‘There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization’ – Werner Herzog
A surprising contradiction
If you look at the history of film, two big developments are immediately obvious:
- The technology to create visual effects has grown ever more advanced, to the point where now it is almost impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is an effect, and (in principle) if you can visualise it, it should be possible to put it on the screen.
- Films have grown progressively more and more realistic, in the sense that they now almost entirely eschew the deliberately ‘unreal’ aspects of older films (think the Moloch machine turning into the god Moloch in Metropolis, or the consistent avoidance of right-angles in the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). Instead we get an ever increasing desire to make events on screen look as ‘real’ as possible.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why is that that just when we finally have the technology to create astounding artistic effects, twisting reality to create images that will provoke, disturb or inspire the watcher, instead we use them to make things look more real, less artistic, less like the product of someone’s imagination?
I don’t think that point 1 really needs further discussion. The progression from 1902’s A Trip to the Moon to 2008’s Wall-E and beyond is, I believe obvious. But point 2 needs some discussion: I’ve given some examples already, but it’s worth hammering it home; in addition there are some subtleties that are worth drawing out. So I’ll do that, then I’ll try to work out what this means. And then, just to show off, I’ll link these developments to trends in twentieth century art, and conclude with some observations on the role of the new in the creation of great art.
Films just keep getting less interesting
What do I mean by ‘interesting’?
Where by ‘interesting’ I mean that as time progresses there is less and less by way of artistically interesting visual effects in film. That isn’t to say that there aren’t amazing images. It is quite astonishing how realistically film can depict things blowing up, or people killing one another in inventively gory ways, or the exact details of an alien planet. But once you’ve watched V for Vendetta or Saw 47 or Avatar, what are you left with? And I don’t mean in terms of memories of the plot (so a strong urge to vomit, or a sneaking suspicion that there is more to leadership than having a neat mask does not count): I mean in terms of artistic visual effects? The thing is that the explosions and dismemberments and big blue buggers are so realistic that they just skate over the surface of the imagination without ever provoking a visual artistic response.
Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. Let’s take an example from painting. Look at anything by Jack Vettriano, say this one:
Okay, it looks pleasant; it’s mildly erotic – the curve of the dancing woman’s rump is nicely limned; it’s a bit surreal. And sure it provokes you to wonder what the back-story is that lead to this couple dancing on the beach. But is there anything in the image that creates a moment of revelation, some new insight, the ‘wow’ factor that leads to a new understanding of art, culture and yourself? No.
Right, now look at this:
This is Max Ernst’s The Angel of Hearth and Home. I remember when I actually saw it face-to-face, as it were, I just stood for ten minutes staring at it, trying to take in that amazing image. It communicates raw energy, a terrible jubilation, but also a feeling that something very, very evil is going on. This is done without sign-posts like a woman’s sexy bottom, a maid with an umbrella, or dancing on a beach. No, it comes straight out of the image without any need for interpretation. And this is completely independent of whether or not you like the painting, just as I insist the relevant factor in film should be independent of the plot (or indeed of whether the film as a whole is good or not).
To summarise then: what I am looking for is cases where images and artistic effects are used to create an emotional state independent of plot or event. Where merely seeing the image makes an impact. And that this impact happens at a deep, pre-conscious level. You respond consciously to the Vettriano; you respond viscerally to the Ernst.
So take the much vaunted 3D immersion within Pandora in Avatar. Sure, there’s a ‘wow’ factor, but it’s because you’re exploring the contents of the screen. Nothing there is actually very surprising. And as the film’s purpose is to make you think that this is a real, mundane, boring (if alien) place, it has no ambition to give your unconscious mind a shock. Now consider one amazing moment from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari:
This image on its own has a jarring emotional impact: it conveys fear, dread and other forms of disquiet too complex to put into words. It creates that ‘spine-tingling’ effect, which is, of course, entirely under unconscious control, and which is a sure sign of being moved at a deep emotional level. And here’s the thing. That’s a still from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and it has emotional impact without any need to know its context. Here’s another example, from Fury:
In the movie this is presented to us in a shot of its own, with no commentary. Lang knew that he was creating an image. Even out of context it is still immensely powerful as a depiction of fear, terror, horror. And the technical resources required were: one woman. At the other extreme (in several senses), here’s a (rather impressive) still from Avatar:
Yes, as I said, it’s impressive. The structures are intellectually interesting (is that really geologically possible?). But does it have the sudden jolt or spine-tingle factor? No. It’s just a landscape, rendered so realistically that I could be there. Indeed, critics praised the film for precisely this ‘you could be there’ quality, and in the process missed the point. We’re used to reality; the artistic shock comes from that moment when we go beyond reality and touch something other: the moment of transcendance.
