The Best New Art Looks Unoriginal at First

by John Link

I believe Clement Greenberg coined the phrase "the best new art looks ugly at first". And it certainly seemed true at the time he used it. He once told me, many years ago, it even applied to himself. As I remember it, he said his first visit to Pollock's studio left him literally speechless. He did not like the work and he did not know what to say about it, so for 45 minutes he, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner sat silent. Then they left. That, he added, was when he learned the worst thing you could do to an artist in the studio was to say nothing. I doubt I have the exact wording of this conversation correct, but it was one of those that was so shocking that it stuck with me and I'm confident I have the gist of it right.

Now there are new expectations for art amongst the part of the public that pays a lot of attention to it. Newness at any cost is valued, and the more easily recognized the more valuable. Ugly is good. Inane is good. Offensive is good. Denying art itself is good. Upsetting is wonderful. Low is better than high. However it is achieved, "avant-garde" is a necessary property for being original. There is an even wider acceptance of these qualities than there was for the polish so prized by the French Academy of the late 19th century.

At some point the acceptance of the avant-garde stretched itself so far that avant-garde is now associated with the establishment, not the newly emergent. It also has become very judgmental of anything that resembles certain aspects of art that was made in the past. Yet, Manet's art resembled Goya's more than it resembled the "leading" artists of his time who were approved by the Academy. He did not provide the polish that was thought to be the sign of the best new art. Pollock avoided the social themes that went over in his day in favor of making "messy" marks on canvas laid out on the floor, somewhat like the methods used by Native American sand painters. There is pretty good evidence that when too many art experts agree on the "right" path, it is the wrong path.

I have noticed that, just like their ambitious predecessors, the best artists today are not accepting the conventional wisdom of what makes art original. Instead, and again like their predecessors, they are borrowing from the best of the past, whether it is the New York School or just old fashioned realism put through what has developed in the last hundred years or so. It is no surprise establishment experts find these developments "unoriginal", given their position on what constitutes originality. I won't bother arguing with their use of terms. Instead I'll simply say what my observations keep telling me: The best new art looks unoriginal at first.

August 29, 2012

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