Is old art obsolete?

Summary

The present is much better than the past in almost all respects, and producing great works of art should not be one of exceptions: in principle modernity has a much larger ‘talent pool’ than the past, and in circumstances which much better allow this talent to flow into great accomplishments; when we look at elite performance in areas with ‘harder’ indicators, they show a trend of improvement from the past to present; and aggregate consumption of older versus new art provides a ‘wisdom of crowds’ consideration.

If we want to experience the ‘best’ artistic work, we should turn our attention away from the ‘classics’, and towards the modern body of work which all-but-inevitably surpasses them. Old art is obsolete.

Such a view runs counter to received wisdom, whereby the ‘canon’ of great art is dominated by classic works wrought by old masters. There’s a natural debunking argument that this view derives from snobbish signalling than genuine merit. I nonetheless explore other hypotheses that make old art non-obsolescent after all.

In concert, they may be enough to secure a place for old art. Yet the do not defray the key claim that the modern artistic community is profoundly stronger than any time before, and posterity should find our art to have been greater than any time before. For this, and many other things besides, there has never been a better time to be a Whig historian.

(Related: Let’s ban new books, Are history’s ‘greatest philosophers’ all that great?)[1]

Ground-clearing

This essay will – at least at first – presume a flat-footed conception of artistic ‘merit’ (this and similar terms will cease to be scare-quoted from now on): that there is a signal of inter-subjective artistic quality we can apprehend, even if it only faintly (I have no idea whether Macbeth or Hamlet is the better play, or whether Shakespeare or Beethoven was the greater artistic talent) and modulated by matters of taste (I struggle to appreciate either ballet or black metal, but I’d hesitate to condemn either as junk).

I appeal to other determinations being much ‘easier to call’ in defense of this notion. In fact, a randomly selected work on fanfiction.net is almost surely worse than The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, Bach’s B minor mass is better music than a ‘filler’ track on a Nickelback album. In fact, my dysgraphic teenage scribblings in art class are vastly inferior to Saint Jerome Writing. And so on.

New art should be better

I offer three reasons to think the best of ‘new art’ (roughly, 1930 to the present) should be better than the best of ‘old art’:

  1. In principle, recent times have the advantage of much larger population (and thus a greater absolute number of the artistically gifted), as well as material conditions that should allow more of them to do fulfil their potential.
  2. Where we have harder measures available for elite performance (e.g. athletics) we see a track record of steady improvement. Should we not expect the same when it comes to artistic achievement?
  3. The wisdom of the crowd. A lot of recognised classics are easily accessible. Yet in general people prefer to consume newer works instead.

Taking each in turn:

Modernity’s artistic advantage

Innate human capital

Some part of ‘what it takes’ to be a great artist are innate abilities (‘artistic gifts’). If this part is essentially a natural lottery, a larger population draws more tickets than a smaller one, and so can expect to have a larger count of ‘winners’, and winners of a greater degree. Thus the dramatically larger current populations imply a proportionately larger number of great artists and great artistic works. A worked example:

The ancient Athenian state had a population of around 300 000 people. It had several renowned playwrights (Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, etc.). They were often contemporaries, but ignore that (and many other things) and say ‘1 in 300 000’ (~ +4.5SD) ‘innate playwriting ability’ is both necessary and sufficient to be a great playwright.

The modern state of Greece (granted, geographically larger) has a population of 11 million. By the straight rule you’d expect there to be 37 ‘Sophocles level’ (1/300 000) playwrights alive today.

Suppose instead the function of ‘playwriting greatness’ to innate ability isn’t a step function at +4.5 SD, but rather some normal distribution, the best of these 37 will be about another standard deviation further out on the tail than a figure like Sophocles (4.5ish sigma versus 5.3ish sigma), so would be ‘20%’ more innately gifted in this toy model. The comparison classes are tricky,[2] but using ‘Europe’ or the ‘Western World’ makes this difference starker still.

Filtering and winnowing

Even if some part of being a great artist is innate talent, many other factors intervene between someone being artistically gifted and them producing great art. Yet these factors favour modern times too. Although the seeds of genius could fall on stone or among weeds in any era, modernity provides a richer soil and better cultivation than the past, in addition to a much larger field.