So that’s what I am looking for: the ability of an image, or a sequence of images to have a direct emotional impact without any need to think about context or plot. I find it in abundance in pre-war movies, and very little thereafter, dying away to essentially nothing today.
So are all the interesting films really old?
Let me make an immediate exception. When I generalise about modern movies lacking the artistic shock factor, let me except once and for all the entire output of Werner Herzog. Herzog, with his stated aim of showing us what is true as opposed to what is real, is about as far from Avatar or Harry Potter or Wall-E or Random-Animal-Man or Latest-Generic-Tim-Burton-Movie or any other modern effects-fest as you can get. So I will observe right now that Herzog does the spine-tingle factor in abundance, then set him to one side as an honourable exception to a dishonourable trend.
Let me make another exception. I am talking about mainstream Western (west European and North American) cinema here: the kind of film that might get general release. The point is that The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu and Der Mude Tod and Metropolis and M and The Man with the Movie Camera and The Goat and Fantasia and Glen or Glenda (remember: a movie doesn’t have to be good to be visually arresting) and most of the Fred & Ginger movies and . . . so on were all mainstream movies (or intended to be), not the sort of thing you’d have to go to a art house cinema or a film club to see. So it is with mainstream movies today that I will compare them. My purpose is to detect a broad cultural trend, and you don’t do that by examining what lies on the fringes.
So: let’s start with the past. I listed a bunch of movies just now. I’m sure you can think of more. Here’s are some of my favourite visual jolt moments from them:
- The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: the way that all the angles are wrong-angles, and the ground often consists of broken fragments pitched at changing angles creates a continuous feeling of unease, that something is very, very wrong, as a background to the entire movie. This is brilliant use of pure visceral effect that needs no words or plot device to communicate it.
- The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari: the somnambulist opens his eyes (see the still above).
- Nosferatu: Count Orlok rising, as if on a plank (which of course, Max Schreck was) out of darkness.
- Der Mude Tod: the moment when we see the opening in the wall of Death’s domain, a narrow bright slit in a dark wall, with an enormous shadow.
- Metropolis: the Moloch machine in operation.
- Metropolis: the Moloch machine becomes Moloch the God.
- Metropolis: the montage of eyes watching the false Maria.
- M: Peter Lorre’s haunted face.
- The Man with the Movie Camera: the Bolshoi Theatre folds in on itself.
- The Goat: a speeding train comes at us and stops with a close-up of Buster Keaton sitting on the front of the engine.
- Fantasia: the abstract animation of the Bach Toccata and Fugue.
- Glen or Glenda: Barbara lying crushed by the tree.
- Glen or Glenda: the accusing fingers point at Glen.
- Fred & Ginger: in the seven ‘canonical’ Fred & Ginger movies, the sets are amazing Art Deco structures which create a subconscious feeling of stylisation and artifice absolutely essential to such artificial films. This is just a less extreme version of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’s approach to set design
I think that will do. As I said, I’m sure you’ll be able to think of more. So, basically in pre-war movies there’s plenty of visual excitement. In other words, pre-war, film-makers had no trouble with the idea of using what was a visual medium to create purely visual effects that tampered with viewers’ expectations of reality, and hence created the aesthetic shock (Ed Wood was clearly a hang-over from the pre-war era, but then that is evident from his whole output: he may have been filming in the ’50s, but he was emotionally rooted in the ’30s).
After the war cinema seems to have lost its way, and the idea of using the visual medium to expand reality was gradually replaced with using it to create an increasingly great semblance to reality. This was true even when the events depicted were technically speaking impossible. Rather than glorying in their impossibility, and making an artistic statement out of it, film-makers preferred to try to con their audiences into think that they were possible after all. By the time of Star Wars, the battle was pretty much lost: the point was to make the audience think it was real rather than to present them with something unreal, but make it so compelling that they were sucked into it anyway, and ended up conspiring with the film-maker to transcend mere reality and replace it with something else.
