26 November 2011

Recent consternation over the Wynne prize for landscape painting has generated a tidal surge of public discussion about the impending demise of creativity.

Sam Leach’s homage to the seventeenth-century Dutch masters has been perceived and panned as an artistic ‘poor cousin’, lacking originality or sufficient reference to the tradition it copies.

Leaving the highly-charged issues of artistic criticism to one side, the broader subject of originality is still compelling. By how much must an original work be adapted in order to be truly new?

The answer, it seems, depends on the industry in which one performs. Men At Work recently discovered that an impromptu and unintended reference to the children’s tune ‘Kookaburra Song’ found in their ‘Land Down Under’ will turn out to be the ten most expensive notes ever played, with the rights’ holder seeking 65% of the revenue generated by the song. A disproportionate claim on their earnings? Perhaps, especially as the claimant didn’t even write the music.

But what about creative endeavours where copyright, trademark and registered designs are yet to play a significant role? Food is a good example. Some dishes, particularly by the modern culinary masters, are as original and distinctive as any tune or painting – Ferran Adria’s ‘capsicum lollipop’, or Heston Blumenthal’s ‘aerated chocolate cake’ spring to mind.

There is nothing to prevent another chef from reproducing the dish, as the proprietary techniques are published in cookbooks, magazines and television. Must the menu then reference the original creator (Capsicum Lollipop à la Ferran Adria)? Ethically yes, but in practice rarely.

What then if the new chef uses green capsicums, not red? What if the same technique is applied to tomatoes or eggplants? It is a paradox that has been contested for millennia. The Greek metaphysicians asked whether a boat was still the same boat once all its boards had been replaced.

Today, this contest is played out on the menu of ten thousand Italian restaurants where bruschetta, traditionally fire-grilled bread with garlic, oil and tomatoes, has been adapted in myriad ways. The term itself now seems to refer to the topping, not the bread itself, despite the name deriving from ‘bruscare’, meaning to cook over fire. The cultural rights in particular dishes held collectively by nations have been trammelled extensively. Bruschetta is just one example.

It came to a head for me when I was recently served a chocolate bruschetta for dessert – toasted Madeira cake topped with chocolate mousse and shaved chocolate. It was delicious, but was it bruschetta?

To be honest, I didn’t care. I was more concerned about how it ate, than its place in history. You see the answer is simple – excellence trumps creativity every time.

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