Some indicative examples:

  1. If one dies young, one’s ‘window’ for producing great art is limited, especially given in many fields the greatest work tends to be produced by people in middle age and later (e.g.). Although infant mortality is partly ‘priced in’ to the population argument above, death as a young adult or in middle age is increasingly rare now versus any time before. 
  2. Birth injury (or infant malnutrition) can stunt a child’s brain for the rest of their life, and so harm their prospects for great artistic achievement (among many other things). This was commonplace for most of human history, and again getting rarer now.
  3. Most societies were highly patriarchal, and there’s about a coin-flip chance of being born a woman instead of a man. Without pretending the world now is an idyll of gender equality, things are better than they were: it is hard become a great composer if you weren’t educated, couldn’t hold property, were considered chattel by your peers, and so on.[3]
  4. Artistic ability often has education as a prerequisite – it is challenging to be an illiterate novelist. Education has gotten increasingly universal.
  5. It usually takes a lot of time and dedicated work to hone artistic skill. Given the modal person in most historical periods was subsisting, it is hard to imagine many finding the time when ‘not starving to death’ is a full-time occupation.

There is more we could add, but the above probably suffices. The ‘effective population size’ – those who luckily traversed these filters – in the time of Sophocles was much smaller than the total Athenian population of 300 000: half were women, and most were slaves, and so had effectively no chance.[4] A much greater proportion of the 11 million in modern day Greece have opportunity to express their artistic gifts.

Another fortunate feature for me prosecuting this argument is these considerations can shoulder the burden of proof for the more recent past. Population growth accelerated during the 19th and 20th centuries, but is now decellerating – but these salutary filter-widening trends all ‘kicked off’ during the same interval.[5] Thus although the population during the relatively recent golden age of Russian Literature ‘only’ grew by around half to the present day, one should still expect the ‘effective’ population size to have risen starkly: GDP per capita rose by a factor of 10 during this period, for example.[6] 

Nurturing and boosting

The environment can also be modelled as less of a strict filter that rules people in or out, but instead a constellation of factors which may give a bonus or penalty. This would also favour the present. A (hopefully indicative) survey:

  1. Musical instruments, kit for painting and other necessary artefacts for a given artform are are more easily accessible (I particularly like the ‘guitars per capita’ metric).
  2. In addition to whether one is educated, (pace some detractors) the quality of this education has improved, at least up to a point. This probably has some benefit for ‘talent scouting’, where gifted youngsters can be better identified and their talents cultivated.
  3. There are a wider diversity of means of supporting creative types (instead of ‘be wealthy’ or ‘have a wealthy patron’ models prevalent in the past).
  4. Better communication and the proliferation of media means budding artists have a much easier time to be inspired by the work of their peers and predecessors.[7]
  5. Insofar as particular artforms and techniques can mature (compare early precursors of the modern novel to its mature exposition, the development of valved brass instruments, etc.) there should be a benefit to coming after the initial pioneers.

Nearby data

Nearby data supports the ‘in principle’ reasons given above. As best as I can see, when there are hard metrics for elite performance, the trend is for this to improve, and this picture persists as we home in closer to ‘great art’. (Perhaps the key exception, on which more later, is academic fields like science or philosophy, where older – or ancient – greats are lauded more than the a priori distribution of brilliance would expect.)

Take sport and athletics. It is commonly remarked that standards in many sports have improved dramatically in living memory (compare this footage of the 1966 world cup versus the final of the most recent one). The men’s 100m gold medalist in the 1900 olympics won with a time of 11.0 seconds (the WR at the time was 10.8s). The qualifying standard for the 2016 men’s 100m was 10.16 seconds, and the winning time 9.81s. The steady procession of world records across athletic disciplines athletics speak similarly.

We can zero in closer to the arts in see a similar story. Take violinists: Ignaz Schuppanzigh premiered many of Beethoven’s late string quartets. An example of contemporary praise reads thus:

He executes with clarity, though not always absolutely cleanly, the difficult passages, which the local virtuosi seem to avoid altogether…

I.e. it was commonplace for even those renowned as violinists to simply not play some of the technically difficult bits, and Schuppanzigh earns praise for struggling through them. Although Beethoven’s late quartets are considered very challenging parts of the repertoire, it is unheard of for modern musicians to play the piece other than as written, and accurately.[8] 

The best story for this progress in performance would be consonant with the factors above – a wider pool of talent (most of the best sprinters today are of African descent, and few such people would have the opportunity to pursue an athletics career at the turn of the last century), and better ability to develop this talent (in Schuppannzigh’s time chamber music was an amateur pursuit – he was one of the first professionals, but even he probably didn’t have the opportunity to single-mindedly study his instrument from an early age, nor tap into a large pool of pre-existing expertise).

So why wouldn’t this demonstrable progress in ‘harder’ indicators not also apply to more ineffable notions like artistic quality? How would modernity end up with a much stronger cohort of musical performers, yet not one of musical composers?