In fact, one of the few modern effects to be remotely ‘unreal’ is bullet time. This is a fascinating effect, given that it allows us to create an image and then, slowly and deliberately, examine it from all possible viewpoints. But its use in practice is, to be mild, uninspiring, because it always seems to be used with determinedly ‘real’ (in the sense of pretending to be real) events. So this effect has potential, but it needs to be placed in the hands of a visionary intent on creating art, not a hack intent on creating dollars.
Let me finish this section with what I think is an interesting observation. You might be tempted to object to my claims about modern movies by saying ‘but there are way-out movies today: what about Being John Malkovich, or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘. Well what about them? Sure, there are weird events galore. But, for example, the portal into Malkovich’s head is portrayed with immense realism, with real mud and all. Similarly, when the house collapses near the end of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it doesn’t do it in any visually exciting way: it just falls apart, plank by plank. Even in movies with completely surreal screenplays we end up with the film-makers determinedly setting out to render that surrealism in as realistic a manner as possible. They want to make it believable. And in the process they remove the magic, they remove the wonder, they remove anything that raises the film’s visual presentation above mundane, boring reality.
So to repeat: cinema is intrinsically a visual medium, and yet modern film-makers, rather than making use of the near-infinite possibilities offered them by CGI and creating truly artistic visual effects, prefer to play it safe, and try to make the things they depict look as real as possible. It is as if they don’t trust their audience to be able to manage the challenge of following a supra-realistic discourse. This is a critical observation.
Okay, so cinema isn’t visually exciting any more: what happened?
Let’s start off by knocking some ideas on the head. First, it isn’t the shift in power in the film industry from Europe to the USA. Many of my examples are Hollywood products, and it wouldn’t be hard to find more. Second, it isn’t the advent of sound. Many of my examples are talkies, and I could have mentioned even more (The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, Fury, Sleeping Beauty, anything choreographed by Busby Berkeley).
So what is it then? Recall the critical observation at the end of the last section: film-makers not trusting their audience to be able to cope with anything other than hyper-realism. Let’s explore this. In fact, there are several ways of looking at it.
The need for control
Bizarrely, in this era of big, dumb action films, where the dialogue is usually reduced to exclamations of terror and the heroine’s sole function in the movie is to show off her cleavage (I would have said figure, only, for interesting reasons I intend to go into in a future essay, shapely figures are in short supply in Hollywood right now), film-makers don’t want to stir the audiences emotionally. Let me make that statement more precise. They’re quite happy for us to react emotionally to their movies, but they want to be able to dictate the emotions that we feel. So you are meant to feel awe on seeing that still from Avatar, you are meant to feel lust when you see Susan Sarandon take her top off, you are meant to feel excited when you see one big heap of junk thump another big heap of junk in Transformers, and so on. What they don’t want is for you to feel your own emotions.
Now the problem with artistic effects is that they’re quite hard to pull off, precisely because you’re dealing with the unconscious mind, which is a complex mix of pre-human instinctive reactions, structures common to all humans (the collective unconscious) and material deriving from the individual’s experiences. You can (as my examples above showed) do it with very great artistry, but it’s a subtle and complex business, requiring a lot of time and effort, and it’s bound to be a bit hit-and-miss because you’re using something unpredictable (your unconscious mind) to try to influence something unpredictable and disparate (the audience’s unconscious minds), so success is not guaranteed.
If you’re driven by the bottom line, success is required, so you want to be sure of your audience’s reactions. Much better to either use the screenplay to tell everyone what to think and feel, or, better yet, short-circuit the human parts of the unconscious mind, with all their complexity and variability, and target the one part of the human psyche that is absolutely predictable: the instinctive unconscious that hasn’t changed to any great extent in the last few million years (just as each of us has within our brain a complete, fully functioning reptilian brain, so we have a pre-human hang-over in our psyche). If I show a straight man a picture of Susan Sarandon’s breasts, he will get aroused, and the same will happen if I show a straight woman Keanu Reeves (why?). If I show them someone being disembowelled, they will cringe with disgust. If I show them an explosion, they will react with shock and amazement. And, for reasons I really don’t care to think about, if I show them someone farting, there’s a good chance they’ll laugh. And all of those responses are pre-human, and easily correlated with specific classes of stimuli.
