Is there such a thing as an original idea? Or have all inspirations already been had? Are all thoughts actually the result of cannibalization?

When we look to the arts and entertainment, we are pressed to realize there truly isn’t anything new under the sun. Broadway musicals are usually adapted from movies. Movies are usually adapted from books.

Books are usually adapted from the lives of others. There are even strange re-cannibalizations of properties like Little Shop of Horrors and The Producers and Hairspray and Phantom of the Opera where they all began as a movie, then became a Broadway musical and then were re-made as a movie musical.


The worst re-re-cannibalization of a work is the revival where — after a tenterhooks wait of a decade or so — a Broadway musical is re-staged or a movie is re-made. We are expected to re-pay for the re-experience and re-applaud anew. Re-Boring! “Revival” is a synonym for “we are out of ideas and our original aesthetic is corrupt.”

The Broadway Tony Awards even created a new award category for — “Best Revival” — or, as I call it, “The Biggest Bore of Something UnNew.” Are political ideas sensitive to this kind of uninspired rehash of what has gone before? Are we still able to think critically — or are we doomed to only imitation in our analysis? When does something stop being new and fresh?

Is originality only popular with the yearning uneducated and the bitter young? Is it possible to be surprised any longer?


  1. Hi David,
    I don’t think there has been any original thinking lately — with a few exceptions, of course.
    In the political arena, pols of every persuasion are so tied to polling that any original idea one might have is quickly boiled, bleached and processed as it goes through focus groups and other “tests” to make sure if is minimally acceptable to the greatest number of people.
    In art, everything is derivative. When I take photos, I usually think of a photograph I’ve seen before when I’m composing a shot or even thinking about bringing my camera with me.
    Is it possible for the average person to have an original thought in these days when it seems that everything has been said, displayed, published, or otherwise put into the arena of ideas?
    After all, it’s always fun to hear quotes from the great thinkers of ancient Rome and realize that they were thinking about the same things we think about today.

  2. Hi Chris!
    I don’t think we get much new thinking, either. It’s a simpler process to just repeat what has been said before. When we watch the Republican candidates during a debate repeatedly mention Ronald Reagan it’s just more of where we’ve already been and don’t wan to go again.
    It must’ve been quite a moment when the first original art idea was created in antiquity. I’m sure the person who did it was likely stoned for not just repeating what had been seen before.
    Is there a difference between being derivative, inspired, copying and imitating?
    I suppose the only really new thing one could try to do is to make connections to ideas that don’t appear to be related. That is at least an attempt to think something new.

  3. Hi David,
    Anything that is new is always seen as being weird or threatening and is likely to be rejected. That’s why all of the great artists of yesteryear weren’t famous until after they had died and people gradually realized their genius.
    BTW — I have a post in the queue all ready to go. 🙂

  4. Right, Chris! The true artists and the real creators always suffer during their lives while those who come after them and use their original work as inspiration to make money find always seem to find success while the real creator found none.
    Didn’t the Holy Roman Empire create aqueducts and indoor plumbing? Then wasn’t that technology lost for centuries and then “re-invented” or “re-discovered?”
    Love the new article! We’ll run it Thursday!

  5. Thanks David!
    I hit the “submit for review” button so I hope it finds its way to you.
    Isn’t it the case that everything old becomes new at some point? I wouldn’t be surprised if we revert back to older technologies — maybe push mowers and other simple machines — to conserve energy and as a way to continue to move forward.

  6. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, eliesheva!
    The key to becoming a truly original artist is to know what has come before you and then take several different ideas from difference sources and blend them into something newer and brighter. That way history is honored, originality of thought is at least attempted and an audience can look for inspiration in the new work.

  7. Hi Chris —
    The “Pending Review” looks great! Fab new feature! Makes it so much easier to know when authors are doing writing and thinking and ready for publication.
    You might be right about going backwards because of the failures of the now — up to a point. I can see us going back to the Mechanical Age of push mowers, typewriters and steam engines… but would be go back to the Iron Age or Stone age and fires and tools from bones and weapons from rock shards and hunting and cave dwelling?

  8. Hi David,
    You raise some interesting questions.
    A case could be made that everyone has original thoughts because they bring their own unique life experiences to any given situation, put their individual “spin” on what already exists. Would this be original, though, or just an extension or expansion?
    Often these life experiences hamper instead of allowing for creative thinking. Your article on left-handed, right-handed is a good example of this. The teacher says color the trees green and don’t make them blue. This restricts our thinking. I think for some, the farther out in life we go, the harder it is to get rid of the preconceived notions.
    I guess that’s why Picasso wanted to destroy. Those preconceived notions hampered his creativity. It is important to start with a blank canvas.

