Novelty & Whatever Comes Next After Contemporary Art
“Citius, Altius, Fortius.”
- Pierre de Coubertin
Just like science, and sport – which constantly seek to build on or trump the feats of their predecessors, art is predominantly concerned with going beyond its history, with a series of Oedipal impulses[i]. Despite the clever anti-progressive statements of the Post-Modernists, they too were seeking to overcome their past, with or without a sense of ‘progression’[ii]. In some way, all great artists have sought to shake down social maternity/paternity and cut a fresh, enlightened, sharp and witty path through the field of precursors, whilst also remaining somehow staunchly beyond them[iii]. This idea of being within but beyond is central to the understanding of post-industrial art. However, it’s immediately obvious that eventually, at some point, unless the terrain for art is expanding, there will be no more space in that field to cut a fresh path, without mowing over a few of the previous ones. The realization dawns: even if history is written, it is just as likely to be re-written shortly after. Especially online.
To be born into historic space is not unlike an endgame process[iv], where an artist sets out on an explicit quest to be original, but finds that less and less of the original field is left to claim – and so not surprisingly, it is best suited to those with a few new tricks (or even some old ones people have forgotten about). Enter the case for novelty. Metaphorically speaking, when there is less cultural terrain to claim on the frontier, the obvious thing to do is to buy the field next door, start again there and then knock down the fence between the fields, and voila! The same field, but now its big enough for more. That is the shorthand story of most human endeavour, and art is certainly no different despite its frequent claims to the contrary.
You could call it the common dilemma of development. In recent times, the story of the great artist seems to begin like a local garage sale that ends up becoming Wal-Mart.
Think Jeff Koons and his inflatables, puffed up and full of hot air. Or Takeshi Murakami and his merchandise, a corporate Disney style takeover. Or Jenny Holzer and her stock market style signage, lampooning the people that pay for them. For now, art at the top of its game gingerly reflects the economic conditions that support it whilst also seeking to mow some fresh grass on that field of the hard-fought, well timed, lucky few, united by their monotone messages of an innocence long lost. The question for young artists, often seeking to repay costly tuition fees is: Where do we go now? The answer to that question is probably within the internet. Literally and non-literally.
The aim in Part 1 of this paper is first to analyze the mechanics of the inherent drive for novelty in art, before moving on to Part 2, locating its presence and subtle shifts in contemporary art practices (and heading toward whatever it is that comes next after contemporary art).
Consulting the people’s online encyclopedia we are told, with in-built references to art no less, that novelty is:
Novelty (derived from Latin word novus for “new”) is the quality of being new. Although it may be said to have an objective dimension (e.g. a new style of art coming into being, such as abstract art or impressionism) it essentially exists in the subjective perceptions of individuals.
It also refers to something novel; that which is striking, original or unusual. The term can have pejorative sense and refer to a mere innovation.[v]
So in each iteration, as each new artist comes along they are seeking terrain, new terms for the relevant, the striking and the unusual, the exciting, the beautiful, the meaningful, the compelling and their twins – the dark, the sublime and the grotesque, and of course, the banal and the common, the irreverent. How is it any different to the generation of artists before them who sought the same things? Unfortunately the answer is perilously subjective. Resolutions arrested, artists must grapple with this in their work through some novel combination of subjects and media, or absence thereof. During this ongoing search for newer terms for art, staked as claims to newer terrain, it must be noted that art has long ridden into town on the back of industrial and commercial developments as a source of new materials to work with[vi]. Just like before, but made of plastic instead of stone. And then made of stone instead of plastic. Artists seek to use new materials, even non-materials ie: ideas that pertain to materiality. The focus of novelty, in order to gain new ground, unwittingly becomes a focus on some addition to, or absence of – materiality. This might even explain why artists are often the first to pick up on emergent industrial techniques and processes and incorporate them into their work – either they are gifted at it, or quite simply, they have to.
At the beginning of the contemporary period, around the middle of the 20th century, something happened to painting. A new type of paint had arrived, via mass produced chemical industry. Instead of painting with oil as had long been done (which itself had replaced previous iterations of pigment and binder), in order to be contemporary, the artist would paint with acrylic, the newer (read: less accepted) medium. This trend continued. Where could paint go next? Paint with a spray-can or an airbursh, paint with blue naked women, paint with robotic arms, paint to look like a print – or in more recent times, no paint at all, pretending to paint, painting on a computer, painting online. Painting virtually with hot-dogs on a touch sensitive iPad.
