Originality — What does that mean in a digital world?


In the fine art world, being "original" is the holy grail  —  that which every artist seeks to be. It's what we humans see as rare and precious and thus valuable. But what is originality? And what does that mean in today's digital world?


Above you see two images. The first is the painting I created that I titled "Hope." Below it is the reference photo I used in my process. (There were others as well, but this was the main one.)


My question to you is: does the painting reflect my "originality"? Do you feel I was copying a photo and therefore, it's not showing any "originality"?


Whichever way you feel, what are your reasons for your point of view? Please tell me. Call or email me. Seriously! I'm very curious to understand your perspective. 


Among artists there has always been passionate discussion about this. Today, digital technologies and their speed of their adoption — digital cameras in smartphones, the rise of NFTs (non-fungible tokens), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning — have pushed the debate to new levels of anxiety, anger, and confusion in the industry. Which brings us back to: what is originality? Why does this matter to me as an artist?


I obviously desire to express my creativity. I do this to give voice to my feelings and to share my passion for the oceans and this beautiful planet we live on. Yet there is always this subtle and enduring pressure to "be original." And so, I question, WTF is "originality"? (sorry, sailor's mouth is back)


Is Nature or the Universe or the Great Spirit (insert the term of your choice) THE source of originality? Is everything else we come up with a derivative work, no matter how we express it? Because after all, the term "original" is often defined as something serving as a model or basis for imitations or copies. [Hey! Let's go duplicate Monument Valley in the Sahara!]


If we accept that premise (and I'm not saying we should or should not), how then do we find our own originality?


If each and every one of us is unique because a) our DNA is unlike anyone else's (identical twins, triplets, etc. the exception?), b) our individual experiences are unique which form the basis of our values and beliefs, c) our physical capabilities are not exactly the same, and d) our brains' synapses and connections become even more unique over time because of those experiences — doesn't that now make each of us an "original"? 


If we all paint or photograph Mount Fujiyama, the African Savannah, the Grand Canyon, the Sahara, Amazon Rainforest, or any beach or forest are those works any less original because the specific scene has been "done" before?


I feel like I'm looking at myself in a mirror, and see myself reflected in another mirror and so on ad infinitum. So in a digital world, that "mirror in a mirror" metaphor is a reality. What does that mean for art created by AI and Machine Learning. Is that technology showing "originality"? And what about NFTs? Digital art creation is a new field, so is Augmented and Virtual Reality. What does that conjure up? How will they impact our meaning of "originality"?


I keep going back to Star Trek TNG when Data goes on a painting marathon after having experienced his first dream. Here's an AI machine turning out dozens of canvases after never having painted anything before. In later episodes his crew mates urge him to forget "copying" other artists (whether painters, writers, actors, etc.) and to find his own "voice." They are prompting him to find his own originality. They are prompting him to tap into the emotional side of his personality. Which, is supposedly impossible as he is an android with no feelings. 


OK, I'm meandering now. Time to wrap this up. I have no answers. I only have feelings. Am I intimidated by AI creating art? No. No, I'm not. Why? Because my voice is my voice. No AI can replicate what I feel or how I will express it on canvas. Because I don't even know what will come next from the combination of my heart and hands. Do I show originality? Yes. I do believe with all my heart that I do.


What say you? How do you express your originality?