Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Death of Artistic Mastery

Quick, name your favorite modern day musician or composer. Tell me, how do they compare, in terms of pure genius or creativity, with Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Bach or Tchaikovsky? Be honest now. In your humble opinion, who is the greatest artist living today? Does he (or she) even come close to Michelangelo, DaVinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, Renoir or van Gogh? Chances are, no. Who’s your favourite modern-day poet? How do they stack up against Burns, Keats, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Browning or Tennyson? Do the words “hold a candle” come to mind? And then there’s the realm of prose. Tell me, which of today’s writers are as good as Shakespeare, Poe, Homer, Milton, Dickens, or Conan-Doyle? Will their works stand the test of time as well as these masters have? Did you know that only the Bible has sold more copies than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books?

Here we are in the 21st century. So smug and self absorbed. So full of ourselves. So comfy. So pampered and secure in our lives of convenience and instant gratification. We’ve got it all baby. And oh how we’ve grown over the past few centuries. Grown in scientific, medical and technological knowledge. Grown in our awareness of the planet and our environment. Grown in our tolerance of those who are different and in our empathy towards those who are worse off than us. Most of all, we’ve grown in physical girth.

Why is it then that we have failed to grow in terms of artistic ability?

It would appear that as we grow physically obese in our world of plenty, we also grow artistically and culturally flabby too. The more we feed our faces with KFC and our brains with reality TV, the more artistically and culturally deprived (or maybe depraved?) we become.

Our bodies have reached the height of lifestyle comfort. Yet our souls have plunged to the depths of artistic mediocrity. Why? Why do all of today’s artists seem to pale in comparison with those who lived so long ago? What facilities did the great writers, composers and artists possess those many years ago that today’s bevy of so-called artists don’t? Was it something in the water?

Ask yourself - where are the Mozarts of today? How many 12 year olds are writing brilliant symphonies? (‘Lil Bow Wow doesn’t count.) Where are the great poets and story tellers? Sure, there are hundreds of big box stores loaded with books and CDs. But how many of these works are truly great? How many are even mediocre? And how many will be remembered and loved a hundred years from now like the works of the above geniuses are? Not too bloody many. None I bet.

And yet, we think we’re really something. We strut around in our well appointed living rooms watching our widescreens and munching on take-out. The vast majority of us live lives that would have been the envy of the aristocracy a few centuries ago. The world is our oyster. We’ve got twice as much stuff as generations past, but only half as much artistic talent. Weird huh?

Artistically and culturally speaking, we have replaced quality with quantity - taste and discretion with gluttony and excess – an appreciation for fine literature with a hunger for disposable, voyeuristic pap - a respect for literacy and genius with a discomfort for making anyone feel less worthy or less intelligent than anyone else - an admiration for the exceptional with a insatiable appetite for the commonplace.

And most notably (I think) we’ve replaced the class system of old, where the elite were clearly distinguished from the rabble; with a modern societal system where there are hardly any elites or poor and virtually everyone is comfortable and middle class.

And therein, says I, lays the rub.

Years ago, when many of the masters lived and produced their exceptional work, there was a small elite class in most nations, a huge mass of rabble and virtually no middle class at all. The elite were sophisticated and literate. They set the cultural tone. They reveled in enjoying the finest in culture and art their society could provide. They had money and good taste, which they used to sponsor, preserve, propagate, purchase and appreciate great art and literature. To them, it was what separated them from the rabble. In return, the greatest artists and writers produced works that met with the approval of their elite consumers.

The rabble, on the other hand, being largely semi-literate and unsophisticated, were detached from any real artistic or cultural experience. They had no money to spend on art, concerts or books. And when they were exposed to such things, they looked to the elite for an example of what was good and bad and tried to emulate their superior taste. They had the sense to know their own limitations. They knew their place.

Today in the Western world there is no rabble. No.....wait a minute....that’s not exactly right. What I mean to say is that, today, all the people whose forefathers were once rabble, as mine were, are now comfortably middle class in appearance. But never forget, even with all our money, spending power, education and social enlightenment, most of us are still the descendants of rabble. In fact, maybe deep inside, we are still rabble - complete with the sensibilities and artistic soul of rabble. Our bodies may be residing in a nice house in a comfortable neighbourhood, but our souls still live in houses with dirt floors.

And here we are in our wonderful, modern-day, western societies. We dominate all aspects of day to day life through our mass, insatiable consumption. This includes controlling what is produced, appreciated and purchased as art. The elites are no longer in control. In fact there are virtually no more elites. Most of today’s rich were once rabble themselves. Capitalism does appear to have its warts as well as its benefits.

So here we are. The small number of those descended from the elite have been silenced by the overpowering number of those descended from rabble. There is virtually no one left of higher breeding to demand higher standards from the artistic world. Artists now answer to the rabble disguised as the middle class and rich. And they produce art for the rabble in accordance with the expectations and standards of the rabble.

Us rabble no longer look to the elite to set the standards for artistic accomplishment. We have imposed our own taste and sensibilities on the art world - taste and sensibilities honed through centuries of living as, well, rabble.

And there is no going back. Humanity will only ever experience one golden age of literature, music and art. And that age has passed. But don’t weep for it. After all, look at what we’re producing today, complements of our sophisticated, middle-class rabblry. There’s Harlequin Romances, Stephen King, Fitty Cent, Michael Moore, Brittney Spears, Reality TV, Abstract Expressionism, Dogs Playing Poker on Black Velvet, and innumerable, crass, valueless, anonymous, disposable, stainless steel sculptures nestled in every shadow of every massive concrete office tower in every bloody city in the freakin’ world. Don't look for a statue of David, the Mona Lisa or a Sistine Chapel. You won't find any. Nor will you hear anything like Beethoven's fifth or read anything like 'A Tale of Two Cities'.

We have the highest standard of living in the history of mankind; endless strip plazas, dollar stores and drive throughs; and a fabulous welfare system that allows all poor people to live in a comfortable, warm apartment. No one lives like rabble anymore. But no one produces exceptional, historically significant art either.

I wonder.....did we trade one for the other? Or was it really just something in the water?


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