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December 13, 2003

The Man or His Times?


Do you ever wonder if we culture vultures put too much emphasis on the individual artist, and not the—for want of a better term—trend? I would never hold myself out as anything other than a classical music ignoramus, but as I drive around listening to my local station, I have noticed that I like 18th century music far better than 19th century music or 20th century music. Obviously, there are individual exceptions, but they remain just that: by and large, I know that I will enjoy just about anything written in the 18th century, and especially in its last third.

Thinking about this in other arts, I would say that in painting there are whole eras that I particularly like and other whole eras that I have to work harder to enjoy. I will happily take a good long look at anything 15th century, for example, and anything produced in the first half of the 17th century (probably the apogee of Old Master talent: Rubens, Van Dyke, Rembrandt and Velasquez, among others, were all at work.) Whereas I find late 17th century and early 18th century painting to be of less interest. Granted that there were glorious exceptions, but to me the mighty river of art seemed a bit damned up during that era. (I’ll pass over 18th century sculpture in silence.)

I find the same true even in pop culture. In my movie-buff days I remember working my way through the films of the 1950s and early 1960s and wondering what was responsible for the general collapse of quality. It was as if Hollywood—by and large—just forgot how to make movies somewhere in the early 1950s, or else it suffered a massive loss of self-confidence in the ‘tried and true’ bag of tricks it had developed. There are good films from this era, but the average movie is simply not as entertaining as, say, the average 1930s movie. And in pop music of the postwar era, I remain a man of the 1950s. I’ll listen to almost anything from that decade; I have to pick and choose in all other eras to be happy.

Anyway, these are my choices, I’m sure they’re not yours or anyone else’s. What I’m getting at is that the habits, tastes and formal strategies of an era may have a lot more to do with how much one enjoys a work of art than we generally allow for when worshipping at the altar of genius. I remember reading somewhere a quote that ran roughly as follows: “What mysterious quality of Mozart raises every note of his music so far above the hackwork of his contemporaries?” I thought about that for a while and thought, ‘Maybe there is no mysterious X-factor. Maybe half or two thirds of Mozart was the simply the era, and can be enjoyed quite nicely in the hackwork of his contemporaries, thank you very much. Maybe another third of Mozart was superior ability to execute the common vision of the era, and a little tiny piece of him was genuine ‘inspiration’ in the Romantic sense of the word.” And I say this as someone who is blissfully happy listening to Mozart.

What do you think about all this?



posted by Friedrich at December 13, 2003


My music-buff Wife had me listen to some Salieri (supposed hack and villain of "Amadeus") -- and, you know, he struck me as pretty damn good. Happy to agree with the universe that Mozart was a damn sight better. But the general level of craft at that time and place provided enough support so that even one of the "goods" (as opposed to the "greats") was able to turn out a lot of better-than-acceptable music.

Isn't that one of the complaints about the whole Romanticism/modernism/etc thing? That by overvaluing individual inspiration and devaluing tradition and craft, tradition and craft (the support structure of any artform) kind of collapsed, leaving the artists flailing about, with nothing but inspiration to save them?

I wonder if it's partly age ... I mean, the older I get, the more I find myself fascinated by what I think of as the tectonic qualities and histories of the arts -- the large-scale movements, the underlying structures. Much more interested these days in the impact of digi-tech on movies as an artform than I am in the work of any individual filmmmaker, for instance. Age equals perspective? Youth equals romanticism? Maybe I'm just learning, 'way too late of course, to appreciate the more direct, basic and simple things -- "good enough" is good enough for me, is even better than that, where I once always wanted more, or so I imagined.

Maybe it all comes down to changes in biochemistry, at least in the case of the way an individual's tastes and interests change over time.

But you're certainly right about how the emphasis on general thinking about the arts is 'way too much on the romantic individual. Do you suppose we have an inborn weakness for this, or even an attraction to these kinds of interpretations?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 2:59 PM

Have you read Murray's Human Accomplishment? He tries to provide some neutral quantitative measures of some of the things that you are talking about.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on December 13, 2003 8:00 PM

The funny thing is how few composers from Mozart's era are remembered by the general public today. There's Mozart and Haydn and well, then there's a bunch of guys of whom Salieri is remembered, but only because they made up a silly story about him murdering Mozart.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 14, 2003 1:07 AM

I have fairly broad tastes in music. When I first started seriously listening to classical music the Romantic Era was my favorite but now it's my least favorite. I think that's where all the catchy tunes are that are attractive to people who are more used hearing pop music but once I got past the famous pieces like the 1812 Overture, the William Tell Overture and so forth I found less that I like in the Romantic era and more in the Baroque and Classical eras.

In the 20th century music went off in hundreds of different directions. If you like one or two pieces from the 18th century it's likely that you will like most music from that era but the farther you get past 1800 the less true that is. There is good art music composed in the last fifty years but how do you find it. You have to be dedicated to experimentation - trying lots and lots of music that you might not like before you find something you do. Understandably, not many people are willing to do that.

Posted by: Lynn S on December 14, 2003 12:21 PM

Funny you say that the quality of movies dropped off drastically in the 1950s and 60s. My mum has been watching a lot of movies back then and is currently muttering about how bad the acting is in them.

Posted by: Tracy on December 14, 2003 4:20 PM

This topic could provide fodder for several good books--and in fact, as I understand it, it's been one of the central battlegrounds of the culture war that's been raging in literature departments for the past 20 years or so.

That said, I have just a couple observations. First, the further back you go in time the better the average run of any art appears because the older it is the better it has to be for anyone to remember it at all. I'm sure we could all tick off the names of more 19th-century composers than 17th-century composers, and that's at least partly because the winnowing of time is still in its early stages with the 19th-century. Or just read the works on the syllabus of a grad level lit course on, say, English Renaissance literature, and you'll both see strong resemblances to Shakespeare & others you may have read & enjoyed and be glad you're not a grad student who has to read all this.

That said, there do seem to be periods in which a particular art is healthier than in others--usually when the art form is new or (for mostly accidental reasons) felt as new, or newly recovered from the past. Think of the sonnet. Lots of great English sonnets in Shakespeare's time, then almost nothing of note until Wordsworth rediscovered it--as a kind of novelty that enabled him to break free from 18th-century conventions. The same thing seemed to happen (as you imply) with American filmmaking, which went into the toilet in the 50s and didnt really re-emerge until the late 60s & early 70s.

There are no doubt other factors in these periodicities besides the internal dynamics of the art form. English poetry virtually died in the early 18th-century in large part because--after the better part of a century of religious civil wars--people were distrustful of emotion. And I read a piece somewhere recently that discussed how the film industry in the 50s was in large part derailed by confused efforts to compete with TV.

Posted by: John Hinchey on December 14, 2003 8:03 PM


No question the general quality in filmmaking collapsed in the fifties, and I think it's generally acknowledged that this was largely due to the disintegration of the Major Studios. Thousands of watchable-to-great films were produced in a mere two decades, and we're never gonna see that again!

But I don't think this is really about periodization, is it? I think I'm sometimes inclined to give works that evince a sensibility that
I share more credit than they deserve (some would claim that my interest in Marvel's Silver Age Comics is an example of this), but never just a whole era's worth! For example--I'm not interested in "American Renaissance fiction" so much as I am interested in those writers who were part of it who dealt with the dual implications of a Calvinist and Lockean heritage
--therefore I'm fascinated Hawthorne, Melivlle, and Louisa May Alcott(!), but not by Edgar Allan Poe, for example...

I wonder what AC Douglas thinks of this post?


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