Newness was at the core of modernism—Harold Rosenberg extolled the Tradition of the New and Robert Hughes explored The Shock of the New. In 1936 Alfred Barr theorized the emergence of the New with a complicated engineering-style diagram that illustrated his theory that art evolves through a process of exhaustion and reaction. Three years earlier, Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias had offered a model based on the image of the family tree ever sprouting new growth. Clement Greenberg, of course, did away with diagrams altogether and espoused a theory of new development based on a linear drive toward ever more reductive purity.
Today, the New is old news, a tattered, moth-eaten idea that has gone the way of progress, originality, and beauty. As artists and curators serve up helpings of slightly refurbished old dishes—among them appropriations of appropriations, reenactments of 1970s-era performance works, and collections of battered objects and unshaped materials whose roots in post minimalism and arte povera are obscured by labels like Unmonumental and The Ungovernables—critics lament that it’s all been seen before. Collectors, meanwhile, don’t care as long as their oddly familiar acquisitions come swaddled in the rhetoric of avant-gardism and risk.
But if the art world sometimes seems resigned to the aesthetic of endless redux, the world outside its borders is changing so rapidly as to become almost unrecognizable to anyone born before 1995. In the age of Facebook, Arab Spring, the Genome project, and global climate change, can it really be true that there is nothing new for artists to say?
Maybe the problem has to do with how we define art. In theory, at least, the New of modernism was generated by internal engines of change. In keeping with this bias, museum collections and art history textbooks tend to present the development of art in the 20th century in a more or less orderly fashion, with one movement following another like the biblical begats, each responding in some way to what came before. Today, however, seismic changes outside art provide a more consistent source of innovation. Newness is less a matter of seeking to do something that has never been done before than it is a byproduct of practices that embrace and even fuse art with other disciplines, explorations, and fields of study. Museums, art fairs, the art market, and the commercial gallery make this kind of radical newness harder to recognize because they are designed to deliver reliable products. By contrast, the really New may not fit neatly into a gallery space or exhibition booth. In fact, it may not look much like art.
A few examples of artworks that seem to me to embody newness in this sense:
Interventions by artists like Cao Fei and Stephanie Rothenberg into Second Life, the virtual role-playing game that simulates human personal and economic relationships. In Cao’s hands, Second Life becomes a canvas for the exploration of questions about human agency, social planning, and the role of fantasy in contemporary life. By contrast, Rothenberg takes it in a more critical direction, using the online world as a forum for investigating labor issues encountered in real life.
Eduardo Kac’s “transgenic” art, in which advances in bio-engineering and genome research are applied to living entities in ways that raise philosophical questions about the ethics of science and the human potential to alter the basis of natural law.
Mel Chin’s work with governmental bodies and environmental scientists to decontaminate lead-saturated soil in poor neighborhoods of New Orleans, thereby creating a model for restoration efforts nationwide.
Are these works new? In one sense, postmodernism’s adherents are right—nothing is completely original. One can always trace antecedents, suggest precedents, and locate such works within various non-object-oriented art traditions. Instead, I would argue that their newness comes from outside art, from the way they provide tools and insights for dealing with issues, problems, innovations, and changes that are new to our world. And from the way they make us see just how new this world is.
In a defense of his most controversial novel, Salman Rushdie argued that “The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. . . Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.”
And how Newness enters art.