How do we say something that is recognizably artistically meaningful? It seems that in order for it to meet that standard, it would have to play on themes that have already established; in order to create something fantastically profound, one would have to create something truly new. But then art experts wouldn't recognize it as such since it wouldn't contain any reference to standards created by previous stuff. So suppose we take the mindset that we are writing for future audiences who will recognize it as a timeless classic. But why does the possible acceptance of our work in this way by future audiences guarantee its profundity? Why should they be favored over the intelligent audiences of today?

An excellent question. The relationship between art, standards or rules, andoriginality has been discussed on this site before. But I'll wade in with a fewcomments.

First, if we think of rules or standards as being heavy-handed in theirdetermination, then that causes problems in many more domains than in art. Ifour standards for what makes a good X are entirely dependent upon a repetitionof the qualities that made Xs good in the past, then innovation in any fieldbecomes impossible. A good place to start, then, is with the recognition thatsuch rules or standards must always be a little loose or flexible and capableof evolution.

Second, however, the problem becomes exacerbated in the domain of art, if weaccept that one criterion of art is precisely the absence of any determiningcriteria. This idea comes from Kant’s aesthetics and, in various forms, hasbecome a mainstay of philosophical aesthetics. Kant’s solution to how it ispossible to judge despite this (that there is a specific kind of cognitive ‘play’which, in effect, serves as a standard for judgement) is only one possibility.

Third, there is a danger that innovation and creativity themselves becomethe game. On such a view, the task of the artist is not to create art in a waythat is original, but just to be original; originality is no longer just anecessary but also a sufficient condition. (Among others, the French philosopherJ.-F. Lyotard advanced such an argument.)

Fourth, does the artist write, paint or compose for the future? What doessomething mean to be a timeless classic? That could only be the case if thestandards of art ever stopped developing. I think Moby Dick is a great novel and a ‘timeless classic’ – but if anyoneused that novel as a blueprint and wrote other novels using its standards, theresult would old-fashioned, clichéd, ponderous and otherwise poor. In general,when one looks back over the history of the novel, say, one finds ‘great’novels to be supremely successful representations of their period. Theoriginality is ironed out. Does that mean that the manner in which we judgehistorical works is different from contemporary works? Or does it perhapssuggest that originality is a specific way of relating to the artistic (andother) standards of a historical period?

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