by Joseph Dillon Ford

What is originality in art and how is it achieved? For those who consider themselves sufficiently well-informed about the matter, the answer to the first part of the question generally comes with all-too-facile certainty: "Originality is that quality exhibited by an artist's work which is 'primary,' 'independent,' or 'innovative.'" When bestowed by the right people, these adjectives become powerful affirmations of talent, open sesames which ensure entrée into important cultural circles, and compelling catchwords which persuade buyers they must acquire the creative products of that rare individual whose unexampled artistry has merited such favorable notice.

The second part of the question may initially stump even an expert, but given a moment to frame a reply with the rhetorical flourish proper to someone who knows more (if not better) than most everybody else, one might expect his answer to run something like this: "Originality is possible only when the past yields its place to the present and recedes into a kind of vague insubstantiality, dissolving the old order to make way for the new. In the arts this rarely happens without a struggle, for the specter of the past, not content to remain lord of the shadows, constantly threatens to possess the living and reduce them to automatons capable of nothing more than the slavish re-creation of outmoded forms and fashions. Anyone who fails to resist such ghostly intrusions in his work is unworthy of the name 'artist.'"

As contemporary music theorist and composer John Rahn avers: "To the degree that some act of art, and its resulting work, merely follows the rules, ploughs another furrow, devolving with mechanical consequence from some set of givens, it is inauthentic as act and as art, and useless to its culture" (Rahn 1994, 64). Rendering obsequies and excavating cemetery plots is the lowly province of deluded nostalgists and perfunctory grave-diggers; only those who turn the full force of their innovative arsenal against the ghoulish givens of the past emerge as genuine heroes in the epochal battle for creative independence, and they alone deserve the first fruits of victory. Such is the covertly romantic myth of what is still sometimes celebrated--with full military honors--as the avant-garde.

Although in recent decades artists have, with increasing impunity, taken sidelong glances at history, and scholars have busily set about deconstructing and reconstructing its various mythoi, there is a persistent aversion to the actual use of traditional artistic structures and styles which no post-modern antidote to modernist paleophobia has been strong enough to assuage. Again, John Rahn's attitude is characteristic: "So long as the music does break with outdated expressive forms and idioms, that do nothing but deepen the ruts of musical futility, any kind of music will do that dares to evoke the powerful roots of our culture" (Ibid., 61).

Rahn's statement presupposes that it is possible to tap the roots of a culture by breaking with allegedly outdated forms, but following his vegetative metaphor, are these not, properly speaking, the very forms which sprang from those selfsame roots, and which continue to be organically anchored and sustained by them? This leads to a peculiarly post-modern paradox, which, retaining Rahn's metaphor, might be elaborated thus: "We're fed up with trees that grow nothing but apples, so we'll discard all that insipid fruit, blow away all those redundant leaves, saw off all those repetitious branches, chop down all those tautologous trunks, and do whatever it takes to get the roots alone to 'evoke' something new to refresh our palates." The synecdochical sophistry whereby the roots of a figurative organism do not simply stand for the whole but actually supplant it; the arbitrary severance of originary content from the historical forms that embody its very essence: these are hardly consistent with an aesthetic predicated on authenticity and utility. One might as well try to bioengineer a chicken that lays eggs without shells or, more to the point, a virtual composer that creates music without tones--but surely that has already been done, and no doubt to the deafeningly silent applause of his virtual audience.

There are still more fundamental reasons for abandoning an aesthetic which treats the past with such resolute ambivalence. All claims of creative primacy, independence, and innovation are ultimately predicated on the belief that past, present, and future are ontologically distinct. If this were not the case, however, then any attempt to assess the extent to which an artist has swept aside the old and ushered in the new would amount to nothing more than pretense. Ironically, this is precisely the conclusion science requires us to make.