The ultimate goal obviously being to paint as nobody has painted before, to do as nobody has done before[vii]. Or, if we are to parody something already done, to do parody in a way never done before. The keyword here is knowingly. In art, as in many other studied efforts, awareness is everything. Contemporary culture doesn’t favor repeat episodes, unless they asked for it, or more dangerously, unless they don’t know that is. But perhaps novelty is not as difficult as it seems. Novelty is scalable. Consider the classic example of giving the same home cooked recipe to 5 different people, who will ultimately produce 5 different tasting results. The difference is not what went into it, the ingredients were the same; it’s in the minute details of how each was treated, and put together[viii] that novelty arises. The same thing goes for composed sheet music, and even theatre. Interpretation can alter the outcome, but only in relative measures. The problem is most of the time it takes an expert to differentiate – to most, blandness, repetition and uniformity prevail. Art that looks like art. Hotdogs that taste like hotdogs.
It becomes clear that the mechanics of novelty are predicated upon some form of differentiation[ix]. It is a model in which the progenitor is somehow updated or refreshed in the work of the progeny. As regularly as clockwork, the new breaks away from tradition, but remains within formal reach – over, and over again. Perhaps this is a measure of art within its own milieu of developments, not unlike other endeavours. But at this point it sometimes does something odd that is not so shared with other endeavours like the sports and sciences[x], who are usually seeking to go further or better than before. With acute self-awareness, art often doubles back on itself, recedes and recycles, changes the rules mid-game in order to escape its plotted trajectory. It forgoes time and taste and repeats itself – not unlike music, film and fashion. Why might this be? Perhaps novelty isn’t always concerned with going forwards or being new, but represents a shift in culture. In seeking novelty, all of a sudden the mechanisms of previous novelties are called upon and pushed out to centre stage, redressed. Is this because it averts any chance of a halt to industry in slower periods? Or is it nostalgia. Or both. Is it sadness and loss, or is it just to fuck you off. Novelty goes backwards as easily as forwards. Certainly when we supplant a lost novelty in the guise of a recent one, we create an effect known as a clash. What happens within the clash produces the unique effect often noticeable in contemporary art. The mechanics of the novel are also the components of these effects. An art effect in the last 100 years could broadly be said to be a material and a concept at odds with one another, producing a third element that reconciles and/or further complicates the relationship[xi]. This kind of effect mines for a sense of pathos and even humor in the viewer. By restaging the act it forces assumptions and expectations, and then prompts them to alter, whilst capitalizing on that precious moment of hindsight found where the shine of a particular novelty has just begun to fade. When we can begin to see what that novelty truly was. When in the midst of novelty, we feel our own instinct to want to predict, to want and to know how it works – being toyed with. After novelty, even the greatest illusions can end up as cheap tricks. Sometimes the magic never dies.
Nowhere is this quest for novelty better displayed than in the overarching hierarchies broadly bestowed upon art movements in the last 100 years. Each big century block is termed somehow to typify a broader newness as distinct from its forebears: whether we use the Modern, the Contemporary, or the prefixing of the Post-Modern – each term seeks to re-instate currency over what came before it. This is of course only if you look at the actual words themselves, and their general implication of being successive to something prior. Really in the end these are just novel claims for real estate in the overt lineage of art. It’s like a cycle of one-ups that ends with less and less options as each is locked out. This kind of proprietary ownership and loading of otherwise generic and timeless terms for newness creates fewer options as each replacement occurs, and leads us to the current paradox – in that we are generally uncomfortable (not unable) to unanimously come up with another major signifier for another period in art. In the lexicon of available words to write of the new, we have already exhausted the obvious ones. Anything else cannot help but sound obscure. There are no simple new words for new, unless we use those from other languages, and it becomes obvious that locking these words out in the first place was ridiculous. That kind of game is almost over, but not quite. The 20th Century is still kicking it. There is no adult on the planet yet who didn’t come from it. Art will certainly outlast its gravitational pull, but how?
If we accept that the modern, contemporary, emerging and new, as words only and not for what they have been loaded to imply, are largely terms for the same or similar aspect, a type of new situation, how many words are there left for ‘newness’ – now that at least four have been expended? The problem arose when we fixed generic terms to particular points in time and even went so far to declare when they stopped happening, ignoring the fact they may be cyclic characteristics, and in effect lost the ability to use them adequately ever again. What happens when we run short of new words for new forms of art? If going ‘post’ is after the event, and being ‘neo’ is a new form of the previous event, what can possibly be said of what happens a while after you’ve gone post? The reality is that the quest for novelty, and for moving beyond the progenitor has never ceased, it never will. It’s how life works. If anything holds the whole thing back, it is testament only to the now somewhat depleted systems for terminology, and to the idea that everything must be replaced each time, rather than infused. How can you add another prefix or suffix to something that already had one? Although every now seems to be the time after everything else, if we should learn anything from the fixing of useful terms past, it should be that it’s dangerous to spend more basic words on the new – because invariably something will come after that too. The only term that has remained flexible throughout all of this is art itself.
