fbpx

The myth of the avant-garde which was based on resourcefulness cannot be
supported for long by controversy alone, no matter how aggressive this is.
André Malraux

 

Our era cultivates the cult of anything new, novel, and young. Originality has replaced essence. The present tends to annihilate the past.

This tendency has found fertile ground among artists, offering them a convenient freedom, perhaps even immunity, and certainly arbitrariness. Since everything new is of value, there is no need to deal with the past. Rejecting the past is an innovation in itself, while protecting against the temptation of comparison with it. Since the young artist invents his path from the beginning, it is not possible to judge him on the basis of the values of earlier artists. Consequently, every young artist charts his path while at the same time setting the new criteria of his art. It is characteristic that the theorists and teachers of our era assiduously avoid the hazardous path of criticism, since it is most likely that their criteria will be disputed.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine art without criteria, since the admiration and emotion potentially aroused by a work of art are due primarily to its comparison with other works of art. Art as we perceive it today was born when a few people in a small region of Italy six centuries ago suddenly understood that the ancient sculptors had reached an amazing point of perfection and power. Therefore, since comparison is what gives birth to admiration, knowledge of what has preceded is required.

Even beyond this it is difficult and rather arbitrary for anyone to shape criteria for art by pushing aside previous works of art. In the end, existing works are our safest criteria. Even overturning them presupposes their a priori recognition. The greatest heresies are rooted in the faith they dispute.

But even if the artist’s objective is to create in contradiction to the art of the past, knowing and respecting the past is a precondition for the success of this endeavour, mainly because every attack presupposes knowledge and respect of the ‘enemy’. In fact, the effective dismantling of the past can only be achieved through a new piece of art rather than through a theoretical formulation, as is often the case nowadays. It is the new artwork, rather than the accompanying theoretical support, that may put the old artwork “up against the wall”. This, however, presupposes a deep appreciation of the past.

In fact, the truth that is dismantled and the one that tries to replace it always coexist in art. The new will not necessarily eliminate the old, as is usually the case in science. From the moment that the earth is round it cannot also be flat. In art however it could be.

Knowing and respecting the past of art is thus the most essential precondition for innovation, since something is new only when compared to the old, but contesting the past may and should motivate creation and not simply reject.