Weekly Question No. 12 - On being “original”. What is left to be said in art?

edited February 20 in General Discussion

It seems that in the modern era, artists, if they aspired to be elevated to the level of “important” artists like those in the art history books, have had to come up with something new to say or, at least, come up with new ways of saying something.  They’ve had to be original.

 

I’ve kept my old high school art history textbooks from the 1960s and early 1970’s (The Story of Art, Gombrich and Mainstreams of Modern Art, Canaday ) and in these books one can see the transformation of western art through the centuries. If we open Gombrich at the sections covering the late Middle Ages and early renaissance, we see artists harking back to the achievements of the ancient classical world and striving not just to emulate but to improve on the ancients. This led to the mastery of perspective which the ancients never really came to grips with and to new techniques for rendering form and creating light and shade.  In short, it led to heightened realism. This striving for visual realism culminated in 19th C with the slick Neoclassicism of David and Ingres. And then things changed again. Instead of realism with a classical flavor, artists wanted something more exotic, and Romanticism was born.  Then artists like Courbet found they were over the classical past and had tired of exoticism and wanted to paint the realism of the everyday life around them without historical allusions or heady romanticism. This movement, and those that followed, succeeded in ousting classicism from center stage.  Impressionism and the dissolution of form in favor of the effects of light soon emerged. This was quickly followed by a host of other “isms”: Pointillism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism and very soon after, complete abstraction was upon us. The artists at the center of these changes were saying new things in new ways and because of this, have been elevated to the pantheon of great artists. They are the artists in my art history textbooks. From the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, we go from Giotto to Rothko and, in the last century or so, instead of marveling at realism, people have had to marvel at urinals, at masses of paint dripped onto canvases with sticks and at white squares on white backgrounds. At this point, it was hard to imagine what more artists could have done if they aspired to get into the art history books – especially if they were realists. All that seemed to be left was to shock. So that’s what they tried. But even that has now become passé. Duchamp’s Urinal, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, and many in a similar vein, can really only be done once. People aren’t shocked easily by art anymore. In art circles (if not religious circles), it’s hard to imagine Serrano’s Jesus on the cross submerged in a container of urine eliciting much more than a yawn these days. *

 

So, this week’s question is about what you think there is left to say that might be new. And about who will be in the art history textbooks that cover the 21st Century. Will they have said anything new? Is there anything new left to say? Or has the idea that great artists need to say something new also become passé?



*(I am aware that professional art historians would frown on my extremely truncated and hopelessly incomplete potted history of western art. But I only have a paragraph.)


Comments

  • First a simple comment about 'new' before I rush out the door:
    Virtually all art schools have and continue to teach the history of art. Of course, it's important. But this has often implied evolution towards something better and more relevant, rather than simply change. It inherently implies that the new is both the most interesting, and therefore the most valuable. (Apart from historical pieces.) It created for many a sense that anything that isn't saying something new is not valuable. If you define art by this story, then it seems to be the logical conclusion.
    Philosophically I think it's a poor basis to define art.
    I think if art communicates truth and beauty that is an expression of and relevant to people in the current generation (or future when I think of the impressionists) then it's art.
    I haven't really answered the question, I've only questioned the answer of the art world that 'new' is being about a school or style never done before.
  • I agree, @Abstraction. The practice of art is not about getting into the art history books - at least, it's not for me. If that were all art was about then the vast majority of artists who have ever lived would qualify as failures because they are not in the history books.  But that's bunk. However, the way art history is presented, or was presented in my school days, makes it appear as though only the best get into the art history books. But that's not true. Most committed artists who make a living from it produce work that communicates truth and beauty that, IMHO, is timeless. I don't see that artists always need to be breaking new ground.  :)
    Abstraction
  • edited February 13
    I am reminded of the old saying that ` There is nothing new under the sun`.

    I think if you have found a way to express yourself in in your own way with your work that is unique then there is a newness to that.

    There will probably always be something in it that reminds someone of something else or reminds them of someone else’s style.

