An article published earlier today in the Independent initially caught my attention because of the provocative headline that ArtsJournal used to link to it this morning—“Why Are Next Generation Artists So Conservative?.” Politicians are probably the only people who use and abuse terms like progressive and conservative more than folks engaged in aesthetic debates about the arts. Curiously, the author of this article, former editor Adrian Hamilton, writes about politics even more than he writes about visual art.
According to Hamilton’s assessment of the 2012 edition of the ICA’s New Contemporaries exhibition in London (which has been showcasing emerging artists since 1949 and which helped launch the careers of David Hockney and Damien Hirst), the young artists that were selected are more concerned with “craft and their ambitions to become professional” than with “being revolutionary.” I’ve heard the exact same comment made about many millennial composers. But such assertions are difficult to corroborate since determining whether something is “revolutionary” or “reactionary” at this juncture is as subjective an undertaking as determining whether something is “beautiful.”
It has been more than 45 years since jazz composer/trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis challenged the status quo of so-called musical progress in his polemical Downbeat magazine essay, “The Avant Garde is not Avant Garde” (June 30, 1966). Ellis claimed that musicians who were continuing the previous decade’s experiments were as reactionary as the musicians who were not experimental, if not more so. Now, more than half a century later, it’s hard to argue that recent music that sounds like early free jazz or Darmstadt-style serialism is any more contemporary than music that sounds like ’40s era Swing or romantic-era orchestral music. Even so-called post-modernism feels old-fashioned at this point. However, if the aesthetic directive of post-post-modernism, for lack of a better moniker, is that you can do whatever you want, terms like progressive and conservative ultimately no longer have any meaning. All of it is somehow both yet also neither.
But there are lots of other reasons why Hamilton’s critique generated a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. Hamilton hinted that this year’s equal gender balance among the artists selected (which already seems off since there were works by 29 artists exhibited, an odd number) might be because all three of this year’s judges were women. This was irritating on a variety of levels. While he might have been suggesting that gender parity tipped the scales in favor of women artists, the notion that anything besides gender parity would be acceptable at this point is somewhat ludicrous. Then again, I continue to see concert programs that unashamedly list works exclusively by male composers and I’ve yet to see a program that only included works by women that wasn’t somehow specifically designated as being dedicated exclusively to women. Perhaps more disturbing, however, was Hamilton’s suggestion that the fact that this year’s adjudicators were three women “may also (or may not) help to account for the fact that the majority of artists are concerned with the personal rather than public.” Does anyone have any idea what that actually means?
But the comment that gnawed at me the most was his explanation for why these artists did not meet his standards for progressive brilliance:
[T]here is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties. It’s a 20th-century assumption that creativity comes before the craft rather than the other way round. Nobody in previous centuries would have signed up to that.
I’m now in my late 40s and every time I begin composing a new piece of music, I hope that a new idea emerges. The last thing I ever want is to be forced into patterns dictated by a voice that I was supposed to have found upon “maturing.” It is my hope that none of these artists “find their voices” but rather continue to explore in this wonderful environment where anything and everything is possible.