In a recent article titled How to Discourage Artists in the Church, Philip G. Ryken suggests that ‘[m]any Christian artists live between two strange worlds,’ caught between the oddities of the art world and the church world. Ryken writes about how to encourage artists in the Church. In this post, I’m interested to explore three conflicting narratives that artists ‘hear’ in those two strange worlds, specifically when it comes to the concept of the ‘new’. Jim Watkins will follow this post on Wednesday with one titled ‘Trinitarian Creativity: Creation, Self and Originality.’ The three conflicting narratives I consider in this post are the cult of the new, the fear of the new, and the myth of the new.
The Cult of the New: Narrative One.
While many post-modern thinkers question and critique notions of human ‘progress’, the modern belief that humanity is progressing forward and getting better remains a powerful narrative. Just last week, I received an email petitioning for immigration reform and the opening line was ‘Trying to get Congress to pass good, progressive legislation isn’t easy…’ – ‘good’ and ‘progressive’ are synonymous. According to art critic Suzi Gablik, in this framework, ‘[t]he “new” became the chief emblem of positive value.' For twentieth-century art, this belief fueled the avant-garde, and while now some question whether the avant-garde has run out of envelopes to push, what is left is a striving for originality. As artists, there is a desire to do something new, to challenge the way people think, to make a mark on the world that is unique and personal. Imitation is degraded (or classed as ‘non-art’) and the narrative of the cult of the new pushes (and validates) artistic creation that opens up unexplored territory.
The Fear of the New: Narrative Two
Last week was the 100-year anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris; the premiere resulted in a riot among members of the audience. Covering the anniversary, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme suggested that one of the reasons for the riot was the musical and visual disruption the ballet caused to the audience; they were expecting one thing and received another. Angela Dixon, head of music at the Barbican in London, comments: ‘It’s amusing to think that it did cause such a fuss at the time. I mean, it’s this ‘fear of the new’ really because even a year after that premiere, the piece was played in the same theatre as a concert piece to a great reception…’. In addition to being illustrative of the change to all the arts happening at that time, it was suggested that this ‘new’ work also supported the subsequent challenge to the very nature of art as Duchamp sat in the audience that night, 4 years before exhibiting The Fountain. The increasing uncertainty about the nature of art, according to Gablik, introduced to the audience ‘anxious objects’, works of art that create ‘a situation of tension and ambiguity’ and ‘raise questions about how we know what we perceive.’ This kind of art ‘disrupts our habits of thought and strains our understanding. By being subversive of perception and understanding, art can break through stereotyped social reality and produce a counter-consciousness that is a negation of the conformist mind.’ As art disrupts the status quo and creates ‘new’ things, the potential outcome is the ‘fear of the new’ on the part of the audience; in some instances, instilling the sense of discomfort will be the aim of the artist.
The Myth of the New: Narrative Three
Ecclesiastes provides yet another view of the ‘new’, suggesting it is a myth: ‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.’ Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 (ESV) A Biblical view of the world also resists the idea of progressivism because it clearly sees humanity’s fallenness. No matter how powerful and clever we are, human progress cannot bring about salvation. Instead, we await a new humanity and a new creation, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.
Which of these narratives of the new should the artist believe? Is novelty always a good thing? Should we fear the new? Is there really nothing new under the sun?
To explore further the myth of the new, check out the series of videos, Everything is a Remix.
Sara Schumacher is Editor-in-Chief of Transpositions and an ITIA PhD Candidate, researching contemporary church patronage of the arts.
 Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed? (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1984), 116.  BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 29 May 2013.  Gablik, 36.  Ibid., 37.