    So going back to that old saying I mention above I wonder if things that have been considered new in the past are just the interpretation of an culmination of the influences and life experiences of that artist. Which means that its not genuinely new.

    So I think that maybe we dont find new things but we do find new ways of expressing things that are already there.


    If that makes sense  :)
    Abstraction
  • I think some of the urge to be 'new' is due to trying to stand out from your peers and have a recognisable style (especially if you are trying to be noticed and sell your work).

    I've seen modern realism use stylistic tricks to do this (which I don't like) such as visible drips from a portrait into the background, rectangular blocks of pure colour, blurred areas, or other video glitch style effects.

    For me I think art can express beauty (in landscapes, still-lifes, people, buildings), and/or show a shared experience of a social situation (people interacting, describing a scene such as from a biblical or classical source). These seem common throughout the history of art, and that is what will remain as the central aspects for me regardless of stylistic techniques.
    Abstraction
  • Thanks, @MichaelD. I like that old saying. In art it's difficult to see what can still be done that is new. Maybe the future is all digital, NFTs, happenings, performance art...  The thing today is that anything new only has a life span of about five minutes before it's old hat. I'm glad I'm not in the race.  :)
  • I think that right, @Richard_P. Photography and abstraction were not the end for realist painting - far from it, and I think it will always be with us. Artists will will continue to paint beautiful portraits, still lifes and landscapes on into the future as the avant garde fall over each other trying to be the one to come up with the next big thing. A few will have their five minutes of fame then fall back to earth, while the rest of us get on with painting what is really important and central to human experience.
  • GTOGTO -
    edited February 13
    I think the trends are heading towards more immersive interactive exhibits like the Van Gogh Lume exhibit.  With VR becoming a big thing I think there will be virtual galleries exhibiting NFTs.  I think as far as what is shown the content will be more inclusive of groups that have been marginalized or under represented.  I don’t think pure abstraction will have much impact.  It will be more of a mix of abstract figurative works.   How that works for smaller galleries I’m not so sure.….…..(edited) just updated…NFTs are out actual real objects are back in… I guess that will be another aspect to the future of art, tastes and preferences will change more rapidly…😄
  • Folks

    The question is what is left to be said?

    Considering the Purposes of Art, it is clear the need exists and will continue to exist for as long as we are born, grow, eat, love, work, vote, read, reproduce, kill, enjoy nature, appreciate beauty, create, build etc.

    https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sac-artappreciation/chapter/oer-1-2/

    1. Expression of the imagination. Art provides a means to express the imagination (things, places, ideas that are unreal or unknowable) in nongrammatic ways. Unlike words, which come in sequences,each of which has a definite meaning, art provides a range of forms, symbols and ideas with meanings that can be determined by the artist. An artist can create visual imagery of mythical animals, religious concepts such as heaven or hell, fictional places, or other things from their creative mind.
    2. Ritualistic and symbolic functions. In many cultures, art is used in religion, spiritual or magical rituals, performances and dances as a decoration or symbol of a god or other divine quality. While these often have no specific utilitarian  purpose, anthropologists know that they often serve a purpose at the level of meaning within a particular culture. This meaning is not furnished by any one individual, but is often the result of many generations of change and understanding, and of a cosmological relationship within the culture.
    3. Communication. Art, at its simplest, is a form of communication. Most forms of communication have an intent or goal directed toward other people. Illustrative arts, such as scientific illustration, are a form of art as communication. Maps are another example. However, the content need not be scientific. Stories, emotions, and feelings are also communicated through art.
    4. Entertainment. Art may seek to bring about a particular emotion or mood, for the purpose of relaxing or entertaining the viewer. This is often the function of the art industries such as Motion Pictures and Video Games. And of course, more traditional art, such as some paintings and sculptures are simply meant to be enjoyable.
    5. Political change. One of the defining functions of early twentieth-century art has been to use visual images to bring about political change. Art movements that had this goal—Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism, among others—are collectively referred to as the avant-garde arts. This purpose of art continues today in many objects aimed at exposing corruption of the ruling class, including government, the wealthy, and corporations.
    6. Social causes. Art can be used to raise awareness for a large variety of causes. A number of art activities are aimed at raising awareness of AIDS, autism, cancer, human trafficking, and a variety of other topics, such as ocean conservation, human rights in Darfur, murdered and missing Aboriginal women, elder abuse, marriage equality, and pollution. Trashion, using trash to make fashion, is one example of using art to raise awareness about pollution.
    7. Psychological and healing purposes. Art is also used by art therapists, psychotherapists and clinical psychologists as art therapy. The Diagnostic Drawing Series, for example, is used to determine the personality and emotional functioning of a patient. The end product (the art object) is not the principal goal in this case, but rather a process of healing, through creative acts, is sought. The resultant piece of artwork may also offer insight into the troubles experienced by the subject and may suggest suitable approaches to be used in more conventional forms of psychiatric therapy.
    8. Propaganda or commercialism. Art is often utilized as a form of propaganda, and thus can be used to subtly influence popular conceptions or mood (especially regarding political issues). In a similar way, art that tries to sell a product also influences mood and emotion. In both cases, the purpose of art here is to subtly manipulate the viewer into a particular emotional or psychological response toward a particular idea or object.

