The Myth of Progress in the Arts by John Borstlap| Future Symphony Institute


Ambrosius Benson: Le Concert apres le Repas (detail), 1532

This essay is easily one of the single greatest things I have ever read about art, art history and the art world. There are so may great quotes, I am not going to try to post them all, which is customary for me to do when I am dissecting a work of this nature. The only thing that will suffice for this soaring essay is for me to quote what I feel to be the highlights and let this beautiful writing speak for itself, even though I am aware I am probably committing all kinds of stylistic sins. Although I still highly recommend that the reader should read the entire essay, here are my highlights :

1.

Because it addresses itself to our most sensitive aesthetic receptivity, the successful work of art – the one that achieves artistic greatness – lifts itself from its physical “body” and becomes “timeless.” Because it addresses universal capacities of the human mind and heart, it “speaks” to us over distances of time and place. Great art is aspirational: it represents the best of the human species and it stimulates the development of our inner experience of and reflection upon life. Great art is a symbol for, a mirror of, and a stimulus to the human condition. Of course not all art aspires to that height, but the best works offer something of a focus point, an ideal, and an instrument of quality assessment. Gifted artists attempt to emulate the great works of both contemporaries and the masters of the past and they try by hard work to get the best out of their talents. The serious and gifted artist will not look at ephemeral fashions, but will try to get at the heart of his art form and will look for the best instruments available to realize his vision. It will be clear that all this has nothing to do with the intention to be “progressive” or “modern.” The artist is already and always necessarily contemporary, whatever he tries to do. Artists who try to be “progressive” or “modern” – i.e., who try to be consciously and intentionally “of their time” – betray their superficiality and lack of substance, and they betray their artistic efforts as attempts to cover-up an empty space.

2.

And here we have arrived at a very sensitive problem and the paradox of the arts today. According to the official establishment, modern art and modern music are supposed to reflect our free, modern age, occupying a different space than those occupied by pre-modern art, which is safely locked-up in museums and in concert halls and opera houses dedicated to classical music. What is considered “classical” art nowadays was hardly ever considered so at the time of its conception. It has become “classical” since modernism became the “official” new art of the 20th century as a way to define the difference between that which was, and that which is – the art of former generations who suffered in a hierarchical society, and the art of today, created by us, we who are liberated and enjoy the luxury of a progressive, egalitarian society where everything is valued by its own intentions and where hierarchical qualitative norms have been banished because they are elitist, oppressive, and so on. And yet, a great majority of people have developed enough artistic sense to understand and appreciate the great art of the past. They flock to the great collections enshrined in grand museums like the Louvre, the National Gallery, and the Uffizi and to concert halls and opera houses to experience the thrilling creations of dead white males from undemocratic ages. This “old art” did not naturally develop into the modern art of today, but forms an altogether different world of sensibilities. The upheavals of two world wars and industrialization, together with fundamental cultural shifts in society, play a crucial role in the appearance of this rift in creative thinking, the roots of which can be found in the 19th century. Eyes and ears educated in the best that any art form has to offer will not fail to see and hear the difference between “old art” and “new art.” This is not “conservatism,”  since that does not exist in the arts, but a normal observation supported by experience. And a preponderance of “new art” is, by any standard, simply not good – at least, it fails abysmally in comparison with the best art of former ages.

3.

“Old art” and “old music” still “speak” to us, because they have universal qualities that transcend time and place. That is the reason behind the iconic value conferred on the great “old” collections in the museums and on the “old” repertoire fêted in the “traditional” concert halls and opera houses. In fact, this “old art” is not old at all, but contemporary forever because its great qualities can be interpreted again and again by every generation. There is an interaction happening between the living generation and the voices which come to us from the past – a dialogue. And this dialogue is ever new. Concept art and sonic art, whenever attempting to be serious, could create a similar dialogue, but this dialogue would be different in its character because these art forms have different “messages.” Often these messages reflect a negative outlook upon human life, upon contemporary times, and upon human nature. No doubt, these criticisms have a rightful place in our society, but they should not be seen as natural descendents of the art of former times. Concept art and sonic art are something really new – like photography developing alongside painting in the 19th century. To call concept/sonic art the result of progress and thereby implying that it is just the old art but developed towards and into modernity is to deny the newness of these new art forms altogether. Let it be new, but don’t let it be art in the sense of art of former times. The fact that “old art” and “old music” are still of great importance to us keeps them new and presents them as an alternative to what is now establishment-sanctioned modern art and music. Would it not be great if contemporary artists would try to emulate the “old art” and pick up former artistic values and norms to develop them according to their own insights and life experiences (as Bach did)? And indeed, that is already happening and has been now for many years: new figurative painting is enjoying a renaissance, as is new tonal music based upon “traditional” values. These are not conservative movements but fully modern, contemporary art forms that give the lie to the outdated myth of progress and innovation for their own sake. Are these art forms dull, imitative, derivative, nostalgic recollections of times which have long past? By no means. In contrary, compared to the modern art and modern music of the establishment they are a breath of fresh air, since they explore techniques, values and aesthetics which – as we have seen – are not restricted to time and place and are thus universally valid and renewable.

 

4.

To what extent is new classical art, because of its focus on examples, derivative? What do we mean by the term derivative? If we mean thereby an art which is a mere imitation of what has already been “said,” the term can be applied to any art, of any time and place. But even “derivativeness” should not be considered a merely negative quality, as the art of old Egypt amply shows, where repetition was de rigueur. Individual freedom of the artist, as developed in Europe over the ages, is a great good. It created the possibility of multiple variations. But individuality which becomes so personal that it has no meaning for other people results in the void of pointlessness. Art needs a continuum of works of art which refer to each other to create a framework of meaning, value, and norms against which personal originality can stand out. New classical art is an attempt to restore something of this framework, which existed before the emergence of modernism, and which now – in the 21st century – offers the best hope for the renewal of the arts. New classical artists, both in the visual arts and in music, do not imitate, but apply mimetic “languages” to express individual experience, and this experience is inevitably contemporary. That these “languages” freely take their means from traditional mimetic art forms is perfectly natural, just as Renaissance artists looked towards antiquity to develop their skills and personal styles.

Classicism, thus interpreted, may become the landmark of artistic innovation in our own time: interpretation of the past as a contemporary exploration, and a liberation from the restricting myth of modernity in the arts which has created so much confusion and havoc in the last century.

 

Source: The Myth of Progress in the Arts | Future Symphony Institute

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