The New New Thing: Same As It Ever Was

It's blasphemous, especially in America, not to believe that every New Year will be more wonderful than the year before—though in most years, that's setting the bar low. Presidential candidates must always promise a brighter world, hucksters—other hucksters, I mean—must always offer the new and improved, the wizards of technology must never kick back and settle for the already perfectly adequate. (You folks who bought Windows Vista—can I get a witness?) You'd think the arts would be above this vulgar onward-and-upwardism; in fact, most writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers and such also believe that continual innovation is not merely obligatory but historically inevitable. Painting "develops" from renaissance to realism to impressionism to cubism to surrealism to abstract expressionism to pop art to whatever the hell's going on now. Bach yields to Mozart who yields to Beethoven who yields to Wagner who yields to Schoenberg who yields to Steve Reich and Philip Glass. In literature, neorealism and its shape-shifting sister magic realism unseat Beckett's minimalism, which had unseated Joyce's maximalism, which had unseated the conventional novel, which had unseated the epic poem. And the next move, now that absolutely no rules, traditions or taboos bind the artist who doesn't choose to be bound? They're working on that. They have to be.

I hate to be a contrarian—the innovator's evil twin—but what's next is more of the same. A wrinkle or two, sure, but another major breakthrough now seems unthinkable: every possibility has already been thought of, and acted upon. Composers have been writing atonally—bye-bye, Western harmony—since Schoenberg in 1909. So we rediscover tonality and fine-tune that for a while. And then? Well, electronic music has been around only since the theremin, about 1920. Or how about sidestepping toward Africa or Asia, and scuttling Western music's basic pattern of tension and release in favor of repetition? It worked for Reich and Glass—starting in the 1960s. None of today's conceptual and appropriational art—subverting the very notion of art, yawn—would cause Marcel Duchamp to smite his brow. In 1913, he made a sculpture by mounting a bicycle wheel on a stool; in 1919, a painting by putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Some writers also delight in subverting their art, by reminding the reader in the text that it is a text, and that they're both playing a game called "fiction." In the '60s and '70s, we called this metafiction; in 1759 we called it "Tristram Shandy." (And around 1610, "The Tempest.") No contemporary writer can surpass the complexity and impenetrability of the 1939 "Finnegans Wake"—and you don't hear a lot of complaints, either. "Postmodernism" itself is simply an exfoliation of modernism: the very terms imply their endorsement of the make-it-new ideology. In fact, the critic and poet Randall Jarrell once argued that modernism is simply an exfoliation of romanticism. Makes sense once you think about it.

The apparent impossibility of a major paradigm shift doesn't mean we won't see trendlet after trendlet, some of them exciting—and the more exciting the less history you know. Conventional literary realism, rejuvenated in the 1970s, and perpetually the majority shareholder in the fiction market, is once again under attack as dull, retrograde, even oppressive: a Maginot Line briefly hindering the march forward. Back in 2005, the writer Ben Marcus made such an argument in a much-discussed Harper's essay, which cited Jonathan Franzen as a main offender, "against the entire concept of artistic ambition"; you can imagine Joyce making the same argument in 1922, citing John Galsworthy or W. Somerset Maugham. If either side should ever win this argument, the loser will win the rematch—and so on. Now that Eastern European, Latin American, African, Indian and South Asian writers have all been "discovered" by, or actually entered, the Anglophone world, look for other ethnicities to enrich the mix that's already here. In his 2007 novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," Junot Diaz invented a wondrous voice by mixing standard English, hip-hop dialect and Spanish; it's not his fault that T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound anticipated such voices in "The Waste Land" and the "Cantos."

You can expect more linguistic collagists, more successors to Jean-Michel Basquiat or Jeff Koons, further refinements on grunge or hip-hop or punk or roots-rock or metal or reggaeton. But what would a total revolution look like anymore? I'm sure people must have said the same thing just before Picasso or Duchamp or Joyce or Bob Dylan or DJ Kool Herc or other now canonical rebels dropped their joints. But is there any place left where a rebel can still jump the fence and start making trouble? What fence? What trouble? The last genuinely new artistic genres, the photograph and the moving picture, appeared in the 1820s and the 1890s respectively—or maybe in 1879, with Eadweard Muybridge's zoopraxiscope. Do you sense something else coming around the bend? Narratives of odors? Symphonies of tactile sensations? Why not? On the other hand, why?

But wait—what about the digital age? Isn't that our hitherto un- imagined future? Assuming there's any cyberspace left to play in as corporations and their advertisers continue bigfooting the Internet, won't this be a magic garden of innovations, even whole new art forms? Online interactive fiction—follow storyline x, y or z, then choose x.1, x.2, x.3, etc.—may have been a fad, but videogaming has become a sturdier and more popular form of interactive narrative. Can a game be an artistic genre? I guess so, if enough people say it is; we once went through a similar debate over photography. And think of the possibilities for multimedia artworks—musical/visual mishmashes, perhaps, which will make those pulsing mandalas on your music player look even more antiquated than they do now. "The Quarterlife," 2007's innovative Web site/videoblog/TV show, will surely become a model for more and better interactive, cross-platform entertainments. And digitization allows appropriation—musical sampling, and such visual tools as Photoshop—to go far beyond the recording engineer's razor blade and the collagist's X-Acto knife and rubber cement. Analog recordings, from the wax cylinder to the shellac disc to the vinyl LP, were all access-denied; the MP3 file invites you in to mess around. Digitization makes everything tweakable. And you don't call this a paradigm shift?

Technologically, of course. Culturally, probably more than we want to think. But artistically? Marshall McLuhan's once new insight that the medium is itself the message helps us understand the influence of technology on personal and social behavior, but is it really applicable to works of art? A computer-generated image is still an image, and a poem written with Microsoft Word is still a poem—just as acrylic paint is still paint. "The Quarterlife" is still a coming-to-grips-with-coming-of-age story, like "Great Expectations" or "Romeo and Juliet." In music, thousands of years of innovations, from the drum to the tempered scale to the electric guitar to the synthesizer to the digital sampler, have changed its sound and vastly multiplied its possibilities. But now that we can digitally reproduce any sound and generate sounds as yet unheard—some of them perhaps listenable—aren't we running out of fresh micropitches, tones, textures and rhythms? That is, without chips implanted in our brains. Maybe that's the new new thing: a nexus of art, high tech and neurosurgery. If this is a world you want to live in, I hope you get there.

For the present, though, songs stick in your head only figuratively. Lately I can't get rid of that "Kansas City" number from "Oklahoma"—"They've gone about as fur as they c'n go"—an affectionately condescending sendup of our forebears' quaint failures of imagination. But at the risk of sounding like Aunt Eller, we now seem near the end of the cavalcade of artistic progress. Even with digital generation and delivery systems, the medium is only a medium. Digitization has changed the way the artist works and the consumer consumes—and hold onto your hat, baby—but how could it change what art is: words, sounds, images and crafted objects representing, recombining and reinterpreting our outer and inner worlds? The fences are down, the options open, the technology nearly omnipotent. Isn't that what we've always wanted? Everybody happy now? True, it'll be tough on art's aspiring hero-martyrs: to get persecuted for iconoclasm, they might actually have to step outside New York, L.A., Berlin or Tokyo. Even that may not work: with the Internet, there'll soon be no town time forgot.

So, unless or until we all dissolve into a biodigital slop, or disperse into a storm of radioactive particles, what's new—what's always been new—is only individuals: their sensibilities, and their will or compulsion to offer them to the world. Luckily (and in some cases, unluckily), we keep turning out a new supply of those with every New Year.