Sita.

  8. thank you for this beautiful post, Nina.
    this part got me teary-eyed, i very much identify:
    “I write this not to be “original,” but to share what I perceive as true. I share an idea because I am lonely. The less my reality is reflected back to me, the lonelier I become. I want to find “my people,” people who can see what I see, who know what I know. Because the arguing gets tiring. And it turns out that many who argue with me do see what I see and know what I know – they just aren’t aware of it yet.”

  9. You cover a lot of ground here.

    I like the part about free content and how the gatekeepers are still there but are overwhelmed and have much less control. And I find it very interesting that I routinely hear fierce arguments that this loss of gatekeeper power is a PROBLEM. People want their content choices limited by an arbitrary, powerful, centralized force.

    I like the quote Norn pulled out a lot and when I read it I also felt deep identification.

    But I didn’t like your observation on sincerity. Jean Giraudoux said “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Rod McKuen is sincere. I don’t think that’s what we’re looking for.

    So what about originality? I pretty much agree with everything you say. And yet at the same time I place the highest value on the original. Why? Because it gets me off. I’m moved by something that feels fresh and new and different and challenging. Of course, as you argue, that is nothing but my perception. Nothing has an absolute quality of being “new” any more than it has the absolute quality of being “good”.

  10. gosh Nina,
    i’m so impressed. I just watched Sita for the second time in two days, this time with friends, (so’s i can share it.) I feel it is a masterpiece of communication. Though you are a westerner of origin, you so articulately animate an indian traditional story in a way that is understandable and approachable to the western thought pattern, and frankly, it offers a subtle window into the female perspective. Anywho, i imagine your quite busy these days, but if you had time for some brief correspondence, it would be greatly cherished as a massive gesture. I always say originallity is just a new combination of the mediums we have to work with, or just an idea that hasn’t been done in a while… thanks again, i look forward to following your career. 🙂

  11. Thank you for writing this, it encapsulates a lot of what I’ve been feeling for the past while. You said so many things that I’ve come to recognize and it is so nice to hear someone else acknowledge them instead of shoot them down for a change. Over the past year I’ve been exposed to so many films that are so full of ideas, I’m just in awe. Sita is one of the few U.S. ones on that list, and I truly think it’s because it’s independent of the system and was the result of someone with a real message and a need to communicate it, instead of someone with a desire to make money. That’s not to say those two things can’t co-exist inside the same person, but so often I see movies that seem to lack the first in favor of the second and there’s nothing in there that gets me to invest emotionally in it. My eyes might be dazzled, but my brain is bored. It is a lonely feeling when most of the people around you don’t feel the same way.

    And yes, I agree completely that everything is derivative, especially art. If it was completely new and wholly original, I don’t think we’d have any way to process it because we derive meaning from experience. Without context to compare it against, it’d probably just be indecipherable noise. What makes something creative isn’t how original the idea is, but in how that idea is expressed and how much of ourselves we invest in that expression.

    This is a great essay. You’ve for expressed the same things I’ve been feeling, but far more eloquently than I could have. Thanks.

  12. You know, I’ve been beating the Free Culture/Open Source drum for about a decade now and have written about the implications for some time.

    This one post, especially with your art (and the art you inherited/derived from) is better than anything I’ve written. Thanks for raising the bar, Nina. 🙂

  13. Love the post — and love the generosity of spirit which flows out of you more powerfully than the creative images and words you use.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  14. I loved this post – so much of it resonated with what I feel about art. It is time to share. Thank you for ‘Sita’ – I’m downloading it as I type and will be sharing it with as many people as I can! Peace and strength to you.

  15. I just now bought Sita; I can’t wait to show it to my hapless 10th graders (10th grade is World Literature in NC, and if Rama and Sita isnt world literature, what is?). I’ll let you know how they like it.

  16. 1. Wonderful presentation…
    2. I loved “Sita Sings the Blues;” it’s a masterpiece.
    Please put me on your mailing list.

    Harvey R.

