Modern Lexicon

Art Life , Stuff Oct 05, 2016 No Comments

Decoding contemporary artspeak for the discerning reader. Your guide: Andrew Frost.




Of all contemporary art’s virtues the condition of being new – or having or suggesting a state of newness – is the most highly prized virtue of all. While many consider new to simply mean something not existing before the word can also mean something already existing but seen, experienced, or acquired recently or now for the first time. In art world terms that means something considered new can either be something genuinely unprecedented or, conversely, actually old but new to a different audience. The problem of differentiating between what constitutes genuine newness is therefore particularly problematic: most art world cynicism rests on the belief that an individual has seen it all before but for the neophyte much contemporary art seems exciting and new and even if it’s later discovered that the alleged newness is just rehashed old, the feeling that one has just experienced the zeitgeist is hard to shake.



While contemporary art is by definition something of the now [or recent now], traditional art is a belief system built on the notion that something old is both a virtue and a value. Like new, old has multiple definitions including as if or appearing to be far advanced in years or more appropriately for art that which is familiar through long acquaintance or repetition. Since traditional art is built on a repetition of genres, anything considered new within the old is merely a slight variation on a familiar range of thematic and pictorial tropes, or otherwise becomes so not old it then becomes genuinely new*. The popularity of the old is based on intellectual comfort and accessibility that, like a comfy armchair, supports and compliments the attitude of the complacent.

[*Although this is theoretically possible no one has ever experienced it.]

The Art Life

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