The Cult, Fear, and Myth of the New: Three (conflicting) Narratives

sunIn 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.'[1] 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…’.[2] 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.’[3] 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.’[4] 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. 

[1] Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed? (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1984), 116.

[2] BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 29 May 2013.

[3] Gablik, 36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

The photo, “nothing new under the sun”, is copyright (c) 2006 mugley and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.



  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: matt ballou

    I spend a great deal of time disabusing my students of the notion that anything can be “new”. My primary source for this position – which was once just a feeling but is now something I spend numerous lectures touching on – is not Ecclesiastes but rather 1 Corinthians 4:7. I remember being blown away by this verse as a young teenager; I realized that it spoke to more than the theology in question. We receive (or are “armed with” as Utah Phillips put it) everything. Over time, with hard work, with thoughtfulness, with prayerfulness (and with so much beyond these things) we learn to add a unique inflection to that received material. We learn to use it, structure it, play with it, etc – and each of those iterative processes are themselves embedded skills that we did not invent but which have manifested in us through our participation in the world. This is a glorious reality – one that I am so thankful to get to be a part of in my students’ lives.

    1. says: Sara Schumacher

      Thanks, Matt, for suggesting a different way to think about ‘new’-ness. How do you find shifting the focus to what we have received (and thus can develop) impacts artistic practice? Does it takes some pressure off?

      1. says: matt ballou

        I’m not sure if it takes the pressure off – my grads (and some of the undergrads) are pretty neurotic and insecure as they really start to dig deep… feels like they create their own pressure (I know I did). I think, if anything, my perspective about “new-ness” or “originality” helps stimulate their *acknowledgement of* and *appreciation for* what their work is relying on. Understanding and refining one’s sense of aesthetic/conceptual genealogy – the legacies your work is connected to and is participating in – is a huge part of what continuing growth as an artist is about. I believe in the humility of recognizing and accepting derivation. There’s a great difference between uniquely inflecting the vast range of influences and pressures which come bear on our artistic practice and pretending that we’re operating in a vacuum. Seeing the connection our work has to history creates a nuanced and thoughtful approach, and offers the hope of contribution and continuing investigation. That’s what I’m hoping to stimulate in myself and in my students.

  2. says: David Taylor

    Sara: stimulating thoughts, great questions. I’m afraid I only have time for a quick suggestion of resources that might begin to answer your questions. I originally began my PhD research on ways in which we might theologically construe newness. I’ve moved on from that topic, but it remains of considerable interest.

    Here are five resources that could prove useful to anyone who wanted to follow the rabbit trail of your questions:

    1. R. Bauckham’s essays in *God will be all in all* —

    2. Bruce Benson’s investigation of newness and creativity in *Liturgy as a Way of Life* —

    3. R. A. Harrisville, “The Concept of Newness in the New Testament,” JBL, vo. 74, no. 2 (June: 1955): 69-79. You’d go here for a NT perspective, you’d probably go to the Psalms and Isaiah for an OT perspective on newness.

    4. Several at Duke Divinity School have explored the notion of “traditioned innovation” —

    5. And of course there is Gunton’s *The One, the Three and the Many* which explores the question of newness from a pneumatological perspective.

    That’s it for now. But thanks again for your essay! And I’ll look forward to reading Jim’s subsequent essay.

    1. says: Sara Schumacher

      Thanks, David, for offering suggestions of further reading! I hope that your research and writing is going well.

  3. says: jfutral

    Sure. I’m a big fan of Suzi Gablik. And her critique of Modern Art, such as in her book _Has Modernism Failed_ (one of my favourites and one I get as many people to read as possible) is pretty well spot on. As I’ve often said to my fellow professional artists and arts organizations, if we are losing public support of art it is in no small part due to our own failure to care and support the public, i.e. our communities and society where we live. We have for too long thought we don’t need them. So now we are merely experiencing their response of, “well, if you don’t need us, we don’t need you.”

    At the same time, while it is true enough that there is nothing new under the sun, Christianity has its own “new” mythologies. So new is not in and of itself bad. And we certainly don’t want future artists maturing thinking the only hope they have is plagiarism at worst and confinement to derivation at best.

    We want artists to develop their own voice, say things as they see them, not as someone else has, or worse, tells them what they should see. While I am no fan of Modernism’s hyper-indivualism, we are still unique individuals. As individuals we collect to form a community. What’s the point of saying the same thing someone else has already said? Just to practice technique? So the only future for art is refinement of technique? We get better at painting a flower so much so it resembles a photograph? At that point, why bother painting at all?

    My daughter had a project where she was working with a fellow dancer to create a short piece of choreography. They were considering a couple of songs, one of which had very literal, explicit message with the words. I told her, if she used that music, she needed to come up with something else to bring to the table of performance. There is no point in trying to say visually what the song already does quite well verbally. What would be the point of watching the performance at that point? Why not just listen to the song?

    It is one thing to be inspired by the previous, it is another thing to think there is nothing new that can be offered. Sometimes “new to me” is just as valid. Even Jesus offered a new commandment and new interpretations in his sermons. Even though they weren’t technically “new”, they were a shaking up of convention and accepted thought of the day. That certainly makes it new enough.


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