  17. What a topic. One of the foremost bugbears of my Inner Critic’s.

    I think ultimately it’s ok to honor our influences, but to be wary of mere imitation, even if it’s well done. What people are looking for (in addition to all the influence stew) is the spark of our own individuality.

  18. It seems I am always watching what others are doing of late. I would like to be more out there like you are. I have the experience the facility and very little time. Time just whipping by and the ideas and dreams I once had now along with time have become encased in the past. Yet the loneliness is present and the need to be the artist is there; the calling, the searching, the tumbling of ideas converged and conjoined with memories with the thoughts that transition into idea into the implementation attempts one on another layer after layer onionized into a dysfunctional. the adults in my childhood monikered me artist allowed for my presence because of a particular untrained skill with pencil and pen on paper then water colour as well as many other tools and media. At the same time TV, produced live, black and white, intrigue, is what i felt in my 5 year old mind and body, no heroes for me though, just a yearning to be out there , in TV on Radio, the broad cast, the telling of story, entertaining, making others laugh, cry, with my content , completely influenced by all around me and those who lived before me so that now at 60 years old I am like a helpless baby with no real idea of how to proceed with the time I have left and that is original for me this moment this now and is completely the result of your post here
    echoing much of the noise in my head. the fear of what might happen as I continue this artist journey
    is great but the loneliness greater, fear comes again, should I even submit this as is , these words, the
    language, the technology , so thankful am I for your work, and that I am not burdened with tragedy as others on this planet have been recently. Thankyou for your work. Vincent

  19. Dear Nina: followed you here from TechDirt, where I’m always glad to see your input on topics there. What you’ve written here is very moving, for it succintly states exactly what scares me – legislated denial and impediment of innate and ever perpetual human behavior.

    TechDirt rallies on its stop-the-nonsense economic pins, but what you’ve said here goes to the true heart of what is lost in the downright hateful “lock it down, lock it out!” mentality that is so virulent today.

    Hope abides. Thank you, Nina. 🙂

  20. I wanted to write songs but had some kind of “original” block until I read Ricks “Visions of Sin”. The title is just a catchy phrase around the construct of Dylan’s music which is entirely derivative. Once I got my head wrapped around a great songwriter as copy boy, I started writing songs whenever I got the mood. Up to 60 now and some of them are great – my partner likes the ones that say “I love you” with authenticity. When I sing them in public, people turn and say “aren’t you the lucky one.” Your article is insightful, witty and very tender in the end. Made me feel good. Thanks.

  21. @Stephen Pate: I read an article once about a famous songwriter (pretty sure it was Dylan) where he said that he listened to music while writing. Let it set the mood and guide him. He said it with no shame, though I expect his lawyer quivered for months afterwards.

    @Nina: Great piece (my first time here and I’ll be back). My son is a budding artist and I’ve already forwarded. Having been fortunate enough to visit Rome, Venice, Sicily and Florence and to see the real David, Michaelangelo was an artist operating at a level above many. Perhaps not genius, perhaps not original, but genuinely different in execution in some subtle way. No other piece we saw had quite the same sort of lasting effect on me. Thanks for explaining why.

  22. I am worried sometimes that the Cult of Originality gets in the way of the Good, the Beautiful and the True the GB&T is not necessarily original and originality may indeed be a departure from it. Yet there is also the feeling that since the world, or parts of the world are often so Evil, Ugly and False that perhaps there is much of the GB&T hasn’t really been discovered or invented yet. Originality is often equated with genius and on that note here’s an interesting essay I ran across.

  23. Wow. From the bottom of my heart, I love you Nina Paley. This part —

    I share an idea because I am lonely. The less my reality is reflected back to me, the lonelier I become. I want to find “my people,” people who can see what I see, who know what I know.

    — resonated with me so much it was scary.

  24. Great post Nina!! I totally agree Originality is seldom given the opportunity it deserves. The world is filled with puppets who would gobble any garbage the TV executives or Film producers feed them.

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