I have a new theory about what’s wrong with modern art. It came to me suddenly, like a flash of insight or a completely random thought. But first, a little background.
Art traditionalists – defined as “people who prefer their art to be recognizable” – have accused modern art of not being true art. This is not always accurate. Sometimes modern art is, quite literally, nothing at all.
A few years ago, the Independent reported on an “invisible exhibition” opened by a
London gallery. This gallery consisted of, among other things, a so-called invisible statue of Andy Warhol (actually, a visible but empty plinth Andy Warhol once stepped on); a blank piece of paper at which the artist had stared – “repeatedly over five years,” we are told, though to be realistic, it makes no difference; an “empty space” cursed by a witch; and drawings in invisible ink.
Now, I think I have common sense and all normal people on my side when I say that there is something wrong with this “invisible art”. It frankly seems like a racket, charging money for non-existent statues and blank canvases. I suppose it’s possible the creators are really charlatans who have realized, like the spurious tailors of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, that people will pay you for nothing if you can only convince them that they are unbearably stupid if they don’t see the Art.
But let’s dismiss that notion, for the sake of charity and even of argument. Let’s assume that the creators genuinely intended art and came up with art that has, as a matter of objective, physical reality, no actual existence. How does an artist end up there, and why – as a school of art – does modern art accept and enable it?
And this is where we return to my theory. I’ve come to wonder if modern art lost its way by pursuing originality.
I’ve long thought that originality is overrated in art, including movies and the written word. This comes partially from my conviction that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun, that everything that matters is old and everything else is just detail. “It’s been done before,” some people complain. Of course it’s been done before. Everything has been! The question is – how was it done?
Just as vitally, and not wholly unrelated, I do not regard originality as the true aim of art. The true aim of art is universality. It is to capture and to give voice to lasting truths and utterly human things. When art is great, it expresses something we can all feel, or conveys something we can all understand. It lives in the old things, and makes the old things live to us again.
The pursuit of originality can mislead artists because it too easily obscures better pursuits. Some art, whether consciously or not, sacrifices universality for originality. Other artists, and not just in the visual arts, forget that people are as much their business as art. More, perhaps. Art that is not enjoyable, or even comprehensible, to people outside a carefully-taught clique fails.
All of this is not to devalue originality but to keep it in its proper place. Originality is like style in that it is something worth having but not usually worth bothering about. The work of a writer is to have something worth saying and then say it as well as he can; do that, and style will come. The work of an artist is to take hold of something timeless, something universal, and give it the best expression possible; originality, too, will come.
And unlike the sort of originality that consists of invisible statues and blank pieces of paper, it won’t come alone.