A joke among technophiles obsessed with so many ﬂabbergasting, innovative products is the question, “Where the hell is my ﬂying car?” I don’t care about ﬂying cars. Instead, I want to know where are the modern-day equivalents of Mozart and Brahms, Van Gogh and Munch, Goethe and Shaw, Shelley and Proust (just to give a few examples of towering creative geniuses whose works have withstood the test of time)? I’ll dare to throw my lot in with many nineteenth-century critics, who moaned even then that the arts were exhausted. However, I believe that with the benefit of hindsight the date of their collapse can be moved to the 1950s or so, with the start of the television age and the appearance of rock and roll. This isn’t mere coincidence, nor should it startling to anyone who has been paying attention. At the risk of being too reductionist, I would say that the public has simply turned its attentions elsewhere, that we no longer value the aesthetic life. We are cut off from depth and understanding that ﬂow from serious consideration. We’ve basically stalled our artistic development in adolescence; we’re stuck on hot dogs with mac and cheese. In contrast, Susan Sontag’s description of George Steiner, the famous literary critic for The New Yorker, provides one model of artistic maturity.
He thinks that there are great works of art that are clearly superior to anything else in their various forms, that there is such a thing as profound seriousness. And works created out of profound seriousness … have a claim on our attention and our loyalty that surpasses qualitatively and quantitatively any claim made by any other form of art or entertainment.
Steiner’s perspective comes from the audience side, which is an important part of the artistic cycle. My perspective comes from the creative side or the perspective of the practitioner. My sense is that the conditions necessary in the mind of the artist for the creation of great work, namely, depth of feeling, global awareness, seriousness, vision, and inspiration, are nearly impossible to achieve in the modern world. The chance appearance of a very few preternaturally talented savants does not disprove this. Compared to the nineteenth century and those immediately before, which were host to a bewildering concentration of ﬁrst-class artists, the twentieth century has seen a long, slow erosion of artistry and replacement of high art forms with commercial and populist forms. Even the idea of authorship is eroding, as creative work is increasingly collaborative rather than the product of a single mind. Many of us would struggle to name a living composer, painter, poet, or novelist except the most obvious, commercially successful ones, which may not be a very good measure of greatness.
The prospect of a world where too few possess the wherewithal to reﬂect upon humanity and use their creative skills to inspire an audience is probably not a grave concern to many folks. This is not to say that great art is completely missing from the modern scene, but what little is still being created is buried beneath an avalanche of populism. In response to my initial question (Where are today’s greats?), the submissions that I typically hear are Michael Jackson, Elvis, The Beatles, and for a few slightly more ambitious, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. These people are certainly at the peak of their genres, but those genres are all variations of popular music of their day, which for a strict conservative like me still seem like entertainments. No doubt they will be remembered as are Bach and Schubert and Rachmaninoff, but entertainers don’t quite rank the same.
Bob Woodward is saying much the same thing about journalism in this interview.