Art can’t just be new, but nevertheless, is has to continually be made new and always change in some significant way. It’s not enough that it simply be beautiful, or, if it is, then part of that beauty involves being put in a contemporary idiom.
In certain ways, I can’t believe I just said that. Almost all of my tastes in art tend away from the contemporary, and I think it is reasonable to expect them to do so. This seems nothing more than the law of probability: the spacio-temporal extent of artistic genius is very small, and it is unlikely that any given person would find himself within it (of all persons, how many ended up living in the Florence of the Medici, Vienna of the late 18th century, or Elizabethan England?) This leaves most people having to look some other time and some other place. Even if one disagreed with this, it seems unlikely that anyone could say that there was more great art now than in all previous times put together (a claim that is sometimes made, reasonably, about scientific or medical knowledge). One is therefore more likely to find greatness in the past. But for all that, art has to change and be made new anyway. This does not guarantee that the new thing will not be ugly or vulgar or simply worse than what we had before. It very likely will be.
Why is this? Isn’t’ it a terrible thing that art couldn’t just freeze when it achieved certain perfections? Perhaps, but that’s how it is. I can’t help that T.S. Eliot or Borges or Ted Hughes more speak my language than Shakespeare, even if Shakespeare is the greater master; and even while I despise musicals I know that they are more mine than opera ever could be. In some horrible way- and I interpret this as a judgment of condemnation- the grind is more my dance than the waltz.
What does art require? It would take a great genius to write, for example, the next opera, since this would involve doing something quite unimaginable. Whenever I try to imagine a new opera I only imagine the old being done again- but a truly new opera would not be like this. Our contemporary artists seem very aware of this aspect of art and genius, which is why they place such value on breaking barriers and shattering conventions. Again, they are getting half the story right: art really does continually find itself in need of someone who will do something unimaginable to the multitude. But there is also, as anyone would admit after two seconds of honest reflection, an objective demand and criterion that restricts the unimaginable thing. It must be beautiful, and the beautiful things are hard. The work of genius will be shocking, to be sure, but to shock is no guarantee that the whole work is of any value (or even that it was truly unimaginable.)
In the meantime, most art will be ugly will be a less perfect approximation and participation of the ideal in our contemporary idiom than some past art was in its own idiom. Our great musicians will not have the perfection of the 18th century musicians, but they will be ours; our poets will not have the genius of the Golden age Latin poets, but they will be ours, etc. Art must necessarily push forward, even if it need not necessarily succeed (and perhaps usually doesn’t).