About the year 1905 Europeans "discovered" African art, particularly sculpture, and began to bring it back to Europe, most notably the city of Paris. This turned out to have a monumental impact on artists like Picasso and Matisse and its effects rippled through 20th century art.
As a creative person I can't help but be envious of those who experienced that moment in history. Creatives tend to seek out sources of inspiration that disrupt their current thinking and methods. The work based on those inspirations create disruptive aesthetic experiences for their audiences. African art turned out to be a rich motherload of a disruptive force.
Try as I do, it's difficult to imagine what that must have been like. We've all had experienes in which we are confronted by ideas or objects that are culturally foreign to us, but the appearance of vast amounts of African art in Paris at the beginning of the century goes way beyond eating Indian food for the first time. It was a large-scale invasion of cultural artifacts that were produced by a consciousness with a radically different aesthetic sensibility. In the realms of art and culture there hasn't been an asteroid like that since and we may never see anything with that sort of deep impact again.
African Mask, 19th Century
Aside from the fact that there are no more major continents to plunder, the way we assimilate cultural input has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. 20th century art (at least the institutionalized story that's taught in universities) is a series of assimilated influncences in a chain of movements. You have African art/Primitivism, the Industrial Revolution/Futurism, World War I/Dada, Psychology/Surrealism, Pop Culture/Pop Art to name just the obvious, big examples. If you buy into that story it's a series of revolutions, resistance, acceptance and assimilations. Throughout the 20th century not only were the other cultures of the world absorbed as influences, science, politics, technology, pop culture and history were all mined for inspiration.
Throughout the 20th century there were some serious moments of resistance and violet reactions against "the new" in art and pop culture. Now, not only do we embrace the new, it's demand. It is now unconsciously accepted that the name of the game is "what's the latest". It is with a frenzy that the newest something different is scoured for and sought after. The search has developed into highly paid professions like "trend forecaster" and "cool hunter". In the blogosphere there is no greater shame than being behind the curve. "Been there done that" (a meme coined by Brian Eno) and accusations of being out of step are flung constantly. (On Gawker recently: "MySpace Ads Want Friends, Brains: If it's Monday, it's time for a Wall Street Journal trend piece on a trend several weeks past its expiration date.")
On the downside, natural resources of novelty seems to be running thing thin. Whether an artifact is very interesting or has any depth is increasingly less important, a result of the high level of consumption and our hyper-connectedness. The value of something is increasingly its exchange value. I'm not saying the world is any better or any worse. Its just different. We have far more experiences of an incredibly wide variety but they probably have a lot less "juice". There does seem to be less at risk. I can't remember the last time I heard someone question the validity of a work of art and I wouldn't mind seeing bottles of ink hurled at a cinema screen or a museum riot from time to time. Instead we have tedious internet flaming.
Paradigm-shifting sources of inspiration, what I call "Alien Influences" seem to be harder to come by. The deep pockets may be tapped out, but I'm not hopeless. Maybe someday a UFO will land and really blow our minds.
I'm going to close out this post with a few references to the film SCRATCH, one of my favorite documentaries.
Almost every DJ in the film cites the first time they heard Grand Mixer DXT scratching on Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" as the moment their third-eye was opened. For each it was a powerful life-changing moment.
In the film, Mix Master Mike describes seeing some bright lights over a football field in his neighborhood, what he believes is a UFO landing, summoned to earth by his sratching.
In another scene, DJ QBert ponders life on other planets as musical inspiration: "Since earth is kind of like a primitive planet, what about the more advanced civilizations? What would their music be like?"
OK Qbert, take us out.