The beginning of a new year is the perfect time to start looking for art that’s new to you.
One of the most dismaying things that can happen in a city as its economy begins to take off is to hear of new businesses that are coming, only to find that they’re just duplicates of things that are already in place. We excitedly hear rumors of a new restaurant coming to town, then discover that it’s not really new at all. There are already three just like it.
I understand marketing and the way that businesses take advantage of what seems to be the overwhelming human preference for the familiar. We may want things to look a little new, be a little different, but we really aren’t that keen on the unfamiliar. If there’s something we like, there’s a good chance we’ll get countless copies of it (sort of like the business version of movie sequels) instead of something that, say, complements it or challenges us.
Art, at its best, works very differently from that. Thoughtful artists have a tough job: They all exist within undeniable and powerful traditions that form a living background to the art they create. But, at the same time, they know that great art thrives on originality—on being different, often strikingly so, from anything else. What sets masterpieces like Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist,” or Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” apart from the galaxy of mediocre also-rans is not their familiarity, but their bracing originality. It’s a quality to which you must be open and receptive if you’re to experience something truly meaningful.
But lots of artists are susceptible to a similar herd mentality just like restaurants. There was a wonderful cartoon in The New Yorker back in the 1950s that commented on the booming popularity of abstract expressionism. It showed a man up in his attic surrounded by dozens of bland abstract canvases that he had painted. His wife surveys his output. “Why do you have to be an individualist like everyone else?” is her exasperated question.
About the same time a critic named Harold Rosenberg coined the phrase “the herd of independent minds” to capture the essence of such profoundly unoriginal bandwagon jumping. It’s a great phrase. In short, mimicking a form is not art.
I like Rembrandt, but I don’t want every painting in the museum to look like his. Similarly, I love Mozart, but I don’t want everything I hear an orchestra play to sound like that. I like fried chicken a lot but I don’t want any more fried chicken restaurants. Nor do I want to interact with a work of art that’s just a copy of some other masterpiece. Originality — that is, something that’s basically unfamiliar when you first encounter it — is the critical component of great art.