When Is It Impossible To Be Distinctive and/or Original?

Here follows a thought experiment.

It’s very unlikely – I know – that this experiment is itself original, but I haven’t consciously read it elsewhere.

I start with a question: What is the least within which it is possible to be distinctive or original?

The least what? The least stuff, scope, area.

For the moment, I am going to leave out social and historical context. By which I also mean racial context. (Be assured, social and historical context will get back in as inevitably as Fred Flintstone’s cat.) Instead, imagine some large-enough-to-be-visible pixels. They are very simple; they make up a square; they are binary – can either be black or white. That is all.

So, we start with a single visible square, whose size cannot be altered. That is the medium. In one state, it can be black:


In another, it can be white:


At this stage, it doesn’t make any difference which we start with – although social and historical context reappear almost immediately, to say prioritizing one or other is a profound statement.

The two colours I chose could have been red and green, or purple and pink, but white and black are more definite. There are many kinds of green, and many ways to nuance them. Black and white reduce the possibilities of invention and, as we’ll see, individuality. Artists have been known to invent colours, and patent them. i.e., Yves Klein blue:


My argument, which doesn’t go much further than this, is that, given only the means to choose between having a black or white square, no artist could express anything original or distinctive.

I mean, starting now – starting at this point in art history. I don’t mean that Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ wasn’t an original artistic statement or was an artistic statement without originality.


No, I mean this as the thought experiment: I send out an email to 100 contemporary artists, asking them to create a work in the binary square form. In order to create this artwork, all they need to do is email me back a single letter, b or w.

Now, I put 100 webpages up, each representing an artist, but none of these webpages has a title or is attributed.

There is no way you or anyone else (even the artists themselves) could tell apart Paula Rego’s square from Chris Ofili’s from Richard Serra’s from Cindy Sherman’s.

This is not to say that, within the binary square form, an artist’s statement might not be meaningful – when titled or attributed.

Here the social and historical context comes back, bigtime.

Imagine Chris Ofili did respond, and his email read ‘w’. That would be one kind of statement, one area of implication. Perhaps mischievous, perhaps sarcastic, perhaps something else. Conversely, a reply of ‘b’ would bring with it another area. Of representation, of extremely complex sarcasm, perhaps something else again.

(The nuances here would partly depend on who sent out the email and how it was phrased. Perhaps I got funding for the project from the Jerwood Foundation, and they made the approach on my behalf…)

But, going back to the 100 untitled, unattributed squares. The chances of you, or the artists, guessing which square belongs to a particular artist would be (depending on how many replied ‘b’ and how many ‘w’) roughly 1 in 50.

If these same artists were asked to identify a pencil marking they had made, or even a mark made on a computer screen, I think their chances would be approaching 100 in 100.

Finally, we get to the main question: How many binary squares are necessary in order for an artist, within the limit of b or w for all of them, t0 create an a. original and b. distinctive work of art?

In other words, what level of complexity of means is necessary for an artist to function as an artist?

Because, to return to the 100 binary blocks experiment, I could just as easily have sent out my 1oo emails to 100 non-artists – and the results would have been indistinguishable. (Social context says: Maybe not. Exactly whose email addresses do you have, white boy?)


Social and historical context have returned several times, despite me trying to keep them out. But what has also been omitted is time and change within time, or rhythm.

I would argue that, even given only 5 seconds, but with the possibility of making the square change at any moment from black to white or white to black, that an artist (specifically musician) could make something that was distinctive and original.

For example, within these limits, it would have been possible to convey the rudiments of the waltz or drum and bass.

Of course, I am not arguing that either of these musical genres could have come into being within the binary square form, only that they are expressable within it.

I am not sure if this essay into minimal aestetics can go any further, but let’s try. Time, however brief, is an immense field of complication. Five seconds can be infinitely subdivided. The visual field (square) needs social and historical context for any kind of distinctiveness or originality to be possible.

But say I imagine a new form of square, within which artists might try to make art. This square is a 1,000,000 smaller squares wide and deep. Each smaller square can be black or white. It would not take a very powerful computer long to map out every possible variation of b and w within the 10,000,000 smaller squares. Among these will be instantly recognizable pictures of Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Spongebob Squarepants, upside down versions of the Mona Lisa, etc. And whoever programmed the computer would be able to say that they had created each of them. With this set-up, it is the act of taking time to point at one particular arrangement of squares and say, ‘Mine’ that is the artistic act.

The squares are a lot easier to make happen than the infinite monkeys at infinite keyboards. But, given the limits of complexity within them, you would have to say that the artistic possibilities of that form had already – in its conception – been totally explored.

However, the form would not have been exhausted. Perhaps here is where original and distinctive come apart. The preempted works (already mapped by the computer) would be unoriginal, strictly. But say an artist was able to work in this form over time, and they came up with a style like that of Jeff Kinney in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, they would still be distinctive.

Now, have a go being original/distinctive (and not sounding like a Bjork B-side from ten years ago) on this little darling piece of software.

2 thoughts on “When Is It Impossible To Be Distinctive and/or Original?

  1. Pingback: Shooting great pictures has never been so difficult | tobylitt

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