The necessary newness of art

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).


  1. Brandon said,

    June 23, 2010 at 9:42 am

    In a sense, I think, it’s very much in line with the old line about time being the image of eternity (taken in a loose sense). In order to be adequate images of eternity, temporal things have to change: it’s only through change that temporal things can participate the richness eternity has without change.

    Someone once said of Samuel Johnson’s poetry that he never wrote a cathedral but he wrote some nice pavements, and there is a place for pavements. And I think there’s something to that. You take the beauties you can get. Given an absolute choice between a well-designed cathedral (e.g., Dante) or a well-designed mosaic sidewalk or fountain (e.g., Johnson or any number of competent poets far from Dantesque levels of genius) you’ll take the cathedral, and would be stupid not to do so. But it’s worthwhile to have both, and if you can have the nice mosaic sidewalk, it’s silly to reject it on the basis that you’d rather have a new cathedral. And, really, there are worse things than being a society that, rarely able to build cathedrals, has gorgeous walkways. There’s room in every age (even ages of genius) and in every kind of art for really solid walkway-type work. Not that we’re even up to the walkway-level in most of our art.

    And genius on its own can arise in situations where it lacks what it needs to realize its full potential. I think this is probably true of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. It’s a work of both true genius and true prayer, which are what you need for something like a cathedral, but Modernist architecture provided nothing handy for a builder of visionary churches, and so he was always forced to stretch. (And, since he is long dead, and there have been no architects of like genius and devotion to complete it, and even the full blue prints no longer exist, the completed church will inevitably fall short of what “God’s Architect” could have made it.)

    • June 23, 2010 at 11:31 am

      “He has made all things in time, but he has placed eternity in the heart”

      I’ve thought for years now that that line was the key to Ecclesiastes: there is no commeasuration between the inner world of the human person and the outer world in which he finds himself. As one of a thousand consequences of this, man finds a need to express himself in time, but all of his expressions are to some extent immersed in the vanity of all things under the sun. Artistic immortality is real, but imperfect- you can’t live on except as “old” (or, more charitably “classic”), that is, as somehow alien to the time you live on into. I really wish there were exceptions to this (the pieta? Fur Elise? The twenty third psalm?) but I don’t think anything escapes it entirely; and at any rate nothing escapes it in the sense of giving us a template that we could imitate and still be faithful to our time. Even if art were truly timeless, it wouldn’t show us how to make an art that was precisely our own. But then again, there’s probably nothing that can show us how to make our own art. It’s not the sort of thing that can be shown, as though it were the conclusion of a principle, even if every feature of the art is justified and somehow manifestive of a principle.

      Perhaps by chance, the first motivation for this was a consideration of Church architecture. Gaudi is the best example, but another one is the American architect Duncan Stroik, who uses clean lines, modern materials (aluminum in a bell tower), and baroque lines without rococo flourish to make chapels that look somehow classical, but in such a way that a modern person can see his time as being elevated in the art. I marvel at the sheer vision that this takes. The synthesis of all these things is not the conclusion of an argument, even when every part follows from some pre-established principle.

      • Brandon said,

        June 23, 2010 at 7:28 pm

        I wonder if one perhaps should think of the issue here as being a matter of self-knowledge — not self-knowledge qua moral agent, but self-knowledge qua productive agent. Great art to some extent comes out of self-knowledge: the productive agent knowing what he really wants, with a sort of intimate familiarity, both in the product and in the producing. The better he knows himself, the better he can adjust means to ends and produce it. Self-knowledge of this sort is necessarily difficult. And if this is so, the very sine qua non of good art is making it one’s own in some sense.

        And this is also (possibly) why really great works both eminently express something of the particularity of artists (nothing so obviously and uniquely Dantesque as Dante’s works) but also something of eternity (in Dante’s best work we get, so to speak, the Dantesque insofar as it approximates the very idea of Dante in God). Great art can be both very particular and contingent, with all the fragility that it entails, and very suggestive of the universal and eternal, because the sort of self-knowledge necessary for it straddles the line between that in us which is fragile and contingent and relatively unique and that in us which is sublime and immortal and God-like.

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