Indeed, all of the most fundamental physical theories formulated over the past several centuries, including Newtonian mechanics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and string field theory, allow no essential distinction between past, present, and future (Tipler 1994, xii). Albert Einstein, in an oft-quoted letter written just weeks before his own death in 1955, thus admonished the children of his recently deceased friend, Michele Besso: "You have to accept the idea that subjective time with its emphasis on the now has no objective meaning . . . the distinction between past, present and future in only an illusion, however persistent" (Davies 1983, 128). Far from imposing a chronological quarantine and sequestering past, present, and future behind mutually impenetrable walls, Einstein validated their essenial unity and evidently took considerable solace from that fact. Louis De Broglie's explanation of the "block universe" further elucidates this radical concept of time:

In space-time, everything which for each of us constitutes the past, the present, and the future is given en bloc . . . Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of space-time which appear to him as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting space-time exist prior to his knowledge of them (Capra 1991, 185).

Special relativity demolished the notion of absolute universal time and replaced it with a remarkably elastic space-time which individual observers experience differently according to their relative positions and motion. One man's past is another man's present is another man's future. In the words of physicist Frank J. Tipler, "There is nothing new under the Sun in a deterministic theory like general relativity. One could even wonder why time exists at all, since from an information standpoint it is quite superfluous" (Tipler 1994, 166).

It is expedient to visualize how different observers experience space-time by first imagining a translucent cube whose lowest face represents a slice of three-dimensional space in the "past" and whose upper face represents a similar slice in the "future." Sandwiched between the two are an indeterminate number of square planes, each of which is analogous to a three-dimensional slice of space at a particular moment in time. Assuming that any one of these horizontal planes can be individually illuminated, it is possible to show not only where the observer is in space but also the particular moment in time at which his observation is being made. Illuminating each plane in succession from the bottom to the top of the cube simulates the subjective experience of the passage of time, although in fact the entire sequence of events is deterministically fixed, and nothing really "passes" at all.

If another observer is introduced, two different horizontal planes must be simultaneously illuminated to signify each observer's relative position in this block of space-time. Each observer interprets his own slice as "now," although the experiential content of the two individual slices is necessarily different. It is, of course, possible to modify the cube so that each point on each plane can be separately illuminated, thus allowing for more complex modeling of experiential content. For example, by simultaneously illuminating relevant regions on numerous successive slices, a given observer's perception of "now" can be shown to encompass a much wider expanse of space-time. Consecutively illuminating a series of such expansive "nows," in the manner of a three-dimensional motion picture, enables one to image the observer's "progress" through block time. One could even visualize a second, identical cube beside the first, and thus model and compare the experiential content of two different observers relative to one another.

These thought experiments, inspired by Minkowski diagrams, account for the uniqueness of each observer's subjective journey through space-time, just as they emphasize the fact that, from another perspective, past, present, and future comprise an indivisible whole (Davies 1995, 74). Since the laws of physics recognize neither the subjective threefold division of time nor any absolute temporal direction or rate, and the boundaries of each individual's conscious experience may be defined by such a wide range of spatiotemporal variables, it must be reiterated that any attempt to assess the quality of an artist's work according to the conventional criteria of primacy, independence, and innovation is scientifically invalid. Ironically, even the late John Cage, widely recognized as a "master of the avant garde," lent support to this conclusion: "I think of myself as an inventor, but I almost always find that what I think is really original in my work has been done before by someone else" (Tomkins 1968, 91).

In addition to a block or cube, it is also possible to visualize space-time as a kind of "timescape timelessly laid out" (Davies 1995, 72). Because of the finite velocity of light, one has only to gaze at the sky to initiate a direct encounter with the past. "It takes light eight minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, and hence we see the Sun, at any moment, as it existed eight minutes ago. Similarly, we see the nearest star as it existed four years ago, and with our powerful telescopes we can see galaxies as they existed millions of years ago" (Capra 1991, 169). The "presence of the past," in the final analysis, is hardly some airy-fairy abstraction but a vital and inescapable aspect of the real world.

Useful parallels can also be drawn between Einstein's concept of time and any of a number of everyday objects and experiences. A simple example will suffice to illustrate this point. When the listener inserts a recording of Beethoven's "Les Adieux" Sonata into a CD player, he experiences each musical event successively, as if time were passing. In actuality, the totality of information comprising the sonata exists en bloc on the disc, and the three movements--"Les Adieux," "L'Absence," and "Le Retour"--are easily understood from an atemporal perspective to comprise a single musical entity.