  9. Donna —
    I was always taught, when it came to art and creativity that you were not allowed to bend or break rules unless you knew the rules, understood their meaning, and had sustained behavior honoring the rules. After that period of time and familiarity you could then explore meaning and intent.
    Without knowing the rules, or what has come before, then everything is new and unique and a thousand people reinvent the wheel a thousand times and call it a genius invention.
    There has to be some context for the common expression of ideas and, young people especially, think every thought they have is new and fresh and delightful and while those experiences may be to them — their thinking and interjections are ordinary, prosaic and commonplace to the rest of us who know better. That mistake in young logic is the epitome of common youthful expression masquerading as meaningfulness.

  10. Hi David,
    I am familiar with that theory. I had an art teacher that would not let any of her students abstract until they had mastered realism and understood rules of perspective, form, etc. She did not believe you could simplify by breaking down the structure until you understood how it was built in the first place.
    While I do think that is valid, it can become burdensome because the rules can get in the way of creating by limiting the thought. The trick, I suppose, is to suppress the rules to an unconscious level so that they are in the background but not the foreground. This is very difficult for most.
    Then there are the savants like Mozart who defy all theories.

  11. Donna —
    Mozart was classically trained by his father so the young prodigy had form, function and rules right from the start! Music is also mathematical so you have to have some kind of relational sense of tone and structure or all you will create is a horrible noise.

  12. Hi David,
    i think every artist is impelled to retell timeless wisdom and truths in the words and manners of his age. because people of every age tend to get lost in the zeitgeist and often make the mistake of presuming that somehow their lives and the realities of their times are different from any that came before it. it’s probably a way of making ourselves feel adventurous and excited about our own lives. i mean, why would you want to go through a life that you know has probably been lived in every life since the birth of man! there’s a joy in that deception! 🙂
    and so we tend to ignore wisdom from times past, because they were after all thought of by people from a different age, and what do they know about the nature of our reality!
    and the artist by making those observations relevant to their age, by cloaking it in current symptoms and issues of our condition, do a service to their contemporaries and to the greater good of mankind. i hate that phrase!!
    so in a way, i guess they are busy keeping the wheel moving instead of reinventing it? 🙂

  13. what’s also beautiful is that the scientist adds new truths, rubbishes old theories, expands our view and provides a broader understanding of the world we live in, while the artist observes these discoveries and then re-discovers the wealth of the past in them.
    the scientist takes us to outer space, and the artist sees the picture of the earth from space and repeats, ‘we are one!’

  14. Hi David,
    I read your comment about how you wonder how today’s music has fallen so far. I hardly ever listen to the pop songs too much any more because they are as you describe. However, if you check out some of the Neo Soul and R&B music, you’ll hear excellent music filled with passion and creativity.
    Of course, the Neo Soul music is derivative of the Soul music of the 1960s. (Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love” from 1975 could be mistaken as a new New Soul hit by kids who weren’t born until the 1980s. Building on a solid base of excellent music in this case has created some excellent new music.
    Here’s a link to a documentary about how a 6 second beat — The Amen Break — in a 1960s era song has inspired several generations of musicians:

  15. That’s a great analysis, Dananjay.
    Now what if we are living reincarnated lives? Are we allowed to remember those past lives, learn from them and relive them? Or do we start from zero?

  16. Chris!
    I find myself listening to talk radio — WFAN — Sports Talk radio or iTunes so I can pick my favorite music. The new stuff is a pale comparison what music could be in changing the world.
    I think Minnie Riperton has one of the most beautiful and unique voices. Ever! Mariah has nothing on her!
    Loved the Amen Break documentary. I never understood how beat sampling wasn’t a Copyright infringement. The fact that “sound” has been replicated and used in advertising and the creators get nothing under Copyright law is sickening.

  17. Hi David,
    I think sometimes “originality” lies in “interpretation” of the facts/histories, lack of critical thinking can not only cripple a person – it can cripple a nation.

  18. Hi David,
    i don’t know about reincarnated, but i guess if we learn from past lives, we won’t have to relive them! and like it says in the Amen Break documentary (great link, Chris!) we just learn a little bit more in every generation and add it on top of the wisdom from the past and pass it on to the next.

  19. Dananjay —
    Is there really generational wisdom or only an aping of what came before? The link Chris provided seems to prove the latter over the former.

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