Okay, let's start off with something easy. This will draw from the following questions.
How is an artist to find his feet in a culture that is becoming all cultures, where it seems as if everything has been done before and done better?
How is one to process the tsunami of possible influences, goals, and directions now available?
Are traditional modes of art still valid?
Are Modernism, Post-Modernism, and other such movements still valid?
I've run across the statement in more than one place that traditional art forms are over. They're done. They're played out. Because they've been around for so long that everything that can possibly be said in them, has been said.
In my opinion -- and you shouldn't take my opinion too seriously -- it that this statement is hogwash. Balderdash. It's the monkey's bathwater. Bullshit. Utter nonsense. Without any value whatsoever. You with me so far?
First off, here's a hypothesis of mine. When a particular form of behavior shows up repeatedly throughout human cultures, throughout the span of time, throughout the world, it might not be a bad idea to see if there's something about it which essential to human nature. A view common in Post-Modernist thought is that everything is essentially cultural. To ignore our fundamentally biological nature, to assume that the human mind is not a function of the human body, is reflective of a retrograde mindset, a profound ignorance which is difficult to respect.
The picture, the story, the song -- these all answer human needs which are physically built into us. It is possible to consciously reject these forms, but to do so is to isolate oneself from the mainstream of humanity in a way which can be unhealthy. And I've noticed that frequently creators or critics who are relentlessly avant-garde in one arena will be surprisingly retrograde in another -- or will have personal tastes that are strongly at odds with their own work.
The song, the picture, and the story satisfy us -- and for most people, they prefer to have art that is reflective of their times and their experiences. I like to expose myself to a wide variety of cultural influences, but as a creator I am dedicated to working with the material provided to me by my life, my times, my experience of the world.
The story, the song, and the picture are vital, living means of communication that spring from deep roots -- they are intimate reflections of the physical nature of our minds. To disavow them is to render oneself unable to speak truth.
We are living in a period strikingly different from any other in human history. We are experiencing things no one has experienced before. The amount of information and the rapidity of change we live with are increasing on a daily basis.
No one has created works about the current human experience until now. And the old forms are old because they work for us. To constantly seek radically new methods is a dead end -- and one that is specific to our culture.
To seek the new is an essential artistic impulse, but it's one that has been short-circuited. To flee commercialism, to flee tradition, to flee the predictable, the comprehensible -- try as you may, your attempts to do these things will be co-opted before you can blink your fucking eye. We've developed an art culture capable of commodifying quite literally anything you can create. How much is Picabia's canned shit worth these days? Transgression for its own sake is over.
But just because something is a creative dead end, that doesn't mean it lacks value. All experiments teach us something -- and an open-minded creator can gain much from the study of flawed or limited works.
I may speak poorly of Post-Modernism. There really is no clear and functional definition of the term, and there is a lot of nonsense associated with it -- but I have learned a few things from it. There are times when a work of art may be more enriching when regarded as a social construct as well as an entity in itself, for instance. It's now a truism that works outside of the traditional Euro-centric canon of older academia are worthy of examination. Let's not throw the monkey out with the bathwater.
(That said, there are a lot of dead white male Europeans who fucking rocked, and who have legitimately earned their position in world culture.)
Most importantly, Post-Modernism recognizes that the world is changing, that our attitudes and beliefs shape our perceptions of reality in ways that we can only escape through radical experience or dedicated self-criticism.
As creators, most of us are adrift. Our cultures are shifting, untrustworthy things. As an American, I come from a nation that's younger than the bars in which many people drink -- and the popular culture of my country has infiltrated virtually every other nation on Earth.
The current interpenetration of cultural influences can act against the sense of personal identity which enables an artist to work with confidence and power -- it goes hand in hand with the feeling that everything's already been said and done.
But to say that one should or should not make use of the techniques and approaches of previous artists is foolish. All artists exist in a continuity of influences. They may act in reaction to those influences or they may embrace them, but no artist has ever sprung fully blown out of a cultural vacuum.
Right now we have more different kinds of art readily available to us than at any other time. To reject any of them on the basis of being tired or worn-out is absurd. "Can I use this? Does this speak to me? Does this tell me the truth and can it help me tell the truth?" These are the questions we need to ask, not, "Is this overdone? What's the next thing?"
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by what has gone before, we need to embrace it, examine it, and find our individual ancestors. Speaking for myself? The musicians of Mali are my ancestors. The printmakers of Japan are my ancestors. The pulp writers of early Twentieth-century America are my ancestors.
I have many ancestors, and the more I look at the history of the arts, the more ancestors I find. The history of art is not a burden to me; it reaches out to give me the tools I need to speak my truths.
We are unique. We are in a new world, and when we wake up tomorrow morning we will be in another new world.
We have lost tradition, or retain it as a pose. Transgression has become a tool of commodification. The search for novelty has become shallow and reflexive.
What do we have left?
Truth. The human constants. Our lives as we live them.
These are enough, because they have to be enough.
Rather than feel overwhelmed by the works of the past, by the vast history of human creativity, we should take pride in them. And we should be willing to go to the effort of creating works that will be part of that history, so that those who follow us can benefit from our lives long after they've ended.
Should the species live long enough, our time will be studied.
Do you want the art of our time to be regarded as the trivial creations of a confused and troubled people?
Or do you want to have our time and ourselves reflected in works worthy of their place in the history of the arts?
I want the latter. And I work hard with the desire to participate in the arts as an equal to those who have gone before me and who will go after me.
That is what makes me a Pretensionist.