Recently an artist friend of mine complained that she'd gradually come to realise that the work she'd happily been producing for years was, in fact, simply a rehash of subjects and styles-long since considered art history. It came as quite a shock for her to realise that the "Modern" era in art had past and that we were now into the "Post-modern" era. And as if this wasn't enough, not only did she not "like" much of what is considered Post-modern art, she also didn't understand it (quite understandable in that the two go hand-in-hand). Her dilemma, as she saw it, was that she was not satisfied to simply rework old types and styles of art, but at the same time she felt lost in the Post Modern era.
There is nothing new in this. Going back at least two-hundred years, and like everything else, accelerating in recent times, artists have grappled with this same problem, wrung their hands, and wept tears trying to "understand" what was happening to the art world in which they lived. Almost two hundred years ago, Classical "Davidians" recoiled in horror at what Romantic artists were doing with colour and melodramatic content. Roughly a hundred and fifty years ago academicians displayed a similar fear and loathing of Impressionism. A hundred years ago, Realist artists were prostrate with grief at what Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp were doing to their beloved artistic traditions. That which is new is always frightening, confusing, unfathomable, and often considered just plain ugly.
Let's face it, if "new" art (like "new" science), were easy to understand, it would have been understood and become commonplace years before. The choice an artist has to make now, in this Post-modern era is no different from that facing artists at the dawn of the Modern era a hundred years ago. He or she can be a trailblazer or a follower. If you blaze trails, you risk getting lost, risk having no one follow, risk being laughed at, risk starving, disillusion, and dying in obscurity. You also risk becoming rich and famous (which, by the way, has its own set of problems). If you are a follower you must decide how close to follow, whom to follow, and how to reconcile your role as an artist with the fact that you have chosen to follow. The real sadness for an artist is not in whether you lead or follow (both of which are honourable pursuits), but the position of doing neither, of merely wondering about, lost in a haze, blind to the art and artists that make up the era in which we find ourselves.