The Cult of the New in Art

The vast majority of all new work created is terrible.  Utterly forgettable.  When you think of the sheer volume of things made or ideas had at any given moment, it could not be otherwise.  Like an evolutionary brainstorming session, we throw everything we have up against the wall just to see what sticks.  And most things don’t stick.  That’s fine, we’ll just keep going until we find something that does.

I'm sure this is going to work...
I’m sure this is going to work…

Picture in your mind those old-timey movies of lighter-than-air-crafts trying to break the hold of gravity prior to the Wright Brothers.  The variety of incredible crashes and catastrophic failures is stunning.  Captivating really.  The number of terrible designs people invested time and effort and hope in is fascinating, and perhaps even heartening.  But no matter how commendable their efforts and intentions, you’d never voluntarily get into one of those machines, now would you?

These are the thoughts that come to me when I think about the requirement for many exhibition programs to only consider artwork created within the past year, or even two.  This to me is the antithesis of Art, which is the act of carving away the inessential until the vital core of inevitability remains.  That takes time, effort and discernment.

It often takes time to determine the success or failure of that effort as well.  The value of good work increases with age, while the insubstantial withers away and is forgotten.  A one-year-old sculpture, which may have taken 2-3 months to make, is just a baby.  It has barely had time to breathe.

By shifting the focus from Quality to that of Newness, you end up encouraging a lot of ephemeral, quick to produce work which bears more resemblance to fashion than fine art.  Fashion is fine, but it’s not Art.

It's not bad, but do you have anything newer?
It’s not bad, but do you have anything newer?

It can be incredibly difficult to determine in the moment what will have lasting value.  Separating the wheat from the chafe, so to speak, is a skill in itself.  It requires courage and a willingness to go against the current culture.  How easier then to declare that issues of Quality or Truth are secondary to the Newness of the thing?  I mean, the date is printed right there – why bother troubling ourselves with aesthetic judgments?

Artworks are not flying machines.  The criteria for judging their success or failure is not nearly so simply as demonstrably defying gravity.  But we must still make the effort.  The Cult of the New is content to be concerned with the sheer variety of new designs, which is easier to see and can be quite intriguing.  But that misunderstands the nature of the effort.  The goal is not to create as many different variations as possible, the goal is to Fly.