So, as the art of cinema has become more of a business, as the need for predictable return on investment has become ever greater, artistic effects have been left behind and replaced with simplistic visual effects guaranteed to produce precisely calculated results from the audience. And here’s the thing: the instinctive mind gets confused if things depart from reality, because reality is what it’s wired to process in its basic mission of controlling the ‘food, flee, fuck, fight’ circuits in our brains. So if you want to make films that work at this very basic level, you have to aim for total realism. And the end result is that if I eschew any hint of visual interest, and instead go for immersive ‘reality’, I can predict how audiences will react, and my accountants will be very happy. Or, to put it another way, we’re making movies that would appeal to chimpanzees.
Fear of transcendance
I’ve just given a sound business-based reason for avoiding the use of transcendant effects, but there’s another, subtler trend going on. Culturally we seem to have become suspicious of the very idea of transcendance, as if reaching for the supramundane is somehow bad or elitist (one of our culture’s ultimate terms of derogation). Now the experience of the artistic jolt is a transcendant moment: you are almost literally taken out of yourself, losing conscious control and your individuality in the process. In Jungian terms, we could say that art is talking directly to us through the collective unconscious that is part of all of us. And individuality is very prized in our post-war culture: what matters is me, not me and my interaction with society. When Baroness Thatcher said that ‘there is no such thing as society’ she was wrong in principle, but in terms of modern values she was right: we are no longer a society, but a collection of individuals. And it is since the war, with its terrible examples of collective beastliness, that the idea of the individual and individual rights have come to the fore. The fascist dictatorships, with their emphasis on subordination to the collective, and their terrible acts of collective murder, made the rise of the individual, and the downfall of transcendance and that which causes it, inevitable.
Consider that other great source of transcendance: religion. Christian worship (I shall limit my discussion to Christianity as I am discussing mainstream Western culture; however my argument can be applied more widely) is, of its nature, a collective thing. We enact rituals with the purpose of (so the theory goes) losing our individuality within God by a collective re-enactment of Christ’s self-sacrifice. No wonder church attendance has fallen off since the war: it’s nothing to do with a lack of religiosity – Eastern religions and a particular kind of Christianity are booming – but because people want to be individuals. So, what’s happening with these successful religions, then? Well, to be honest they’re all religion-lite. Mysticism is big, because people like the implications of exclusivity and specialness that it implies. But of course, it’s a cut-down version. There are heaps of dot-it-yourself religion books about Meister Eckhart, but the Meister wouldn’t recognise what is being said in his name: very tellingly, his insistence on the need for the death of individuality before transcendance can be achieved has been quietly dropped. And the same is true for Buddhism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Complex theological ideas are replaced with simple rules and self-help; overcoming the self transforms into self-worship. So we have religion re-packaged for the age of the individual. And transcendance is, outside the small rump of traditional believers, a thing of the past. No wonder films are so boring. Because, let me make it clear, I am not arguing for a return to traditional religion. Far from it. I am arguing that the decline of conventional religion is a symptom of an underlying cause, one of whose other symptoms is artistically dull movies.
The desire for comfort
My final point is based in the fact that though the artistic shock may come from the unconscious mind, it has quite a significant impact on the conscious mind, in the form of powerful emotions. Now these aren’t the simple animal emotions of the kind discussed above, but more complex, conscious, specifically human, emotions. And as such they are very hard to describe: our language for describing emotions is based around the simple, animal emotions of fear, pain, lust, hunger, anger and so on. The best description seems to be as a massive release of energy, coupled to a heightened awareness, as if the consequence of the artistic shock is to remove barriers to true perception of the world, to allow one to perceive things as they really are. And this is not the same as photographic realism; that is just a precise reproduction of the world as it appears to our normal, limited senses, which has nothing to do with the supra-real world one experiences (however briefly) after the artistic shock. In Herzog’s words, this is the distinction between truth and ecstatic truth.
Now a huge energy flow and heightened awareness can be very exciting. In fact so exciting that it can be among the most intense emotional experiences one can experience (it is no often that discussion of reactions to art – and indeed of mystical experiences – is often couched in quasi-sexual terminology). And while the energy is flowing, and one is living with the consequences of the transcendant moment or moments of contact with the other, great things can happen: inspiration, creativity and more. But remember that these emotions are conscious, and so they perturb the viewer’s conscious state. In other words, there’s intellectual effort involved. This is principally in the form of intense concentration, in which one examines the world through new eyes, but in addition, as one comes down from the ‘high’ of the transcendant state, there is a feeling both of euphoria, but also of being drained: all that energy had to come from somewhere.