    Life creates art and art in turn creates meaning and purpose.

    Denis



  • Thanks, @GTO.

    NFT's exhibited in virtual galleries. That could be fun. It's not yet clear how this NFT thing will develop. Maybe it will become the norm and actual physical paintings will be seen as quaint and old fashioned. But I find that hard to imagine. I think (hope) there'll always be a market for traditional paintings. I love the physicality of paintings. The canvas, the tactile nature of paint, the brushwork and texture. It's hard to see how an NFT could make up for the loss of physicality. But if, as you say, NFTs are already out, then we won't have to worry about it.  And I think we
    are just about out of "isms". I don't expect to see any new ones in the art history books.  :)
  • edited February 13
    Cheers, @dencal. I wouldn't argue against the idea that as long as we are around art will continue. As far as I'm concerned, after basic needs for food etc. have been met, art is one of those things that make human life meaningful. In fact, I think art is part of what it means to be human.  I can't see that changing.  But art itself does change and it's a question of what art will look like in the future. What will future art history books look like? What will the art of the great names of the 21st century and beyond look like? How will it be different and groundbreaking? Will artists always have to try to break new ground? Is there any new ground to break? These are the questions.   :)
  • Rob, not even a 'Brownism'? ;)
  • edited February 13
    I'm working on it, @Richard_P:p

    But, no, I'll never be avante guard.  My work is far too traditional to get noticed by the cognoscenti and the big wheeler dealers in London, Paris and New York. But it's what I like to paint and I'm not about to throw down the brushes just because I won't be in the art history textbooks.  :)
  • CBGCBG -
    edited February 13
    @tassieguy

    It's possible that the answer to this depends upon one's most fundamental sense of life along the spectrum of individual person or social unit... whether one sees Life and Art and their importance as primarily personal or as primarily collective.


    In my view:

    Each human is utterly unique and what can be said about what it is to be human, is at once limited and boundless. The fact is that a human IS a human, humans have a nature and are not arbitrary, we are what we are.  So we are limited, and what we can say necessarily is familiar, but at the same time we are unique and the nuance or subtlety associated therewith is endless.  [I note, those blind to subtlety or nuance may not see that uniqueness or originality]

    What we can say, what we need to say and how we say it are original and unique.  Creativity, in particular that which comes spontaneously from the heart, very often involves a new way of expressing oneself.  Less often can an uninspired artist looking for a new style to strike somehow from "out there" find one which is authentic to him or her.


    IMHO, originality is already and ALWAYS WILL be present in the works of true artists striving to express what meaningful things they are trying to say with art, in their own endlessly unique ways, because once a person reaches the goal of true self-identity with that authentic self (not the trappings of some accepted superficial society), he or she becomes an authentically unique artist because he or she is authentically unique in his or her own humanity. 


