[from Kirk Varnedoe’s A Fine Disregard, 1990]
To recover a truer sense of the secular miracle in modern art, we have to replace its conventional genesis accounts with a genuinely Darwinian notion of evolutionary origins and growth. The record of its history so far—the succession of fault lines and fissures, the mix of extinctions and expansions of new family trees—doesn’t present just a roster of forms developed to fit changing conditions, any more than it reveals the playing out of some predestined design. It is a powerful demonstration of the creative force of contingency—the interaction of multiple mutations with special environments that started with a few basic reshufflings of the existing gene pool, and has yielded an amazing, diverse world of thriving new forms of life.
The signal difference, of course, is that this evolution has nothing to do with universal, natural law. Its unfolding depends on (though its results are not determined by) the conditions of specific cultures at a distinctive moment in history. The shaping “environment” is a shifting cast of people who have decided, for a panoply of reasons noble and ignoble, to tolerate, pay attention to, or actively support, an unprecendented expansion of artists’ prerogatives to create what a biologist might call “hopeful monsters”—variations, hybrids, and mutations that altered inherited definitions of what could be. The profligacy modern art needed in order to grow—the seemingly gratuitous attempts to adapt familiar things to unexpected purposes, the promiscuous couplings of disparate worlds of convention—could not survive outside this climate. And the raw material here is not random change, but personal initiative; the individual decisions to be an outsider within one’s own world, to try new meanings for old forms, and attack old tasks with new means, to accept the strange as useful and to reconsider the familiar as fraught with possibility. . . .
a seemingly gratuitous rearrangement within a fluid set of established conventions, that finds its possibilities and purposes as its ripples spread. The act focuses our attention on the indispensable role of personal will and initiative, certainly. But precisely because this act was so simple, human, and willfully contrary, it illuminates the creative power that lay around it, in the interplay between the possibilities a culture offered, and those it proved willing to accept. . . . individual acts of conviction deflect known but neglected potentials to meet a field of latent but undefined opportunities, and thereby empower whole new systems of unpredictable complexity