Here I will examine what happened to painting over course of the Contemporary art period through the work of three German artists in a distinct lineage who typify some moments within the contemporary spectrum. Sigmar Polke (b.1941 – 2010) taught at the Academy of Fine Arts Hamburg from 1977 – 1991 during which time Albert Oehlen (b.1954) was a student, who himself eventually went on to teach Tim Berresheim (b.1975) at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in 2000. Through the lineage of these three artists we will see three examples of what novelty and lineage do when in proximity, given that their work can also be understood quite closely in context.
Although you might be able to say the first two were painters, it would be difficult to say that Berresheim is a painter despite the fact that his work appears to be strongly informed by it. He never uses paint. Instead, he uses props for paint.
In these works, which are computer prints onto various surfaces such as wood and and aluminium – Berresheim makes 3D models of gestures and brushstrokes, sometimes figures and scenes, or hair to allude to brushwork, blurring the line between photography, painting, computing and whatever it is that we might call the combination of the them all. Since the late 1990’s he has created various 3d modelled scenes that all work upon the tropes of painting in some way. One of his teachers, Albert Oehlen, came to prominence in the early 1980’s neu wilde / bad painting era in Germany. Looking to degrade materials and subjects beyond that of their own heritage of mixed media abstraction, photorealism, and expressionism, as well as deal with a few intercultural demons – they painted (with paint) in a way that suggested there was no room left for painting.
‘Because we now refuse to deny the direct dependence and responsibility of art vis-à-vis reality, and on the other hand see no chance for art as we know it to have an effect, there is only one possibility left: failure.’
- Albert Oehlen
Although he spent many years making bad paintings from the early 1980’s – with acrylic and oil paint medium, in the early 1990’s Oehlen branched out to make primitive computer paintings, where he would smooth out the jagged edges of the bitmap structure with paint once it was printed, in that hallowed time before vector graphics. Since that time he has gone on to utilize print media under most of the oil paint applications of his work. It was as if for him paint could no longer stand on it’s own, it needed a prop, or at least some connection to hyper commercial world around it. But at the same time, the prop needed the actual paint. Not strangely, having aligned print and paint together in his work brought him back to his teacher in Sigmar Polke – one of the most significant figures in the history of contemporary painting, renowned for his pioneering work in the 1950’s and 1960’s for expanding what a painting could be considered to be.
Although he also always sought to include the printed commercial world in his work, for most his career Polke’s paintings were decisively made with paint alone, merely alluding to the mechanical and print processes of the visual world around him. But something happened at the turn of the century. In the last 8 years of his life Polke went against himself and did something strange, and produced what he called ‘machine painting’, just after the time that Albert Oehlen was instructing Tim Berresheim in Dusseldorf. All three artists were now engaged with painting and with computers at completely different stages of their careers and in very different ways, but at a similar point in time. Whether or not intended, their searches for novelty in art and in the limits of painting, had to some extent co-mingled.
In 2002 Polke developed a new technique of ‘machine painting’. These are his first completely mechanically-produced paintings and are made by tinting and altering images on a computer and then photographically transferring them onto large sheets of fabric. Up until this point Polke had rejected mechanical processes, preferring to explore the visual effects of mechanical technology by hand. In the 1960s he imitated the dotted effect of commercial newsprint by painstakingly painting each dot with the rubber at the end of a pencil.These dramatically different techniques, one employing the latest technology and the other devoted to traditional skills and crafts, reflect the changing role of the artist. Although many artists are not involved in the physical production of their work, Polke’s paintings have usually used techniques which are both time-consuming and physically demanding. In the early 1960s, however, he ironically claimed that he was instructed by ‘Higher Powers’ to produce a painting, and he later experimented with spontaneous effects by sparking chemical reactions on canvas. This experimentation with technique reflects Polke’s ongoing research into questions of authorship and originality, and their relevance to making art today.
- Excerpt from Tate Modern: Sigmar Polke – History of Everything, 2 October 2003 – 4 January 2004
Novelty in art doesn’t just go one way like a liquid flow, it can actually trickle back up the chain as easily as down it. What accounts for this perhaps is that at any one moment in the world, we have a great span of people of varying ages present in conjunction with one another, and by some coalescent principle – the linear assumption of novelty is anything but. Novelty captured in art functions as a historical impulse, a way to preserve that moment of novelty before, during, after: even while it is lapsing. But it is no one way street.
