Let’s face it, art is stuffed
It’s a commonly held view that modern art, regardless of the art-form is worse than the art of the past. Cultural conservatives point to Michelangelo or Crivelli and then point to . . . whatever bizarre collection of failed comedians make up this year’s Turner Prize shortlist and say ‘There, I told you, Sir Alfred Munnings was right, modern art is worthless.’
And this isn’t just true of the plastic arts:
- Theatre. The past has Shakespeare, Johnson, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Coward. We have innumerable ‘play of the film’ shows and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
- Film. The past had Murnau, Lang, Wilder, Cukor, Hawks, Bergman, Tarkovski. We have, well we do have Werner Herzog, but no-one actually goes to see his movies. This is the age of franchises: Terminator, Saw, Transformers, <insert animal here>man. We live in an era where a film about (to use Peter O’Toole’s immortal phrase) ‘blue Barbie dolls’ was hailed as a masterpiece because said Barbie dolls looked so real you could almost pretend that it wasn’t a work of art you were experiencing. Way to miss the point.
- Music. Modern pop music is just too depressing to contemplate: what a comedown from Morrison, Townshend and Hendrix to Spears. So let’s talk classical music. To be blunt, I could sit here for days listing great composers of the past; as for the present I can think of precisely two great living composers – Henze and Birtwistle – and they’re getting on a bit.
- Books. Defoe, Burney, Richardson, Austen, Thackeray, Bronte, Dickens, Gaskell, Trollope, Eliot, Woolf. And that’s just the British ones. And now we have shelves and shelves of chick-lit, endless whimsical books with whimsical titles by that bloke with the funny name who writes about whimsical things happening in Africa, and, at the pinnacle, that towering genius Stephenie Meyer. Then, it isn’t that long ago that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was voted the greatest novel ever written. ‘Nuff sed.
So yes, it’s clear, isn’t it that the arts are in terminal decline?
Absolutely not, because what we have failed to take into account is what I call the censorship of time.
Perhaps not then
The thing is, you see, we suffer from a unique disadvantage when it comes to comparing contemporary art with older art: we live now. Which means we are surrounded by contemporary art and experience all of it, bad and good. There’s no selection other than throwing the book away or switching the radio off.
With the art of the past there has been selection. What we read / watch / listen to / look at today isn’t the totality of what was produced. No way. There was loads and loads and loads of total garbage churned out by the shedload. We just get the bits that lasted.
So that’s the first half of the censorship of time theory: we see all contemporary art, but only the best of older art. But what about the disturbing phenomenon that people right now seem to embrace dreck with a positively unseemly abandon?
Well, this isn’t new. Beethoven was widely considered a madman and his music unlistenable. When Londoners first heard the start of his fifth symphony, you know, the ‘da da da dum’ bit, they burst into laughter – it was so funny, my dear, to even expect people to take music like that seriously. In one infamous week, The Beatles were pipped to the number one spot on the charts by – Engelbert Humperdinck. The Who had very few number ones at all. Virginia Woolf’s books sold so few copies they scarcely paid for publishing expenses. Turner was widely considered to be insane. Metropolis, now thought one of the greatest films ever made, was hailed as a disaster when it was issued. In fact, the American hack who butchered it complained in his autobiography how hard it was turning Metropolis into something watchable, and congratulated himself on managing to do so. People didn’t flock to the theatres to hear Wilde’s latest epigrams or Shaw’s latest intellectual conundra; no they went to see Marie Lloyd sing ‘Oh Mister Porter’ and waggle her boobs at them.
So basically, the point is this, back in whatever era you care to contemplate they had bad art, bad music, bad films, bad plays and bad books. Hordes of them. And they were (on the whole) what people preferred. It is only with the passage of time that the trash has been winnowed out, leaving the (apparently) impeccable artistic record of the past. And we are living slap-bang in the middle of said winnowing process for the art of now. Is it surprising that, for devotees of the modern, it isn’t necessarily a pleasant place to be?