Such basic facts and analogies notwithstanding, relativity is admittedly a counterintuitive subject whose difficulties are compounded by the temporal assumptions and infelicities of ordinary language. As such, it continues to meet with resistance, even from those with some knowledge of the physical sciences. The second law of thermodynamics--"the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum"--is often invoked, for example, in defense of the notion that time progresses in a single direction towards the future. The entropy gradient associated with this particular temporal orientation suggests that the physical world, through the laws of cause and effect, is moving irreversibly from a state of relative order into one of increasing disorder. As heat flows from warm bodies to cold bodies, the universe will continue to expand until it reaches a point of thermodynamic equilibrium and succumbs to the ultimate "heat-death." However, since there is no objective scientific basis for distinguishing between the past and the future, one might just as easily assume that the positive axis of time lies in the opposite direction, in which case the second law would state: "the entropy of the universe tends towards a minimum" (Price 1997, 17).

At the macroscopic scale to which we are biologically and psychologically adapted, the strange temporal implications of relativity and the block universe are for the most part imperceptible and thus typically dismissed as inconsequential. At the microscopic scale, it is a very different matter. Indeed, the basic particles upon which physical form at all scales depends act in a decidedly time-symmetrical manner, apparently moving "forwards and backwards in time, just as they can move left or right in space" (Capra 1991, 185). Physicists routinely exercise great care to ensure that their theories and equations accurately address this underlying temporal symmetry. Their space-time diagrams, for example, are not actually chronological records of the movement of particles through time, but graphic representations of inter-related events onto which no specific temporal direction is imposed. From this most fundamental of perspectives, then, the past is no enemy of creation nor can the future be preferred for its innovative edge. Such temporal prejudices, on which art criticism is so indefensibly dependent, are simply irrelevant.

In contrast to the classical determinism of relativity, quantum theory suggests that at the micro scale events have no prior cause but occur spontaneously (Davies 1983, 131). What is more, quantum theory admits of a kind of reversed time causality in which measurements made by an observer contribute towards the construction of the past. According to John Wheeler, "The quantum principle shows that there is a sense in which what the observer will do in the future defines what happens in the past--even in a past so remote that life did not then exist" (Ibid., 39). The implications for aesthetic theory and criticism are no less important than those of Einstein's relativity, for by eliminating prior causality and introducing backward causation, an artistic act or work ostensibly executed in the past may depend upon observations made in the present, and an artistic act or work ostensibly executed in the present may equally depend upon observations taking place in the future. Hence, within the quantum domain, it would be illogical to construe any creative work as primary, independent, or innovative in the generally accepted sense. Originality, it might be argued from this perspective, is a question of the nature and precision of one's observations, not the degree to which one succeeds in appearing to have invented something new.

No composer with even the most rudimentary knowledge of modern physics can continue to treat time like a tightrope stretched between past and future which he is compelled to cross as fast as his legs will carry him. "Hesitate," the critics threaten, "and you'll fall--a useless pile of bones fit only for the charnel house." Unlike this high-wire nightmare induced and prolonged by an overdose of modernist propaganda, nonlinear space-time obligates no artist to perform death-defying stunts in a three-ring circus for jaded spectators hankering after gimmicks and novelties. On the contrary, the individual is free to assume an unlimited variety of roles on a cosmic stage where past, present, and future get equal billing and the temporal scope of art is all-inclusive. Regrettably, the intellectual honesty required to perform on that stage issues from a humility to which few are inclined in a society which believes that the illusion of being first is vastly more important than the truth of being original.


Capra, Fritjof. 1991. The Tao of physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism, 3d ed. updated. Boston: Shambhala.

Davies, Paul. 1995. About time: Einstein's unfinished revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster.

__________. 1983. God and the new physics. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Price, Huw. 1997. Time's arrow and Archimedes' point: New directions for the physics of time. New York: Oxford.

Rahn, John, ed. 1994. Perspectives on musical aesthetics. New York: W. W. Norton.

Tipler, Frank J. 1994. The physics of immortality: modern cosmology, god and the resurrection of the dead. New York: Doubleday.

Tompkins, Calvin. 1968. The bride and the bachelors: Five masters of the avant garde, Viking Compass ed. New York: Penguin Books.

Return to Writings


Last updated September 14, 2001
WebMaster: Sebastian Proteus, proteus@newmusicclassics.com
© Copyright 2001 by Joseph Dillon Ford