Tracing the quest for novelty against painting in the work of these three artists draws us toward a familiarity between them. Each uses painting as a method of creating an image to mimic or incorporate other more commercial or industrial methods as a way of critiquing them, even historicizing them – by orchestrating the clash so that each method of image creation plays off against its other, exposing novelty whilst espousing history. If anything changed at all between the works of these artists, it was not far from the model. Each remained broadly concerned with paint against industry, with the tradition of making pictures against the industrial way of making them. But something did change slightly in the shared concern between them, and it happened very gradually in each artists approach to materiality. Where Sigmar Polke replicated the printed image by hand, seeking analogue methods to bring painting into contact with the structure of printing, Albert Oehlen did so more overtly, painting directly over actual printed materials in very blatant displays. But what happened in the work of Tim Berresheim is unusual in that the same concern for this situation began to be achieved with no paint at all. Creating 3d models and making prints that emulate the gestural nature of paint whilst being something else. A surrogate. You might say that Contemporary art remained within its bounds, but something had been changing. Getting further from the canvas, distance was inevitable, to the point that modelled props were sufficient to convey the idea. Where painting spent most of its time emulating printing, going full circle, printing began to play the same game going the other way. Lacking adequate terms for itself, printed paintings could also be understood as photographs, models, and even drawings now that paint, as material, was merely paint as notion. This is demonstrative of the dual flow of novelty, and the point to which it had come. Even when actual paint was no longer needed, it’s position as historical counterpoint was.
It would be fair to assume that through this lineage we see an increasing familiarity of each artist with computers as a tool in the art process. Perhaps this is in direct relationship to novelty, to going one step beyond what came before, to doing what was not possible before, and as a result, attempting to reflect the period in contrast to its previous conditions. And in some cases returning to those conditions for effect. Whilst painting with paint goes on, its fracture into digital and modelled space is pertinent to an entire generation concerned with the broader implications of real material in the face of modelled material. Increasing reliance on the network, and on the computer has embedded the digital image object[xii] deeply into daily life, to the point that it is coming back out and altering the objects we produce in physical gallery spaces, by whatever means. In this case, the model and the actual merge. A bit like the effect Photoshop is having on plastic surgery. If we do not attend the gallery space, even remotely, we don’t think twice about browsing around on the website of a gallery to view the work of its artists. Although these art works were not explicitly created for that online space, arguably they are still able to operate there as a legitimate experience, even if as a compressed version of the work, and constitute the greater majority of art we view on a daily basis. But when art is created intentionally for that space, or with an inherent consideration for that space, perhaps best termed as Post Internet by Marisa Olson in early 2008[xiii], we have the cycle of novelty taking yet another turn. Titled neatly in the prefix based art movement style syntax of its immediate maternity/paternity, whether or not Post Internet art as a term is a good thing is unknowable, given the limitations of pre-fixing outlined in Part 1, but it’s certainly the point at which whatever comes next after contemporary art will undoubtedly have to take into consideration for departure. Perhaps this will be something the first adults of the 21st century will come to know, from 2018 onward. The only other option is to remit art as movement titles altogether, but this faces us with one final riddle: we have nothing to aspire to, and even worse, Contemporary art, poster-child for a vapid consumerist culture – lasts forever.
[i] Hutcheon, Linda, A Theory of Parody in Twentieth Century Art Forms, New York, Metheun, 1985, p.6, p.112
[ii] Malpas, Simon, The Postmodern, Milton Park, Routledge, 2005 p.100
[iii] Bürger, P. The Theory of the Avant Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984
[iv] Beckett, Samuel, Endgame: A Play In One Act, London, Faber & Faber, 1958
[v] “Novelty.” Wikipedia, 2011, Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 3 April 2011
[vi] Klingender, Francis., Elton, Arthur., Art and The Industrial Revolution, Frogmore, St.Albans, 1975
[vii] Bürger, P. The Theory of the Avant Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984
[viii] Boyd, Brian, On the origin of stories: evolution, cognition, and fiction,
[ix] Paul DiMaggio, Classification In Art, Amercian Sociological Review, Vol.52, No. 4, August, 1987, pp. 440 – 455
[x] Sarewitz, Daniel, Frontiers of Illusion: science, technology and the politics of progress, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1996 pp.146 – 155
[xi] (that was my line, but if you want to read more about 3-part systems, from thesis to anti-thesis to synthesis, here is a book to look at)
Magee, Glen Alexander, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, Cornell University Press, 2001, pp. 154 -155
[xii] Vierkant, Artie, The Image Object Post-Internet, 2010
[xiii] Olson, Marisa, Interview with Marisa Olson, We Make Money Not Art, Regine Debatty, < http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/2008/03/how-does-one-become-marisa.php>