So what I’m saying is that the artistic shock heightens the experience of watching a movie immensely (think how mundane The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari would be without all those wrong-angles), but it involves quite a lot of intellectual effort. And this leads to part of what I think has happened: when film was (comparatively speaking) new, audiences were prepared to put in the work in return for getting not just entertainment, but heightened entertainment. Compare The Wizard of Oz to any of the seven ‘canonical’ Fred & Ginger movies. The Wizard of Oz is an amazing spectacle, but that’s all it is. The Fred & Ginger movies are self-conscious works of art: the team behind them (led by Fred) were happy to assume that their audience would put in the effort. Of course, as good art, the movies can be enjoyed as pure entertainment if that is all one desires, but they make no effort to hide their aspiration to be more.
But after the war, people had had their fill of austerity and hard work and effort. They just wanted to be entertained. And so entertainment is what they were given, and so things snowballed, and we reached the point we are at now where mainstream movies are, on the whole, simple commodities which audiences take in, pretty much in the same way that might scratch an itch. Yes, movie critics might complain and rate Transformers 2 as one of the worst movies of the year, but it was perfect mindless entertainment, so it was a smash, grossing $402,076,689 in the USA alone. By way of comparison, Synecdoche New York, a truly great movie, which makes no bones about expecting its audiences to engage their brains throughout, grossed $3,081,925 (all figures from IMDB). And given that (as observed above) the bottom line is, increasingly, what matters to studios, mindless films are, increasingly, what the mainstream produces. And artistic merit is not a consideration.
Okay, so where else can we take this argument?
I think there’s a lot of room for extending this argument to other art-forms, and, as a consequence, make the beginnings of an attempt at answering one of the most mystifying features of art in the twentieth century: the growing disconnect between high art and popular art. In 1927, two novels were published: To The Lighthouse and Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy. Well, To The Lighthouse is a masterpiece, and the other, to be charitable, isn’t, but no prize for guessing which sold more copies. Salvador Dali’s later kitsch made him a very rich man; the incomparably greater Max Ernst was only ever well-off. Harrison Birtwistle is arguably one of the two greatest living composers, and yet, for reasons that I shall never understand, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber that people seem to like. And in all these cases, just as with the movies, serious critical taste is absolutely at variance with that of the public. And why?
First a quick comment about what I mean by realism and irrealism. I could get away without definitions for cinema, because the terms were kind of obvious, but now I need to make things more precise. What we consider real or irreal is, one might think, determined by our senses, but, as we know only too well, the relationship between what we experience and any objective reality that is possibly out there somewhere is, at best, somewhat tenuous. Reality is culturally determined. For example, I claim that there are separate colours green and blue. A native speaker of Vietnamese would see only one colour: xanh. So what I experience as ‘real’ depends on my cultural baggage. ‘Real’ is what is considered the norm in my culture in its depiction of how the world works; ‘irreal’ is everything else. So culture, by defining the vocabulary used by ‘normal’ art (as opposed to innovative or conservative art) defines what we expect things to look / sound like, which defines what is real.
Argument 1: control
Here the argument for film was that you can sell more cinema seats if you can predict audience response. This actually works quite well for the other forms.
- There’s no way of predicting how readers will respond to To The Lighthouse, just that they will respond strongly. Contrast this with what publishers churn out now: lots of nice simple novels about basic emotions. Rename Eat, Pray, Love as Hunger, Self-Love, Fucking and you kind of get the point (note the nice appearance of religion-lite and the cult of individuality). And this appeal to basic emotions is culturally ‘real’ if you portray people and events that, even if they are caricatures, are immediately recognisable, set within a simple, linear narrative.
- The situation for plastic arts is almost identical to that for film. Vettriano’s picture produces a clear and simple response of ‘I wouldn’t mind doing her‘. Ernst’s is far more complex (and quite negative) emotionally.
- For Western culture, tonal music is culturally ‘real’. Now, atonal music is actually rather good at depicting complex (usually negative) emotions, but if you want big, bold, simple emotions, tonality’s what you need.
Argument 2: fear
Carries over to all the other art forms without modification. Note in passing that atonal music is very clearly ‘other’ by its very nature, and hence worryingly closer to transcendance.
Argument 3: comfort
Again, carries over to other art forms. What is unfamiliar is less comfortable; what is demanding is less comfortable. Culturally ‘irreal’ art is both.
