The Cult of Novelty


Something new and interesting by Antonio Espinosa

I am a music student. Recently I handed in a draft for a composition assignment that began with a very simple ostinato built around a minor triad. My professor’s comment upon his first glance at the score was ‘you should change this ostinato. A plain minor triad isn’t very interesting.’ In no way do I wish to imply, dear reader, that my little assignment was anywhere close to a great work; in fact it was painfully far from it. However, there was something in my professor’s remark that bugged me intensely, which I soon realized was his use of the word ‘interesting’ as a meaningful yardstick for artistic or aesthetic judgment. Such a use of the word reflects the predominant mentality in the contemporary art world’s academic and critical apparatus, a mentality that I believe is immeasurably harmful to the flourishing of the arts.

This attitude consists in a re-organization of artistic values, one in which those categories that were traditionally valued most highly, such as the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘good,’ are replaced in their high standing by a new set of categories such as the ‘innovative,’ the ‘striking’ and, most insulting of all, the ‘interesting.’ [1] This revaluation of artistic categories occurred simultaneously with the process whereby which art was displaced from its proper place within the scope of a balanced and integral life. As the pillars that sustained such a life (family, tradition, religion, etc.) began to disappear from the Western world, rapidly there grew a current which asked of philosophy, political ideology, and the arts that they replace these ancient pillars, and to effectively become the new axes of human existence.

This arrogant and absurd petition also demanded the constant presence of these disciplines in every facet of our lives. In the case of the arts specifically this constant presence led to over-stimulation, which in turn led very quickly to weariness. This very weariness constitutes perhaps the most convincing proof that we are stretching the role of the arts far beyond what is normal. The weariness in turn led not to a re-evaluation of the recent change, but to a distraught and useless search for a new art, an ‘innovative’ and ‘striking’ one, that could fulfill a series of functions, and fill a series of holes in our lives, both of which belonged properly and solely to the old roots the West had cut. This tendency is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Guillaume Apollinaire’s famous ‘Rose/Merde’ list.

If you wanted to sell a product in ancient Rome your best bet was to advertise it as a product that had been used for generations without change. Such a legacy would have spoken very well of the product’s continued reliability, and convinced many a Roman customer. In the modern world it is the opposite that sells; novelty is seen in most areas of life as an indicator of desirability. This notion is rooted deeply in the over-satiated weariness of excess, and it creates a vicious cycle in which more and more ‘innovative’ nonsense is devoured, increasing our perpetual incapacity for satisfaction. Opposition to this modus operandi is quickly branded ‘reactionary,’ while phrases like ‘fear of change’ are thrown around. Valuing change for the sake of itself ultimately leads to nothing of true or lasting value, and it has been a decisive factor in the creation of the modern pathology of frantic, circular anxiety. It is the mindlessness of this process and not the possibility of ‘change’ itself that many of us really fear.

camino a tota2

I do not wish for this article to be seen as a diatribe against modern art. To the chagrin of some of my more aesthetically ‘conservative’ friends I profess deep admiration and earnest affection for the work of Webern, Rothko, and many other modern and post-modern artists, well beloved too by many of those who hold to the artistic attitudes I criticized in the paragraphs above. Ultimately the point that arouses my concern, and to which I wish to draw attention, isn’t even this new artistic hierarchy in and of itself, but the wrongful understanding of art’s role which led to it and, hopefully, the imbalance in Western life from which both phenomena ultimately originate.

Our constant search for novelty and originality is directly opposed to the natural and proper function of the artistic disciplines and is generated by our excessive exposure to art, from which we demand far more than is due. We look at too many paintings and sculptures, watch too many plays and films and listen to too much music because we’ve attempted to have these things fill the gaps left in our lives by our violent rupture with traditional ways of life. This has displaced these noble disciplines from their proper place as enriching facets of a full life, whose true center is the organic community, fundamentally entrenched in the inscrutable biological reality and shared values of the family.

I firmly believe that the crisis in modern art would be solved by restoring art to its rightful place, and filling the aforementioned gaps left along the way with the things that have always corresponded them, even if these are concepts that may seem ‘outdated,’ such as the family, religion and community. This will let us once more approach every artistic and aesthetic experience with patience and care, allowing us to concentrate not on finding those that are ‘innovative’ or ‘interesting,’ but those that truly enrich and improve both us and our lives.

[1] Boars have orgasms that can last up to 15 minutes. Few will deny that this fact is ‘interesting.’ Is the interesting then really a category to which we would like to submit artistic judgment?

Also read:
Ark Raving Mad – A review of Liturgy‘s The Ark Work

Images used: Black On Maroon by Mark Rothko and Camino a Tota by José Orlando López

About Basajarau (5 Articles)
Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.

2 Comments on The Cult of Novelty

  1. I’m reminded of Roger Scruton’s writings on the crisis afflicting the art world, maybe because you quoted him in your analysis of Klaus Schulze’s “X”.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, I have the feeling you’re more familiar with his thought than I am, but Scruton’s overall point is that the avant-garde ethos originally had an at least implicit constructive motivation of pointing towards a new set of ideals out of which tradition was being attacked from the perspective. Somewhere along the line, this aspect either got lost in imitation or was given up on because deconstructing things is always easier if you don’t have a plan for how to put them back together afterwards. The result is that the art world is stuck in an “infinite regress” of subversion and transgression.

    Speaking for myself, this is the main reason I’ve been gradually losing interest in avantgarde/deconstructionist/postmodernist art and instead gravitating more towards the classical/romantic. The type of innovation I *am* interested in, is more that which seeks on “reconstructing” their respective tradition, medium or genre.

    (I’ve got some more articles I’m interested in linking to as a point of comparison, but I’m not sure if you’re interested in having me bring them up or would find them too far off-topic)

    • Yes, that’s how I would interpret Scruton’s thoughts on the avant-garde and it’s a historical interpretation I hold to as well.

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