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Originality And Eccentricity

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Every schoolboy, musing on the genius of his recitation room, believes originality, and this in the sense, too, of eccentricity, to be not alone the essential but almost the only requisite for success in art. All general beliefs are based upon truths. This belief is based upon the requirement that the artist must be able to make the forms of nature after which he models conform to his individual mentality. If art were nature, it would not be art; and the only possible distinction between the two which can be deter-mined by the conceptions embodied is that the one is characteristic of the mind of the Creator, and the other equally so of the mind of man. Now one whom the world esteems "a character," and with whom therefore it associates an essential capacity for characterization, is, par excellence, a man whose individuality is distinct and definite. The characteristic effects are sometimes produced by traits that are merely eccentric. But whatever may produce them, they are apt to render any individualization of nature that he attempts, distinct and definite. Therefore, the artist and the eccentric character have something in common; and the boy's mistake in judging of the genius of his school, is only that which is common with his elders,—namely, that of taking something to be everything.—The Representative Significance of Form, XIV.

Another thought is suggested. The tendencies to imitation on the one side and to eccentricity on the other, which have been said to characterize the developments of art where there is no belief in approximately definite standards, is connected with a false conception of what constitutes that originality which everybody acknowledges to be essential to great art. It is the conception that originality is a constituent of mere form. Originality of course is a characteristic of form, in which alone it can be manifested; but the artistic originality which men mean to applaud when they speak of it, is originality of form as expressive of significance, originality that is felt to be a manifestation of mental freshness and uniqueness, therefore of what we term—including in our conceptions both the intellectual and the spiritual—personal force. That it is this force issuing from the sources of the soul to which men mean to refer when praising originality, needs no further proof than that the trait which they praise is not always prevented by imitation of form, nor always helped by eccen-tricity of form. An actor can show his personal originality by imitating; and a very bashful man can entirely hide his by eccentricity. Notice, too, that the argument against the existence of standards of art founded on the supposition that they may interfere with originality has, for the reasons just stated, no basis in fact. To make external forms conform to a standard is not to interfere with the expression of the originality which is of the soul and mind. Through an application of identical methods, one may give an elocutionary education to two men, making the voices of both equally musical and their movements equally graceful. Yet the method as carried out in the forms manifested by the one may make him a great and original actor, and the personality behind the forms manifested by the other may result in no greatness or originality what-ever. At the same time, the first man, with all the original bent of his genius, could not have become the great artist that he is, without learning to conform his representation to the standards of his art.—Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, XXVI.

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