    So, there are endless things to say, and endless ways to say them... boundless originality as longs as humans (in contrast to the cogs of a machine, sheep of a flock, or "cells" of a super-organism) in the realm of art, choose to live free authentic and personal lives, and who honestly and passionately pursue communication of the meaning of that unique and yet familiar life through art.

    tassieguy
  • edited February 13
    Thanks, @CBG. Yes, each individual artist is unique and because of this each individual artist's work is unique. As hard as we may try, we can never paint exactly like someone else because we don't have their unique mind or body.  And this means that no one else can paint exactly like us. Individuality is built into us by genes and environment. So, in that sense, we are saying something new and original with every painting we do. Originality is hard wired.  I guess it's a question of whose originality gets noticed so that they get into the art history textbooks.  I have no idea how that works.  :)
    CBG
  • CBGCBG -
    edited February 13
    tassieguy said:
    Thanks, @CBG. Yes, each individual artist is unique and because of this each individual artist's work is unique. As hard as we may try, we can never paint exactly like someone else because we don't have their unique mind or body.  And this means that no one else can paint exactly like us. Individuality is built into us by genes and environment. So, in that sense, we are saying something new and original with every painting we do. Originality is hard wired.  I guess it's a question of whose originality gets noticed so that they get into the art history textbooks.  I have no idea how that works.  :)
    Indeed, which brings to the fore the question, just how important to an Artist (qua artist), if at all, IS getting "noticed" so that they get into an art history textbook?   :)
    tassieguy
  • MichaelD said:
    I am reminded of the old saying that ` There is nothing new under the sun`.

    I think if you have found a way to express yourself in in your own way with your work that is unique then there is a newness to that.

    There will probably always be something in it that reminds someone of something else or reminds them of someone else’s style.

    So going back to that old saying I mention above I wonder if things that have been considered new in the past are just the interpretation of an culmination of the influences and life experiences of that artist. Which means that its not genuinely new.

    So I think that maybe we dont find new things but we do find new ways of expressing things that are already there.


    If that makes sense  :)
    It's interesting what you're saying, @MichaelD.  It's almost a direct quotation from Ecclesiastes, written in the third or fourth century BC.  

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+1&version=KJV

    Take a look (talking about verse 9)

    @Tassieguy this is also in a dash and I will share more thoughts later. :)
    tassieguyMichaelD
  • edited February 14
    Francis Schaeffer as a philosopher observed the pathway of new ideas by who tended to pick them up and apply them first. In history, anyway.
    Philosophy
                       Art
                                Music
                                            General culture
    When I was young I read about existentialism as some new idea and struggled to understand it. Now it's the way most people think. The ideas of authentic self and self-actualisation are all around us now.
    This probably explains why artists sometimes were not appreciated in their generation. They absorb early shifts in world view and find ways to express it. Impressionists 'felt the loss of universals.'
    • "Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas were following nature...They painted only what their eyes brought them. But was there reality behind the light waves reaching their eyes? After 1885 Monet carried this to its conclusion and reality tended to become a dream. As reality became a dream, impressionism began to fall apart. These men Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, all great post Impressionists felt the problem, felt the loss of meaning. They set out to solve the problem, to find the way back to reality, to the absolute behind the individual things, behind the particulars...
    • I am not saying that these painters were always consciously painting their philosophy of life, but rather in their work as a whole their worldview was often reflected."
    • Jackson Pollock - time + chance + matter = beauty. So he utilised drip painting in patterns created by chance.  
    I do think there is some new that emerges from the cutting edge of thinking that is yet to filter down through society. It often has cut through. I have zero idea what that would look like. I think graffiti has been a reflection of this though. A push back on global power and the loss of dignity of individuals somewhere deep inside that certainly resonates with me.
    MichaelD
  • edited February 14
    Thanks, @Abstraction. There are some deepities there.

    I agree that it takes time for new ways of seeing things to filter down and that the general population may have difficulty coming to terms with them in the beginning. Maybe with abstraction many of us are still at the coming-to-terms-with stage.  :)

    On the other hand, I think that one should not have to understand the philosophy or world-view behind an artist's work to appreciate it. And ideas underlying some art can be empty. For example, some of the theory underlying abstraction I find totally vacuous and I'm not surprised that the work leaves folks scratching their heads.

