by Sue Dawson
Originally Published Autumn 2006

I am beginning to hate the word. It is an elusive quality that defies quantitative analysis. As an Academy Judge and a founder of “The Exemplary” I have been called on repeatedly to express an opinion. It is hoped that I can offer something that will fit into tidy guidelines that will free everyone from the haunting worry is my work “original”?

I can’t. I can only leave that to each person’s own conscience.

Notice the definition of “original” in the “The Exemplary’s” 2007 rules. It is based on my work, long anguished hours with much consultation, and has changed little, if any, over the years. It places the responsibility directly on the entrant/creator. “The entrant has taken control of and responsibility for all aspects of the entry from the initial concept, through the development of the design, to its final execution and presentation.” It does not define original. It does not make a judgment on originality. It, for the purposes of the exhibit, does not require the entrant to believe their work is completely original. It simply expects the entrant to take responsibility for their work. (In this case, original, is a name of a category, chosen because of the ideal it represents not because of any unrealistic expectation, perhaps we need a better name. I never found it.)

As an administrator, I relied on the integrity of the entrants and in turn trusted the entrants to rely faithfully on one another. I did not believe then, and I do not believe now, anything a human being creates is created in isolation. Everything a person does, in concept or in execution, is built on experience, observation, imitation. Nothing is truly original, the beginning, the source.

If by odd circumstance something were to be truly original, according to my dictionaries, it cannot be original until it is copied, imitated, it spawns off-spring or it inspires action. Notice that all those verbs are in the future tense. That tells me if something were truly original I could not know it in the present, it is only something that can be determined in retrospect from some time in the future.

Originality is a goal that we can strive for, it is not necessarily one we can achieve, and it is unlikely that we would ever know certainly if we were to succeed.

Well down in the list of dictionary definitions for original I see one useful phrase: “independent and creative in thought or action.” This describes action and possibly motivation by an individual. Others can judge the results but are not capable of knowing the internal workings of that individual as they proceeded. It is not unusual for circumstances, similar or different, to produce the same idea in several isolated, or not so isolated, people. It is incumbent on each of us to make sure that our judgments are fair, rather than worrying about the actions of others, something we cannot control or understand.

It is useful and instructive, but not necessary, for the purposes of judging and exhibiting work to sort out the work of those who have attempted to reach beyond what they know from those who have attempted to develop what they know to the fullest. Each is a distinct, noble, and worthwhile goal that needs to be recognized for its value but in the end each person is simply trying to do their best.

And, yes, it is possible for a person to cheat and claim a goal not really attempted, but this deception does not seriously hurt anyone else. (The ribbon, the recognition is nice but it does not change the value of the work or the experience of creating it.) Is it absolutely original? So what if it isn’t?

In the Academy, and through “The Exemplary”, it has been deemed more important to honor, to acknowledge, and to avoid demeaning the work of those who have put forth a sincere effort rather than wasting time haggling about a concept that cannot be clearly defined and probably doesn’t need to be.

Original is an interesting abstraction and a worthwhile goal but it is not and cannot be a yardstick for judging another.