Last weekend, I went to Washington, D.C., to view a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery of Art: The Dying Gaul, a sculpture on loan from Italy. It is a marble sculpture from the 1st or 2nd century of a warrior who has been fatally wounded and is experiencing his last moments of life. The sculpture has only been out of Italy once before since its creation some two thousand years ago, and that was when Napoleon borrowed it for a bit. In D.C., it was displayed in the rotunda of the National Gallery, right behind the Mercury fountain and between two massive columns– fitting for a Roman sculpture, I think. When I went, the fountain was surrounded by sculpted azaleas, like pastel bonsais, right behind which rested The Dying Gaul.
Azaleas in the Rotunda
This post will get to a point soon– but I have to describe my awe at this sculpture before any of the rest of this will make sense. The sculpture is actually believed to be a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original even older than itself. The Roman copy was somehow lost or buried centuries ago, and was only rediscovered in an excavation sometime around the 1600s. So, knowing all that, here it is:
The Dying Gaul
As far as the actual sculpture goes, I have very little to say. I think it speaks for itself (in volumes) regarding nobility, bravery, war, loss, resignation, and defiance– so I won’t presume to speak for it. What I do want to talk about is the notion of originality and art.
What makes something art? What constitutes an original idea? People always say “there is no such thing as an original idea,” like it’s a terrible thing, like every idea in the world is just a recycled version of something older, that nothing is ever new and genuine– like this is a bad shameful thing due to people lacking creativity. And maybe there is “nothing new under the sun”; things do seem to come in cycles, repeating history and stories in seemingly endless ways. There are, however, two ways I disagree with that. One, if it is impossible to create anything new, that certainly does not negate the value or goodness or art which is created. Two, the idea that there are no more original ideas implies that there was (once upon a time) an original Idea from which all others sprung.
It’s about to get real serious.
So, first off, we have The Dying Gaul. This incredible sculpture– far too beautiful and exquisitely painful even to attempt to put into words– is a copy. Not an original. A copy. Is every copy of an ‘original’ so beautiful? Certainly not, but The Dying Gaul in its turn inspired countless artists who painted or sculpted figures in similar positions because they found the lines– not to mention the emotions– of the Roman sculpture so inspiring. Just because something has been done before, just because a love story has happened at some point in the past, just because a tale of bravery in battle has been told– none of this means that we should stop telling stories, stop creating art, because someone somewhere at some time has done something similar. A new war story does not detract from an old one. A new sculpture does not negate the value of an older one. Can you ever have too many tales of goodness, truth, courage, resilience, redemption? Maybe plot points are similar (like myths of so many cultures, not to mention other stories told and written down over the centuries). Maybe lines of sculptures and paintings are inspired by others. Maybe one dance step is remarkably like another, one swell of music reminds you of another string of notes.
However, that doesn’t mean none of them are “originals.” They were inspired by each other– a reaction against, a move in support of, or something else. Isn’t that what links us together as humans? Isn’t that why art so often transcends nationality, race, class, age, time period? It speaks to something deeper, some thing that makes us human, that makes us interdependent as I think we were always meant to be. Which leads me to point #2.
So let’s say there are no “original ideas” anymore. If that’s the case, there still was once an original Idea, which all subsequent ideas are imitations or copies of, inspired by in some way. Which leads me back to the question: why do so many myths share so much? Because I believe there is an original Truth, from which all other truths derive. There is good and there is evil, and I believe the battle between them is what has driven the world for longer than we can imagine.
Told you it was getting real serious.
So if we say there are no original ideas but only copies of something from the long long ago, aren’t we all original individuals? I know there are those who would disagree, but I believe there has never been– in the history of the universe (that’s right, I said it)– an individual exactly like you (or me). We are each uniquely made, uniquely gifted, and I think that this uniqueness– this originality– is what makes our work, our art, our creations, our stories, our selves, original. Maybe the idea is “recycled” but what we bring to it as individuals is not; our genuine selves (see my last post for more on that) are what make what we do, new.
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
-John Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions