Originality Versus the Arts

The impact of German Romantics on the artist

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In the last century, originality has killed one once-flourishing art form after another, by replacing variation within shared artistic conventions to rebellion against convention itself.

I blame the Germans.

It was the German Romantics who introduced the idea of “original genius” to modern society. The artistic genius, according to 19th-century romantics, is a special kind of human being with unique visionary powers. In ancient Greece and Rome, poets had sometimes claimed vatic powers; the “bard” sometimes posed as a quasi-prophetic figure, not a mere versifier, though this pose was usually not taken seriously. It was only in the 19th century, however, that the notion of this kind of visionary genius was generalized outside of poetry to what became known as the “fine arts,” including painting and sculpture and even architecture. Earlier, all of these arts had been classified among the utilitarian “crafts,” like textile-making and tile-making.

It’s not that originality did not exist in various arts before the German romantic virus corrupted our mental software. But originality took the form of expressive originality within convention. Michelangelo and El Greco created their own distinctive styles, but within the conventions of the European painting of their time.

The moment artists were taught to consider themselves superior mutant creative geniuses rather than practitioners of traditional crafts, it was only a matter of time before some would get tired of creative variation within the inherited conventions of their art and start rejecting the basic conventions.

In my youth, I studied 20th-century art history. In hindsight, this was a waste of valuable time because the art historians were trying to impose a philosophical framework on what was in fact just a series of fads and fashions. To the extent that there was any logic to 20th-century modernism, it was what the critic Robert Hughes called “the shock of the new.” To stand out from rivals competing for the attention of galleries and collectors, modernist painters from the 1900s onward had to do something even more striking and controversial than their immediate predecessors.

Other traumatized survivors of conventional art history courses will recognize how the art historians in the textbooks tried to portray this arms race for attention as the working out of philosophical ideas. “Abstract painters like Pollock questioned the convention that paint should depict something other than itself . . . ” Then a decade or two later, some experimental artist “questions” whether a painting needs to be on a canvas — why not on a gallery wall or a model’s naked body?

But this is not working out the possibilities in a particular art. It is destroying the art itself by rejecting the conventions which distinguish it from other activities.

Let me give you an example from popular music. Country music is defined by certain instruments, including guitars and harmonicas and certain subjects, including love and sex (with a wider age range than is common in kinds of pop music aimed at adolescents and young adults) and often sentimental patriotism and religiosity.

Suppose I declare that I, the greatest genius in Branson, Missouri, am an Experimental Country Music Singer. I am widening the bounds of country music by questioning whether it has to be played with twangy guitars and other familiar instruments. Can a song to the accompaniment of a tuba and a kazoo still be country music? I, the avant-garde romantic original genius of Branson, say yes!

What about subject matter? Suppose I, the greatest creative genius in the Branson country music field, decide to widen the subject matter of country music. So I write a song about an interplanetary space probe, to be sung to the accompaniment of one tuba and one kazoo.

You need not be a reactionary philistine to say, “Your tuba-and-kazoo song about the space probe is very interesting . . . but it abandons so many of the conventions that define country music that it isn’t country music anymore, even under the broadest possible definition of country music.”

Something like this happened in the 20th century to painting. And to sculpture.

While I was wasting my youth studying art history as an elective, I went to an exhibit of a professor in a university art department who styled himself a sculptor. His “sculptures” were cast-iron “tripods” — his term, not mine. In the course of his career, he had created a number of “series” of tripods, which were numbered rather than named: Tripod Number Three, Tripod Number Ten.

I liked the tripods because they reminded me of the three-legged Martian war machines in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. But even in my wasted youth, I suspected that there was something wrong with calling them “sculpture” unless “sculpture” means any three-dimensional object assembled solely for aesthetic reasons rather than utilitarian ones. Was the professor really a sculptor in the sense that Pheidias and Rodin were sculptors? Or was he like my imaginary Genius of Branson whose claim to be in the country music tradition had to be rejected?

Recalling my college art history texts now, I think they got art history completely wrong. Modernism was not a late stage of Western art. It marked the death of the Western artistic tradition and the beginning of something entirely new — the art of global industrial capitalism.

Did I say I blame the Germans? German romanticism could not have killed off Western art without the help of global industrial capitalism.

Abstract art and modernist architecture — the point is far from original with me — together form the official style of global corporate capitalism. Older Western art was conservative and civic or Christian and sought to evoke the Greco-Roman or medieval heritage of Europe and its settler states like the USA. That’s why so many statehouses were built in Roman style and so many college campuses and churches are built in Gothic style.

But industrial corporations, particularly those dreaming of conquering global markets, do not want to alienate potential customers with parochial regional imagery, be it Western or Asian or Middle Eastern. The more placeless and timeless buildings and works of art appear to be, the better.

McDonald’s is symbolized worldwide by the golden arches, which has the simplicity and abstraction of all great corporate logos. Car companies come up with pleasant-sounding but completely meaningless names for their products like Aveo (Chevy) and Venza (Toyota).

(Often these gibberish names sound vaguely Italian or Spanish; perhaps their consultants have told the car companies that customers of different cultures around the world would not be attracted to cars with Germanic nonsense names like the Hyundai Schmeckenblatzer or the Ford Pfugerlplotz).

This corporate marketing logic explains why, in every apartment I’ve ever lived in, there’s a variant of the same painting in the hallway — an abstract blob of color in a frame. If the painting actually portrayed something, some residents might dislike it, so the apartment company decided to buy only abstract paintings. For similar reasons, the walls of all the apartments I’ve ever lived in have been an uncontroversial beige.

It’s quite possible that the painters who mass-produce abstract paintings for hotel and apartment chains tell themselves that they are creative original geniuses, working in the modernist tradition of Malevich and Pollock, if not the older historic tradition of Western painting that goes back through Rembrandt to Giotto. But I know — and thanks to this essay, you also know, if you did not already — they are really craftspeople working within a new tradition, about half a century old, which is defined by new and fairly rigid conventions: the Bland Corporate Lobby Painting, not too big and not too small, pleasant to look at rather than disturbing, consisting of some patches of color on a canvas.

My art history texts were wrong. 20th-century modernism marked the transition from a world of regional civilizational artistic traditions to the bright, shiny, new, universal society of airports, hotels, and office buildings which are the same everywhere on the planet, with the same color-blob paintings in the lobbies and corridors and the same metal tripod or other abstract sculpture out front. To put it another way, the period of “creative genius” and “experimentation” in many arts in the 19th and 20th centuries may have been no more than a blip between long eras of conventional craft traditions.

If the new global civilization lasts for centuries or millennia, then maybe its placeless, history-less, abstract arts will endure as well, with minor variations within narrow conventions. Who knows what Raphaels and Picassos may yet flourish in ages ahead by testing their creativity against the constraints of the Bland Corporate Lobby Painting?

I, for one, think it would be fun to be resurrected to attend a retrospective exhibit entitled “A Thousand Years of Lobby Paintings” in, say, 3000 A.D. Maybe whoever painted the blob hanging in the corridor outside my apartment will be identified as “Unknown, floruit c. 2000 A.D.” It could happen. •

Images courtesy of Joelstuff V4 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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