While we were on vacation in Washington DC, we spent a fair amount of time in art museums. We visited the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art twice, as well as the Sackler Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Castle complex.
One thing that struck me over and over was how hard modern artists had to work to find a unique voice.
Classical painters existed in a different world. Without photography, simply capturing reality was a major triumph. They were free to focus on simply producing beautiful paintings. (This is a gross oversimplification, given the intersection of art and commerce. Most paintings were commissioned, and artists thought carefully about how to portray their patrons. Nonetheless, the focus on painting a beautiful version of reality seems valid).
In contrast, modern artists have to find ways to stand out. A modern master of realistic landscape painting has no place in the world of high art, and is likely to end up as a scenery artist on Broadway (in Hollywood, I suspect everything is computer generated these days, including whatever production line creates people like Zac Efron).
The medium itself has to make a statement–a sculpture made out of 100 pounds of rice, or a still life assembled from garbage. Only photography continues to adhere to realism.
In many ways, the dilemma of the modern artist is the dilemma of the modern entrepreneur. There have been and are so many startups (Y Combinator alone has backed 567) that standing out is harder than ever. Just witness my friend Dave Shen’s thoughts on the sameness of Demo Days:
I call this the curse of originality. The need to be original supersedes more important concerns like practicality or personal vision, simply because no one goes down in the history books for being the third or fourth person to do something.
Yet I still get a lot more pleasure out of marveling at realistic old-school paintings than I do from the more “challenging” works of modern art that I encounter.
As an entrepreneur, the biggest wins come from things that are sui generis. No one from 2000 could imagine Twitter; no one from 2010 could imagine the world without it. But for every Twitter, there are thousands of failed “experiments”. Don’t be afraid to eschew originality in favor of building something that helps real customers, or which reflects your outlook on the world.