The Germs of the New Values
It is always necessary to remember that a people’s actual valuations of the past arts of its own tradition are to be sought not in the appreciative words it utters but in the art that it currently produces. […] Every broad change in a living art is accompanied inevitably by a revaluation of the arts of the past, which frequently is of the most drastic kind. Such changes and revaluations are really the discoveries of new values, and, without them, art as vivid expression, far from having a history, could not exist. In the intervals that occasionally intervene between the exhaustion of a set of values and the discovery of a new one, what is called art is merely a skillful but dull and lifeless professional practice. The germs of the new values are usually to be found in what most people at the time regard as fumbling and incompetent performance, and what many people in later years may regard as decadence. Their actual character is not recognized for a long time to come.
-William M. Ivins, Jr., Art & Geometry: A Study in Space Intuitions. Harvard University Press, 1946.
As an erstwhile student of both art and philosophy, I often find myself returning to the rather Kantian notion that all aesthetic choices are essentially moral judgments, and vice versa. An insightful scholar of the West’s artistic past and keen observer of its then-present, William Ivins was the curator of the Department of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1916 to 1946, a time that must have seemed to him to be as “between values” artistically (and thus morally) as our own. Which begs the question: where are the gloriously incompetent germs of the new values hiding out today? We all know how to spot the art that gracefully (if trendily) embodies the spirit-of-the-now-as-it-is-currently-perceived, but what rough beast is at this very moment slouching toward Bethlehem to lie dormant until the rest of us have arrived at a vantage point from which we are able to posthumously extol its singularly generation-defining genius?
(I thought for a long time about an image to pair with this quote, but I couldn’t think of any artist, past or present, upon whom I would wish to impose this burden.)