Is originality an outdated concept?

We talk to the Public Domain Review’s Adam Green about his new book, which draws links between 2,000 years of visual culture, and why we’re obsessed with originality

To be original, or perhaps just to be perceived as such, is often considered the holy grail of creativity. Whether dealing with visual art or advertising, music or literature, originality is the benchmark many people use to respond to a piece of work and tends to be the measure of an artist’s calibre or value. But these are fine lines we’re dealing with. When does a ‘riff on’ become a ‘rip off’? What turns an echo or evolution into laziness and plagiarism?

The picture has become increasingly blurrier. As we know all too well, an original idea or execution seems harder to come by in the information age. This era of rapid access to images, texts, and other artefacts has shifted our culture, and contributed directly to the creation of the Public Domain Review. The not-for-profit online journal was launched in 2011 amid the tide of historic material made available digitally by galleries, libraries, museums, and archives, explains Adam Green, who co-founded the PDR with Jonathan Gray.

These public domain materials – works that sit outside copyright, trademark, or patent laws – were suddenly available “in their millions”, and with that came a need for “a tool to help navigate and explore this new terrain”. The PDR was initially geared towards encouraging cultural institutions to give unrestricted access to their public domain collections, Green says, but it has since moved towards “exploring what creative things can be done with this transformed world of sources” with curated highlights and unconventional essay series.

To mark the first ten years of the PDR, Green has authored Affinities, published by Thames & Hudson. The book builds bridges between visuals plucked from the last 2,000 years, in doing so prompting readers to rethink the meaning of originality by leaning into visual or thematic parallels. Appropriately, Affinities is a work that takes a leaf out of someone else’s book.

“One of my favourite thinkers is Aby Warburg, who in the 1920s created his Mnemosyne Atlas, an attempt to map — on a series of boards displaying constellations of artwork reproductions — the ‘afterlife of antiquity’,” Green says. “His goal was to trace how images laden with expressive and symbolic power from the Western classical tradition reappear in the art of later epochs, particularly the Renaissance but also his own Weimar Germany. While Affinities is a different project to Warburg’s — in both scope and intention — there is something similar in this use of the visual as a mode of enquiry, this idea that new forms of knowledge can be spun by placing images next to each other. This is really what Affinities is about.”

Below we talk to Green about piecing the book together, and how it subverts the way that art history is traditionally handled, plus contemporary culture’s obsession with originality.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Eight Shadow Figures, c 1842 (Rijksmuseum)