    I think there is some value in existentialist philosophy. One of the most important being the idea that we are responsible for our lives. We make of them what we can. When they are over there's no undoing what was done and no doing what we failed to do. Our histories are complete. I'm not sure how that idea would find expression in a painting. Perhaps a vanitas themed still life. :)
    AbstractionRenoir
  • edited February 14
    Agree, we don't have to comprehend. We just have to feel it. It communicates. A truly great painting or film or novel can make us feel things that we can't put into words.
    (Another boring bit everyone can happily skip: In some ways I think the inherent randomness and lack of accessibility of some modern art reflects a hollow philosophy. Did Pollock's time + chance + matter create intricate and organised beauty like life on earth? Or just a quite beautiful sense of randomness? Jackson Pollock's blue poles was just another random drip painting until he consciously painted the blue poles over it. Thinking back then didn't grasp 'emergence' which is an unfolding theme in philosophy - that consciousness, intelligence, beauty, the heights of a mind that creates a Toccata and Fugue in D minor can't be predicted from quantum states at all. It doesn't answer, it asks where the emergent levels of complexity and organisation come from...)
    I don't want to paint randomness. I think. I feel. I am. I breathe. I live. I wonder. I am at times exultant and at times in despair. I love. I am awed. Sometimes my spirit is centred in the midst of it all, this whole vast universe beyond imagining. I choose. I reflect and create.
    tassieguy
  • edited February 14
    Thanks, @Abstraction. Yes, if a work of art works, it works without us having to understand the artist's philosophy or world-view. 

    What you say about Pollock's drip paintings I need to think about. Whatever they are about is lost on me. But that may be a shortcoming in me. 

    The idea of emergence I really like. This is probably not the place to mention it but, since we're talking philosophy, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool reductionist. Scientism is my world-view. We have space-time and matter and the fundamental laws of physics and everything, including consciousness and art,  emerges from those. It's deterministic, bottom-up causation all the way.  It's not clear that quantum indeterminacy plays any part in consciousness, free will, art, or much else that is important to us.  :)
  • Those are good observations  @Abstraction thanks for taking the time to post them. 
    Abstraction
  • Many great observations have expressed here and I agree with these. What is left to said? haha!
    My journey has lead me to simply paint for myself, simply painting what turns me on, acting on a spark of inspiration, learning of just what really moves me. The greatest challenge in this is, detaching from everything else that has been said and done already, and to be bold enough and courageous enough to move ahead on something unique, genuine and authentic in a fearless fashion. The other challenge is to dare myself to be different than what the rest of the world demands. I guess that I've been very fortunate to have been raised and spiritually disciplined to be different than everyone already, and make it work out.
     My father gave me the strict discipline from a very young child with the following statement; "Just because everybody else is jumping off the bridge, does that mean that you have to go too?" Hahaha!
     And to add, many of my spiritual friends fed me the similar message, over my entire lifetime. So I matured into a person who doesn't do it like everybody else. Haha. But the basic working methods with working materials must be of sound quality according to favored traditions, where nothing is left incomplete or 1/2 finished throughout any processes, including the thinking behind it all. Haha.
     
    I don't know if I said it all correctly here, and I don't know if anyone would understand, but this is my 2 cents. Hahaha!
    tassieguy
  • Thanks, @Forgiveness. Yes, as long as we are ourselves when we paint, and not slavishly follow fashion or try to imitate others too closely, then I think we're on firm ground. And, being our unique selves, what we paint will be original and worthy. That's the best we can do unless we manage to come up with some new shock or gimmick that gets us five minutes of fame.  :)
    Forgiveness
  • edited February 16
    Of course there is one huge part of the population working hard on some new shocking methods and images and gimmicks that give us 5x minutes of fame, always. Btw, seen a lot of it during the current protest here. Hahahaha! On this note, I'm certainly not up to the competition evident as it is a great method/threat for loosing myself. Haha!
    tassieguy
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