So basically the situation is the same as in film. And we even see in high culture evidence of a terrible malaise that has overtaken non-mainstream film. That is to say, independent film-makers have grown so used to the world of hyper-realism that they seem to fear breaking the rule of ‘everything should look as real as possible’. As I said before, Werner Herzog breaks this rule left, right and centre, but he stands alone. Who are his followers? And the same is increasingly true in other media. ‘Classical’ composers have started writing tonal music again. We are told that accessibility matters. Even, apparently, if that means compromising your artistic values.
So there you are. This isn’t a problem unique to film. Realism (or its equivalent) has taken hold everywhere. So when do we start the campaign to take the arts back for irrealism, then?
Conclusion: transcendance, newness and greatness in art
My notion of artistic ‘realism’ has some interesting consequences, one of which is that our idea of what is real changes. But that is surely the case: one need only look at, say, how portraiture has changed over the centuries to see that. For an ancient Egyptian, being true-to-life meant making as much of the subject visible as possible, leading to the curious flattened-out (and physically impossible) stance in Egyptian portraits. But to an Egyptian our portraits would look unreal. Likewise, we are not surprised to see all kinds of colours in a face, and yet in the latter part of the nineteenth century the idea was revolutionary. Going back to my discussion of film, we can interpret the shift back to realism after the war as being a retreat in what was culturally ‘acceptable’ compared to more adventurous tastes before the war: this is just a restatement of my earlier arguments in the new, more general, language.
A gradually shifting definition of what is ‘real’ and what is culturally acceptable is what causes the ‘shock of the new’ effect. It is very hard now for us to feel viscerally just how revolutionary the early impressionists were, but those we remember we don’t remember for shocking us, st least not in a ‘shock of the new’ way. Many of the composers of the sturm und drang movement of the eighteenth century are justly forgotten: they didn’t look beyond the surface effect created by the new tools to see where they could lead, creating a promise that was only realised in the next century. In cinema, effects technologies amaze when new and are old hat a few years later; merely using the technology may be enough to wow the first audiences, but it will not create lasting art. More generally, innovations in the creative vocabulary shock, but do not of themselves create transcendance. This could, of course, be a factor in the ‘censorship of time’ phenomenon that I have discussed elsewhere. Works that seem transcendant masterpieces to their contemporaries are, with time, revealed as purely shocking, and pure shock does not last.
Therefore newness does not imply transcendance. But transcendance requires a form of newness. I do not mean that transcendance can only be achieved with the latest technical means. The Grosse Fuge is still transcendant today (though it was loathed in its own day). But in the course of achieving transcendance, going beyond the real, the art shock creates an emotional space within the consumer that is something wholly new and unexpected.
Now, in principle, a great genius could still create transcendant art today using the technical means available in 1826. However, thinking back into an earlier cultural epoch without producing pastiche is well-nigh impossible, as too may great artists of the twentieth century discovered to their cost. And pastiche, almost by definition, cannot be transcendant. Similarly, using the vocabulary created by the cultural norm is unlikely to create transcendance, if only because it will create work that is part of the reality it is trying to transcend. Generalising the way that (as Roger Ebert has observed) greatness in a movie director lies ‘between the frames’, greatness in art can almost be thought in lying in the artist’s having, through effort, transcended the norms of the art of their time. This doesn’t mean that their transcendant language has to be avant garde: Sibelius is a case in point, his amazing final works creating a wholly new sound-world within a (more or less) traditional tonal language. But the transcendant language must be significantly other, and we feel that otherness down the ages. This is a key observation: great art sits significantly outside the cultural norms of its time.
So transcendance does not require the latest technical means, but an artist who sticks to the artistic language of the present or past without a compelling aesthetic reason is risking degeneration into kitsch. For example, in film using practical effects rather than CGI is perversity unless there is something about the practical effects that CGI cannot (yet) create, or some aesthetic purpose behind their use (in some unclear way it seems obvious that Fitzcarraldo would not work with a CGI boat, but it is hard to see what the director of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gained artistically by insisting that all his effect be practical). Because of this, great artists have always pushed the bounds of the possible (though maybe in unexpected directions), seeking that new tool that might help them capture transcendance, while lesser artists have been content to stay in the cultural shallows. So while neophilia has its noticeable demerits, even more so does neophobia. Great art comes from the creative tension between new and old and not from over-enthusiastic exploitation of new tools, or a deliberate refusal to expand the expressive vocabulary.