Of course, Duchamp's insight wasn't original either. Previous generations had already complained loudly about the paralyzing effect of history. Nietzsche wrote, "the large and ever-increasing burden of the past" makes us envy the beasts grazing in the field, who are able to live for the moment.
In Europe, the young men of any generation always act as the grandsons of some great man. Of Victor Hugo in France, and I suppose of Shakespeare in England. They can't help it. Even if they don't believe it, it goes into their system and so, when they come to produce something of their own, there is a sort of traditionalism that is indestructible. This does not exist [in the US]. You don't give a damn about Shakespeare, do you? You're not his grandsons at all. So it is perfect terrain for new developments.
It ain't easy to create meaningful art after a thousand generations of artists have already taken their turn. How can you justify picking up a pencil to draw after Rembrandt or Degas or Ingres or Carracci?
Similarly, anyone who wants to draw a slick, soap opera comic strip today must find elbow room between Alex Raymond and Leonard Starr.
And what would be the point of starting out to paint a nude more realistically than Bouguereau?
This may explain why so many modern artists are obsessed with finding a new direction. Rather than compete with history they simply move on, redefining art and establishing new rules and standards. Originality seems to have eclipsed many traditional criteria for artistic merit. This can lead to wonderful results, but often artists whose goal is "originality" end up settling for "novelty" or "strangeness."
And sometimes we learn that a new approach hasn't been tried because earlier generations of artists figured out that it wasn't worth trying...
So as we begin a shiny new year, it might be appropriate to pause for a moment on what it means to be "new."
The author Alan Gurganus recalled returning to his hometown and visiting the house "where I experienced what I believed to be the first French kiss ever invented by humankind." Nietzsche might argue Gurganus was ignorant about the historical facts of kissing, but I'd guess nothing he learned-- from that kiss forward-- could diminish his shiver of new wisdom. His kiss was not the first but it was undeniably new.
The poet Peter Viereck, who was older and more experienced than Gurganus, understood there is a long line of kissers who preceded us stretching back to the dawn of time:
That sofa where reclining comes so easyThis lifetime is our turn on the sofa. Generations of artistic geniuses are dead and gone, but as Emerson said, the gift of our instant life is "the omnipotency with which nature decomposes her harvest for recomposition." Great artists tend to be the ones who don't waste energy fleeing ghosts and instead embrace history to enrich the present.
Is far more haunted than you'll ever guess.