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By Christian Holland

Part 1 of a 3-Part Series.

I regret to inform you, but there are no New Ideas. I checked.

When I began my quest to find out whether New Ideas were even possible, I checked with artists1. Artists, above all other creativity-dependent professionals, are consumed by the task of coming up with New Ideas. It’s true; one of the worst insults one could fling at a self-proclaimed artist is that their work is derivative. After “avant-garde” became the modus operandi and keystone of all art-making and its subsequent critique, art couldn’t be art unless it was (or is) New, and when conceptual art came onto the scene, ideas became art. Additionally, artists come up with ideas for a living - and though scientists, designers and business consultants may also do the same, they can still continue to call themselves scientists, etc. if they run out of New Ideas. Artists don’t have that luxury. In a discussion over Facebook2 between several visual artists, the artist, teacher and Big RED Executive Editor, Micah Malone said, “I think artists’ only recourse to a living wage is the notion of new ideas. To surrender the idea that there is nothing new is to surrender one's best hope of making a living within the art world.”

Malone asked me if I was joking when I suggested that there were no New Ideas, but though he may be wrong in his belief in The New3 (and in implying that I’ve gone batty); his insights gave me some hope in the creatively stagnant existence we all live by. But before I butter my outlook on our existence, however, I need to get around to explaining how The New is nothing but myth.

With the advent of ‘Googling’ and ‘Web 2.0,’ the internet has reached its informational maturity of total omniscience. With everyone now contributing and collaborating to the great machine, no idea goes unmentioned. I’ve searched online for every New Idea that I was able to come up with within the last few years and discovered that someone or some group has already thought of it. There may someday even be a blog for every idea. There are already blogs about everything (MetaFilter.com, BoingBoing.net) and, arguably, blogs about “blogs about everything.” If you feel like testing the internet with absurdity just to prove me wrong, as you’re likely to do, and you do find an idea that is non-existent, you can ask the internet to provide evidence of the preexistence of your idea. Someone will respond and either apologize for not posting said idea or fiercely attack you for trying to steal their idea and subsequently provide documentation for their ostensibly original idea - several other people have invariably produced the same brainchild also. Search for “Robocop riding a unicorn”; that’d be a good place to start.

You may think that I'm the only one that's run out of New Ideas, but I assure you that this is not the case. I know a great many artists, filmmakers and performers who have simply given up and started redoing masterpieces (or marginally successful works) from the past. You'll tell me that there are six-billion people in the world and that I couldn't have possibly reviewed every idea from each one of those six-billion people and cross-referenced it with every idea I’ve ever had my entire life. But I don't need to. Everything’s on the internet. You’ll suggest that there are billions of people who haven’t even been online. You’ll say that the idea pool isn’t nearly as diverse as it could be, but you’re too optimistic. The smartest, most creative and most innovative people have all left the areas of the world without internet access; and there’s a nominal amount of such places, which are actually populated, as it is.

I came to the conclusion that there are no New Ideas when I found myself thinking of ways to make my parents uncomfortable just for the sake of having something to write or make art about4. Not only would I be combing over an area I’ve already gleaned of anything meaningful and substantive, I’d also be setting up my subject - that is to say, faking it.

This is related what journalists do - who are typically charged with finding New information to bring to you - when they run out of stories to report on; they start dreaming up scenarios and subsequently staging them. Some staging in journalism is illegal and people go to jail for it, but in other cases, it's praised far and wide. This is the so-called "stunt journalism," and for some reason that will always defy reason, it wins Pulitzers. Many professional journalists were excited about Gene Weingarten's placement of a world-class violinist in a subway station and the subsequent record on what happened (pretty much nothing, if you’re curious) in "Pearls Before Breakfast" (Washington Post. 8 April 2007). A great many journalists thought: “Why didn’t I think of that?”5 Well, it’s because it’s not an idea. It’s a trite experiment not unlike those performed by junior high-school students in social studies classes. It’s a half-witted art project for the creatively and intellectually static. The fact that this half-assed stunt was rewarded with the most prestigious prize for journalism is more proof that there aren’t any New Ideas.

As a journalist, I’m thinking about proposing that all other members of my profession take up a Dadaist approach to their work. Dada artists6 found themselves trying really hard not to make any sense because they thought society was fresh out of New Ideas. I think a Dadaist methodology for news reporting would be refreshing.

In my Facebook discussion, Jeff ‘Jeffu’ Warmouth, a Massachusetts-based artist and head of Fitchburg State College’s Interactive Multimedia program, joked that he once came across an Egyptian poet who had lamented around 2000 BC that he became writer too late in history. Those words by the poet Khakheperresenb were: “Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in a new language that has not been used.”7 He may sound as if he’s merely stricken with writers’ block, but implies that there is no material yet unused. This also implies that there was, at least at one point in time, the possibility of a New Idea, but if human beings before Khakheperresenb were able to be the originators of New Ideas, why not him? By the “Principle of Uniformity,” a basic scientific corollary that postulates that the laws of nature that govern our existence on Earth at this moment are the same throughout the universe and history, we can safely assume that no individual anywhere, at any time, has come up with a New Idea.

Look for Part 2 in Issue 98.

[1] To help dignify my opinions within this piece, I should inform you that I have also, at one time or another, been considered an artist, working mostly in film and video. In addition, I am now an art critic; I am one of 4,000 card carrying members of the UNESCO mandated International Association of Art Critics, or ‘AICA’ for Association International de Critique d’Art.
[2] Facebook, as a “new” place on the web existing because of a relatively New Idea, is one of the most fertile places for such a discussion. Among Malone, contributors to that discussion were: Steve Locke, Nick Rodrigues, Pixnit, Raul Gonzalez, Elaine Bay and Jeff ‘Jeffu’ Warmouth.
[3] I use “The New,” not “the new.” This should be considered in the same way as the use of “God” and never “god” in religious contexts. More on this later.
[4] I know it's an obvious place for any artist or writer to stop or start looking for ideas, but it was an act of desperation.
[5] If you don't believe me, use an internet search engine (e.g. Google) to find all examples of that exact phrase and the author’s name. I'm currently getting 151 results. Disgusting isn't it.
[6] Some people will speak of artists like Damien Hurst and say that his work is evidence that society has used up every idea. Though I believe this stance to be cynical, I like to think of Hurst's work as idealess conceptual art. As if the aversion to didactic meaning-creation and allegory in recent commercially successful work is simply a random scoop of the simulacra. One could make the argument that Hurst is a modern Dadaist, and many critics in high places have made this distinction, yet he arrived at the Dadaist mode of art-making involuntarily.
[7] From Walter Jackson Bate. "The Burden of the Past and the English Poet." Belknap Press. 1970.

Article thumbnail image from 'neoliminal' on Flickr.

About Author

Christian Holland is an aspiring New York City-based essayist who likes writing about how New York City isn't the center of the world. He was executive editor and founding contributor of Big, Red & Shiny, and sat on the publication's board for V2.

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