Originality

Originality, as it happens, is the highest value in the art of our time. Many artists don’t like that—sadly nothing can be done about it. Even Sherrie Levine is original in her critique of the concept, as Howard Singerman, her major exponent, has pointed out. But the pressure to be original, combined with the normative conceptuality of art, means that the new has come to be defined exclusively as meaning original ideas. This applies to painting as much as any other form. What about works that had a non-conceptual originality? Today they would probably be relegated to minor status unless they also had a few new ideas. But then the really valuable part, the non-conceptual originality, would likely not be seen anyway, even if the work was otherwise recognized.

Great conceptual art has an insight, a perception, a felt response to the world, that doesn’t necessarily count as an “idea.” Does art have to have that? Can we imagine abstract painting as an art that offers no new insight into our world but just a feeling of newness? That would be an achievement, since as it happens, most abstract painting is the opposite—no ideas and completely dull. The difficulty is great, the historical stakes are uncertain. It means the continuity of the modernist tradition in a form that would ensure no continuity, since only ideas are transferable. Come to think of it, Cézanne, however familiar we are with his work today, had that feeling very much, so I guess it can be done.

Paul Cézanne, Mt. Ste. Victoire 1905

Stella also, though, as I have discussed elsewhere, Stella and Cézanne are opposites. Odd that they are both important for me.

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