On reinvention and true innovation

When Stephen King wrote, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again,” he captured one of the most useful starting points of creative thinking: the past. To the general public, reinvention and novelty are tricky because true originality is seldom welcomed. Although most of us long for something new, we tend to associate an idealized and often esoteric dimension to novelty that is, in fact, imbued into the familiar. We look at and judge everything presented to us as novel through the prism of biases, personal tastes and experiences and cultural upbringing. In its instinctive form, human nature favours realities and concepts that fall under the familiar realm and rejects those that are too distanced from it.

Have you ever been in a situation where you looked at a piece of art or a building that has been praised in the industry’s literature, yet you thought, why on earth will this be as valuable as they make it to be? They don’t know what they’re talking about; this is complete gibberish? Then you know what I’m talking about.

Photo by J Balla via Unsplash

In 2004 the controversial yet fully established urinal that Duchamp created in 1917 was named the most influential piece of art of all time. We see urinals everywhere, and they all look just like that. The value comes not from placing it on a pedestal, giving it a name (“The fountain”), and calling it art, but from the add-on meaning that this act reflects. This is the piece that, by most accounts, represents the beginning of conceptual art and today, we do not question its value as art at all. We’ve become accustomed to it.

The public at the time, however, was not prepared. Not even the experts were, and they rejected the piece upon submission. The New York Society of Independent Artists judges, which promoted an open to all yearly art exhibit, were so appalled that they returned the object to the artist with a rejection notice stating this is not art.

What makes this case further fascinating is that novelty was not only widely accepted, praised and searched for. In 1917 artists like Man Ray, Brancusi and Joseph Stella, and so many more exhibited works that strongly broke with the tradition. Movements like Dada and the Futurists filled the art and design world with innovation and the new look of modernity. The urinal, however, was too much. It was in that sphere of just too unfamiliar to be considered.

The Society, however, regrouped and, fast enough, decided that by refusing a piece, any piece that any artist considers by choice to be their artistic expression, they are shutting down the very values that they were trying to promote. Shortly after, probably with manufactured aplomb, Marcel Duchamp was elected the Society’s director. The public took a bit longer to recognize the Fountain’s value, and nobody could ever predict at the time its future impact.

Images via Dochia Media

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