Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Fallacy of Unique

Look what showed up on my doorstep this snowy February day. So unexpected and so uplifting. Certainly not unique, this bouquet of tulips, but the timing and the arrangement makes them a bit distinctive.

I've struggled with this idea of being unique as I travel my creative journey. How often have we read that our work must be unique. "Unique" is sometimes used as a synonym for "voice" or even paired with it. It is presented as the opposite of derivative. It is what we as artists must aspire to. But really, isn't there a finite number of things truly unique? Does that make the art that does not fall into the strict definition of unique not worth bothering with?

As a member of a jurying committee, I've run into this again with one of the questions asked of our potential artist members, "What makes your art unique?" I found myself very uncomfortable with what that implied, and it wasn't until I was viewing some art being hung for the last ArtWalk that I stumbled upon what we are really looking for in an artist and his or her work. The paintings leaned up against the wall were not unique in any way, but they were distinctive. That distinctiveness is what would make me recognize her work again, pause again to ponder just what it was that made me stop for a second look. Finding your style and voice may be less about being unique (the one and only) than how you put your distinctive (singular or individual) spin on the subjects at hand. Like tulips in the dead of winter, is there something unexpected in your art?

Of course, I wondered if I was going down this path because of my own work, not unique by any means but hopefully distinctive in some way. Imagine my delight to run across a blog entry by Jane Dunnewold shortly thereafter about "Being Distinctive". It's worth reading, and a good reminder in this culture of technique classes and project magazines and blogs galore devoted to art quilting, it takes a bit of work to be distinctive. It's what we should strive for.

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