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The Familiar Versus the New
The other day a friend mentioned the realisation that artists very often, and very often very successfully, copy one another. She mentioned Picasso deep immersion into the work of Velázquez and the fifty some paintings he did based just on Las Meninas alone. Actually, Velázquez was only one of several artists Picasso "aped" in his own cubistic style during the late 40s and early 50s. He considered them "tributes" to the artists involved, which he admired very much. My friend rightly pointed out that the Broadway theatre often "suffers" when presenting new works and flourishes putting together revues and revivals. The consensus might arise that first, there was "nothing new under the sun," and second, even if there were, creators of all stripes, in exposing it, stand a good chance of getting sun burned. It's discouraging, and not altogether correct, but nonetheless conventional wisdom.

For the struggling artist, several elements are at play here: The familiar sells. So do successful formulas. The unfamiliar is frightening (for both artist and buyer). The unique may, given enough time and promotion, succeed; but time and promotion are both very expensive commodities. Revivals are easy. Originals are hard. The old is safe. The new is risky. And, the new must not be too new. Evolution is interesting. Revolution is terrifying. Nostalgia is comforting while change is disconcerting. The "good old days" keep getting better and better. The present is monotonous but secure (and in any case, pretty much unavoidable). The future gets worse with contemplation; brighter with hope. All these things play into artists' minds as they create. They battle one another. The winner gets to be art. The losers end up in our subconscious, waiting to fight another day.

In today's art world, there IS something new under the sun. Lots of things, in fact. And the world of "high art" devours them voraciously. Meanwhile, the rest of the world often chokes on them, or laughs contemptuously, or merely shrugs. But even in the "World according to Wal-Mart" (or Wally-World as my son calls it) novelty is often a winner. The difficulty for the artist is that the world stockpile supply of "newness" keeps dwindling at a pace not too unlike that of fossil fuels. And just as in the real world, recycling in the arts is not only necessary, it's downright admirable. Without it, all art, over time, would be disposable. Revivals keep the past fresh and modern, dispelling the stale dust of history in favour of sparkling, contemporary insights that may have been impossible during a work's original incarnation. Picasso saw that, and demonstrated the importance of looking at the past, not through rose-coloured glasses, but through bifocals, or in the case of cubism perhaps, trifocals. There is an old expression, "Those who refuse to study the past are condemned to repeat it." I might add that, "Those who do study the past are privileged to enlighten the present and brighten the future."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
15 December 1999

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