Artistry is Dead

Posted: March 15, 2011 in Artistry, Culture

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.

  1. montejo says:

    Why of course, I will be among the great artists of our time. I am interested, though, in the idea that we no longer experience the conditions needed to foster great art. Why do you think this is?

    • Brutus says:

      The reasons mentioned in the post above are a good start. Further, I would say that today’s world encourages fast information and fast processing, which are antithetical to gestation needed for most great art. We also have no identifiable style period, so artists cop styles from history but can’t generate their own, making them rootless and ahistorical. None of this is as true of entertainment, which is populist and thriving.

  2. Spengler had all this taped. This is part of the civilizational cycle.

    John David Ebert, also a Spenglerite, said it very well in his book:

    If we just blame electronic technology, then our thesis isn’t broad enough to account for the gradual erosion of literacy in ancient civilizations like Egypt, China, and Rome… Lucan is not as good as Ovid, and Seneca’s plays were written not to be performed but to be read aloud because the gladiatorial shows had put theatre out of business… Seneca’s plays, consequently, are crudely violent because he had to compete with the arenas. In the next, and last generation of Roman literature, with Martial, Juvenal, Suetonius and Valerius Flaccus, there is a further falling away… But the curious thing is that by the time of Marcus Aurelius… Roman literature is finished. After that generation, from about 150 CE on, there are no Roman writers whatsoever. What happened to them?

    What indeed?

    • Brutus says:

      Ah, so it’s happened before and been described before (and no doubt much better). I guess, then, that lamenting our loss is moot. But if you ask around, you’ll get mostly blank incomprehension, an unawareness that anything is happening.

      • But if you ask around, you’ll get mostly blank incomprehension, an unawareness that anything is happening.

        That might be true, although it also might depend whom you ask!

        I don’t think it’s given to everyone to see what’s happening ahead of time… not immediately anyhow. I think you have to be persistent in experiencing the truth you see though.

        Imagine how Noah felt in the weeks before the flood. “You’re building a what? Why, for f.sake?” :)

      • Brutus says:

        I suspect seeing things as they’re happening is also beyond many people. If it’s unpleasant, we tend to push it our of awareness.

        I have asked a fair number of people, and only one found the answer as obvious as I do. The rest are full subscribers to popular culture and wouldn’t know how to recognize anything else.

  3. So why haven’t you read Spengler? You would love Spengler!

    Here’s a guy who not only has noticed this has happened before, he knows how it happens. He sees the Mozartean musical vein, those fistfuls of quartets and concertos, those major late symphonies composed in a month, mined out by Wagner’s time to an achingly slow process in which every note must be sought for hard. He understands how that well can run dry. He understands the nature of the different well in each culture.

    He also sees the scientific wells and relates them, equally, to the cycle of time and to the character of the culture, the economic and historical event patterns. “Pergamum is Bayreuth, Alexander is Napoleon”.

    I’m telling you, I think you’d really go for it! True erudition and culture, artistic sensitivity and profound learning. How could someone who likes to talk about “how it’s all going to ruin and we all had it better back in those halcyon days” not love a book called The Decline of the West? :)

    • Brutus says:

      I’ll have to put Spengler on my reading list. No reason why I haven’t read him beyond my own ignorance. BTW, I sorta disclaimed the nostalgic frame. I say sorta because I’m clearly still trapped in it while recognizing it as a trap. It will be the subject of a new blog post I’m still mulling.

      Also, Wagner’s work has far greater complexity than Mozart’s. The orchestra got bigger, compositions got longer, the emotional range was enlarged, and the stylistic palette was developed. Wagner may well have worked harder than Mozart (who, like J.S. Bach, was a savant), but he succeeded remarkably well despite a far wider range of appetites and attentions. IMO, it wasn’t until 1900 or so the well began to run dry. By 1950, only a handful remained who could draw from it.

      • Well Spengler’s not too well known now.

        No, he was not such a fool as to believe that Wagner failed! He had to eke more but there was still eking to be done, and you did it by that very extra resplendence, with its hint over-theatricality, and by exhausting what you inherited.

        That’s the point of Pergamum=Bayreuth you see. Did you ever look at Pergamum? It is grand, ponderous, intricate, heavy, resplendent… and the end.

        I’ll quote Spengler to give you an idea of his thoughts on it, then I’ll look forward to your new post. I still think Spengler might help getting out of nostalgia… he isn’t interested in it himself.

        The symptom of decline in creative power [in the culture] is the fact that to produce something round and complete the artist now requires to be emancipated from form and proportion… the arbitrariness and immoderateness that tramples on and shatters the conventions of centuries. In the time of Rembrandt or Bach the ambitious “failures” that we know only too well were quite unthinkable… Manet was exhausted after he had painted thirty pictures, and his “Shooting of the Emperor Maximilian,” in spite of the immense care that is visible in every item of the picture and the studies for it, hardly achieved as much as Goya managed without effort in its prototype “shootings of the 3rd of May”. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and a thousand obscure musicians of the eighteenth century could rapidly turn out the most finished work as a matter of routine, but Wagner knew full well that he could only reach the heights by concentrating all his energy on “getting the last ounce” out of the best moments of his artistic endowment.


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