Novelty vs. Originality

In the recently released Mission Impossible 2, John Woo's Beautiful-People- Action-Movie, there is a scene in which two motorcycles, piloted by the good and bad protagonists, leap into the air and collide seconds after each of the characters jump off and at each other to continue the final conflict on foot with the usual fisticuffs. The visual impact of the scene smacks of great novelty; however, the situation is the usual tired main good-guy vs. main bad-guy fight to the finish, as tired a plot element as yesterday's cold oatmeal.

The scene provides for us an instant definition for the use of the terms, "originality" as opposed to "novelty." We are visually arrested by the clash of the two motorcycles, but the framework, and ultimately the dramatic motivation of the scene, passes quickly into the subconscious, dwarfed by similar scenes in High Noon, Rocky, or Star Wars. I think that to make the distinction between that which gains our superficial attention that which truly changes our perception is to isolate a primary fault in much of modern art. In a desperate attempt to shock rather than move us, the novel event, disembodied of any emotional content, becomes disengaged from the fabric of the work: it is, therefore extrinsic rather than incorporated into the flow and pace of the structure.

Certainly, in the world of contemporary classical music there has been a mad dash for the "Sutter's Gold" of kinky and self-consciously weird combination of sounds- as though the novelty of the sounds would generate an original work. So many artists have discussed the process of structural evolution in a work as the foundation of originality, because it is that process that draws us into the uniquely created timeworld of of the work. Ultimately, this original process is independent of the era or culture of creation, as opposed to the use of novelties, which are almost always dependent on the time and place of creation. Contained within this observation is an apparent contradiction: all genuine artworks must be written out of the direct experience of the artist, and novelties may be an essential part of that experience. The difficulty arises when the artwork tries to extrapolate meaning to human nature as a whole, independent of time and place: they will merely appear to be dated and, at best quaint.

I am not suggesting that novel elements should be expunged from works or that they are not helpful (witness Picasso's Cubism or Berlioz's Idée fixe). They are just not essential to the defining identity of a work. Since World War II the avant-garde parade of pseudo-experimental musical works has conditioned listeners and critics alike to expect something "out of place," like the universal demented killer in all Hitchcock movies. As a result, works that do not contain strange elements are dismissed as superficial or reactionary. Given this criterion, Haydn and Mozart would not fare so well, since the revolutionary elements in their work were mostly concealed in the dramatic fabric so as not to intrude on the human impact of the work as a whole. These composers deliberately use the simplest and most accessible elements and combine them in complex and sophisticated ways. Rarely are the elements complex in themselves; and, of course that is the lure. We are led as Dante to their Aeneas through the evolving and multidimensional sound world. Thus, the most straightforward Haydn minuet contains layers of undiscovered subtleties.

I do not think that our present situation will change so quickly; however, there appears to be a kind of retrenchment in the promotion of "populist" music: anecdotally familiar sounding works with subtexts rooted in past nostalgia. The patent blandness of these works (I do not wish to give specific examples) treats the disease of compulsive novelty but offers no originalty. "New" works must provide a perceptually "new" experience: if you have never heard a piece by Machaut (try any movement of the Notre Dame Mass), you will be surprised by the obvious freshness of the music, even though it was written over 600 years ago. Another weakness of novelty for its own sake is the almost instantaneous conversion of the effect to a cliché. Since the novel event usually stands alone and is not part of an ongoing process of development, it does not foster global associations, call attention to itself, and ultimately is trapped in its own origins. The most obvious recent example would be the use of low, slapping percussive sounds in the music of the coming attractions of adventure movies. This ubiquitous device has been so overused that it produces the opposite effect of calling attention to the advertised film, but rather blends all the clips together as a kind of cacophonous mass of blurred car chases and blown up warehouses.

Truly original art renews the vitality of our human nature and shows us a side of ourselves that we did not see previously. Original works produce an existential change in our view of the world. And each subsequent exposure to the same work renews and evolves that change. Original artworks, although static in their place of origin, are dynamic in their continuing capacity to influence out lives. The semiotics of meaning in a given artwork may be the result of careful choices made by the artist to produce an integrated whole, no one part dominating the total structure.

Paintings on black velvet, gym shoes that light up, the hula hoop,and vinyl tops on cars: these things represent the most obvious kind of novelties. Although not part of artistic creation, they illustrate the key feature of any novelty: its close kinship with fashion. Fashion as a concept may be the key to the plethora of novelties in all the arts today, since styles change so much more quickly than in the past. Perhaps the best advice to young artists is to avoid that which is fashionable in favor of more durable devices. Of course, this advice sounds like a prescription for conservatism, for retrenchment, and against any kind of experimentation. If we examine the present scene in contemporary music, we find that there is almost a total absence of dominant, immediate, past tradition upon which to build. For example, in the first decade of the 20th century Stravinsky had the Tchaikowsky ballets as models for his groundbreaking three early ballets. He could rely on this tradition, while at the same time producing fresh and original works. In the absence of this kind of solid background in any style or medium today, artists are left to float in a sea of disconnected curiosities, untethered to any durable meaning.

Tradition is essential, if only to kick against it and reject its principles; but, if there are no principles to question, the frame of reference for any artist is lost. It is like being raised without parents, even bad ones. The burning question which emerges is: what do I as a artist do to avoid all these pitfalls? If we start to look at some of the artistic successes we find some interesting conclusions. First, artists are dipping into the distant past (e.g. Webern using the counterpoint of Isaac or Arvo Pärt summoning up Renaissance sounds), employing devices so old that their meanings have become transformed like ancient Greek architectural ruins. Second, cross fertilization for the other arts can renew our sense of structure and purpose. I have taken much more from the structure of film for my music than from any music written in the last fifty years. A composer like George Crumb has seen fit to synthesize visual dramatic images as an adjunct to his sound world. Third, we as artists can invent new categories of media and redefine our performance spaces. It is possible that concert halls and art galleries are merely dusty relics of the last century, incompatible with television and the computer. Perhaps the existing performance space can be enlarged in concept to embrace the new technologies. Fourth, we can learn from disciplines that are not considered art. In the last century there was a propulsive energy from literature and philosophy to music and the visual arts. At the beginnning of this century psychology transformed perception. Just these simple observations should encourage any emerging artist to at least dabble in science, sociology, history, philosophy: get a broad perspective and associate with the practitioners of these disciplines.

I have embraced a few modest suggestions as a possible cure for the epidemic of sensory overload, telegraphed to us in the guise of allegedly alluring novelties. Without an essential change in direction, it is possible that at least two generations of would-be artists will be summarily dismissed as parvenu Panglosses by future audiences.

Paul Reale, June, 2000.