Essay by Ji Strangeway / L.A. / 2013
Museums and history are like cemeteries. They house dead masters of the past. I want to live in the present and it is here that I create.
The old art masters are embalmed in history books and pickled in the morgues of museums, elevated as deities. They are held in esteem for artists to compare and measure their talents. On the surface it may seem harmless, but excessive comparison diverts attention from seeking within; for searching inwardly is where newness is found.
There’s a popular falsehood that says, “nothing is new under the sun.” This has turned society into cannibals of art that regurgitate and gorge on the merits of dead masters.
To me, creativity is always new–and every time something appears for the first time, it’s new. When people say something’s “been done before” or that some ideas are “old news,” it’s artistic suicide.
Newness is paradoxical, like being in love. When you’re in love, you can’t wait to see your lover’s face. It’s the same face revealed behind the door countless times, yet feels new. Similarly a work of art is timeless when it reveals something new each time.
If nothing were new: every baby that’s born would look the same and each fruit we bite into would be bland. We wait for the birth of a new thing and the surprise of sweetness or fragrance regardless of how many times that experience is repeated. It’s like saying, “Why should I shower if I’ll get dirty again?” We take a shower anyway because it makes us feel brand spanking new.
The idea that “nothing is new under the sun,” gives artists excuse to copy. It’s created a value system where art is seen as “imitation” and to misuse quotes like, “good artists borrow, but great artists steal.” Well, to me, an artist that copies is a copy-artist and an artist that steals is a crook.
This is where the dividing line between artists that are purveyors of death and the lovers of life begin.
In the classical days, copying was required for students training for mastership. The difference between copying back then and today is that students copied from a living master. Copying was a hands-on experience that exemplified comprehension and true discipline, and this led to perfection. When the masters died, the students became the next masters and taught their own students. There was always a direct link to the source of the teachings because the master was never a dead one. This kept the teachings new and copying had value.
It’s like an experienced teacher showing you how to drive a car, but he’ll show you how to drive the latest model…not some old Ford from the 19th century. A teacher from the past cannot show you how to drive the latest model because he’s dead and his skills were pertinent to the ethos and needs of his time.
There are no new masters today because artists copy from copies made by dead idols and build on memes. Artists have become mirrored reflections of reflections of experiences while feeding off the novelty of the past. That is how our culture has become cannibals of art.
To be new and innovative does not mean being “different.” Newness isn’t found in a cold shell in an art installation where you stare at a speck until your eyes bleed.
In film school, I was forced to watch an experimental film that triggered epileptic seizures or messed up your mind and I hated it. It may have been “new,” but if anything, it was reactive and retaliatory. To me, that wasn’t art. It was an act of violence.
For the most part, the average American hates “art” because it’s something you study in order to understand. It’s a language assumed by the educated and discoursed by the elite. When artists hate art also, it’s because it has been reduced to tourism.
The real root of Art has always been dreams. Humans interpreted inner visions from the unconscious and mirrored the inner and outer world by creating pictorial languages. Its purpose therefore was to connect man to his innermost experiences and by reflecting on them, made him conscious. The ability for Art to raise consciousness as a form of spiritual food or cultural insight, used for survival, is the essence of its purpose. This hasn’t changed from the inception of hieroglyphs and cave paintings to art today with the exception of Modern Art; which has become a mere reflection of society’s and man’s psychosis as existential cripples.
Modern Art killed the social function of art because it is intellectual and cerebral. It cuts off the supply of life; which is feeling. Instead of feeling something–you think about it. So people go elsewhere. They’d rather play video games or appreciate anime. Maybe kids today are thought of as being superficial. At least they appreciate something.
To me, what draws us to art is love. If you have to think about love, it’s not love.
Art has to have life, for newness is life. It can’t just be mental or visually aesthetic. It has to be functional and house the human element or soul. Art that has soul speaks to people regardless of education.
Filmmaking faces the same problem of artists copying from the dead. After the masters died, students copied from copies. Today, the new generation copies from living “masters” who are copy-artists themselves. Over a period of time, this becomes a cultural deficit. It’s like a mirror reflecting another mirror telescoping until the original image renders confusion. In this confusion, art loses soul.
The term “alternative,” “indie,” “new wave,” or “art cinema” has lost meaning and value. Today, in order to become successful, sold, or to be marketable, every new idea has to recall something that’s been done.
Something that is totally new cannot be described (simply because it hasn’t been seen before). If an idea or vision cannot be described, then how can it be sold? It’s as impossible to sell art as it is to sell soul.
This is the paradoxical quandary of the avant-garde.
So it takes many years for a vision to assimilate into mass consciousness before people can accept or embrace a new concept: like how people couldn’t get Van Gogh’s work during his time. His time wasn’t different than ours. Same as in the past, everyone looks outwardly for the obvious; of what works, sells or has been tried and tested.
The artist that looks entirely into himself finds newness, and that’s why he can create things no one has ever seen before. So, it has nothing to do with the future (ideas being appreciated much later). It has everything to do with what we do with ourselves now.
Authenticity and life blossom from the bud of newness; its byproduct is originality. Without newness, we would die because we’d have no reason to create. The avant-garde, simply means “new,” and newness is what I’m after.
About Ji Strangeway
Ji Strangeway is a writer and film director who specializes in art cinema in the LGBT genre. With a background in painting, poetry and experimental film, Strangeway made her first film at age 17 and is a natural film editor. She currently lives in Los Angeles.