I saw a new body of work by some photographer today (no, I’m not going to say who it is), and I thought “Wait a minute, this looks exactly like the older work.” By “looks exactly like the older work” I don’t mean the photographer’s style, but the general subject matter (imagine someone shot water towers, and then the “new” series is water towers). I immediately felt guilty about the thought, because I try not to treat art like a commodity - where the “new” always has to be different from what is “old” (“This brand-new camera now has 14 Megapixels instead of 13”).
I would like to think that in general I don’t treat art like a commodity. When I look at photography, I don’t judge it by whether I’ve seen it already but, instead, by whether it works for me or not. Every time someone presents new work that is basically just like the old work, I’m re-thinking the whole complex, though.
Part of my problem appears to be that I tend to think that as an artist you should really only show a body of work once you’re done with it (and whether or not you’re done with it is up to you to decide). Needless to say, in our contemporary art world there is a problem with this kind of thinking, because for artists with gallery representation there appears to be a cycle to follow: You have to have a new show every two or three years, since this is just how things work best in order to remain visible etc. (this is quite comparable to how camera makers have a “new” model out for the “holidays”). The actual time scale (if it’s different from what I wrote) and reason(s) don’t matter all that much for this discussion here. What does matter is that “the market” places a constraint on artists.
Of course, there are artists who might find it easy to have a new body of work every two or three years, and there are artists who have a problem with that. For someone from the outside (aka me), it’s impossible to see whether an artist’s show fits into the former or latter category, and I think this is part of the reason for me feeling guilty about my “Wait a minute, this looks exactly like the older work”.
What makes me think that thought in the first place, of course, is my immediate reaction, the assumption that any body of work I see in a gallery is a finished one. So let’s now pretend that that is indeed the case.
If I am familiar with some artist’s earlier work, comparisons with that work are probably inevitable. I suppose this is just what we humans do. Most famously, it has resulted in the well-known “second-album syndrome” or sophomore slump. For example, as much as I loved the very first album by Icelandic band Sigur Ros, when each and every sequent album sounded just like the first one, I got tired of the band very, very quickly (with their latest album, they seem to have done something different now, but I’m way past the point where I still care). Artists evolve with time - or so I tend to think - which is, for example, why Beethoven’s ninth symphony does not sound like his first one.
Part of the enjoyment that I get from following art is to see - or maybe “experience” is a better word - this evolution, which, it needs to be said, happens in tandem with myself changing in time (even though those kinds of changes are much harder to see for me). So when after a few years I come across some artist’s new body of work, and it really looks just like an older one I believe my thought “Wait a minute, this looks exactly like the older work” is triggered by this whole complex, by an unease with something being “just not right”, by running into, yes, stasis.
Of course, an artist could be perfectly happy doing the same work over and over and over again, and there are many very famous examples. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it’s not what I’m looking for in art. I might enjoy seeing the first examples (or, as in the case of Sigur Ros, listening to the first album), but everything else is then not very interesting for me.
I know that many other people react to art in different ways, and it is very important to keep that in mind. I do want to assume, though, that given that I am not the only person who will say something like “Wait a minute, this looks exactly like the older work” my reaction to experiencing art is shared by other people; and it seems worthwhile to think about what this reaction might mean if one separates issues that have to do with the art market. It does teach us something about art, and about how art affects us.