Implied preferences of the crowd

Old art is often easily accessible: music streaming services carry lots of classical music, ‘classic’ novels are still in print (and often are accessible for free online at Gutenberg), etc. Yet despite having access to both new art and old art, people by and large choose the former, both between different media (the typical person spends more time watching TV and film than reading fiction) yet also within it: classical music seldom gets a look-in on the spotify charts, and many more people have (chosen to) read 50 Shades of Grey or Harry Potter than Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities.[9]

If typical people are typically on a par when judging artistic merit, and this judgement informs their consumption decisions (on which more later) this substantial trend in consumption towards newer art suggests it is superior.

Intermezzo: Canonical anachronism

Summing this up:

  • In principle: Modern times have a lot more people than earlier times, and so should enjoy a richer crop of those with great artistic gifts.
  • In principle: Modern times also have material conditions which should increase the proportion who enjoy great artistic potential to go on and make great artistic achievements.
  • In practice: when we observe elite accomplishments in other areas, the trend is for these to get even better as time goes on.
  • In practice: People with the option split decisively towards newer versus older art, and a natural explanation of this is the same as why more pianos are sold than harpsichords, or smartphones than fax machines: it is better.

All of this implies the best art should be skewed dramatically to the present. If so, what we might call consensus artistic canon has missed the memo. It unifies around Bach, Beethoven and Mozart as the greatest composers of all time, and recognises much more great music from the 1760s than the 1960s. The ‘golden age of the novel’ has come and gone. For painting, most of the recognised masters lived and died long ago.  

In essence, the old masterpieces (and their creators) are considered summits for which contemporary efforts cannot be reasonably thought to surpass. Modern classics or recent greats can be deemed as ‘worthy successors’ to past glories. Yet although contemporary criticism lauded (e.g.) Solzhenitsyn with ‘comparisons to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev are not hyperbole’ [my emphasis], to go any further (e.g. “The Gulag Archipelago is a better novel than Anna Karenina”) would be: at best indecorous exuberance, and at worst gauche philistinism.

What’s going on?

Signalling

Perhaps the most straightforward approach is to resolve this tension against the consensus artistic canon. In fact we are living in an embarrassment of riches, and there has never been a better time to be alive from the perspective of great art just like there has never been a better time to be alive from virtually every other perspective too. Debunking explanations against the canon are easy come by: we can explain away the canon’s fixation on the ancient greats and ‘high culture’ the same way we might want to explain away the affectations many hold over expensive wine that doesn’t survive blind taste-testing: an exercise of signalling mutual pretension uncoupled to ‘true’ underlying quality.[10]

If not that, what else could it be?

Atavistic apologia and revanchist ruminations

Period length correction

Even if we should expect the crop of the 20th century to be dramatically richer than that of the 16th, the combination from (say) 3rd century BCE through the 19th century CE could plausibly compete to have entries among the ‘best ever’.

This only gives rise to a minor correction. Very roughly:

  • Pre-industrial era the world population was relatively slow growing. A very rough approximation would be to say the average population between 1000 BCE and 1800 was 250 million people, so 7 * 1011 person years.
  • Population rose from 1 billion to 7.3 billion between 1800 to the present. Very crudely eyeballing this as an average of 2.5 billion would give person years in this period of 5 * 1011 person years.
  • This would give a “plurality but not majority” story on this rough measure. Yet the biggest adjustments give large shunts in favour of recent times. Wealth is the easiest: the proportion not living is around three times higher in 1800-now than 1000 BCE to 1800.

In other words, even past times are not swamped by recent ones to the degree we should be surprised to see any old work amongst the ‘best so far’, we should still expect a dramatic skew towards the present.

Time-lag in recognition

Perhaps it takes a while to work out what work in a given era is the best: examples of artists dying in penury only to be later recognised as geniuses are easy to come by.[11] So even if we expect the best of recent work to tend better than the best of the past, we may struggle to find the best recent work, whilst the selection task for earlier work has already been performed. Thus if we want to experience the best art we can, we may do best going to the curated list of the consensus canon.[12]

This has some legs, but can only take us so far. Wherever we put the threshold (or, if you prefer, some steadily increasing level of certainty), the observations that end up in the canon still have considerable pastward skew. If 50 years, aren’t we surprised that none of the crop of 1960s music is widely agreed to be superior to the 1760s? If 100, is it too early to say how good Stravinsky’s or Bartok’s later works really were?

New artform invasion and talent dilution

The canon not only favours older art, but also older artforms. Literature and classical music gain easy admission into ‘high culture’. Jazz and film are edge cases, and newer media (e.g. comics, video games) are generally kept out.

The entry of new artforms could help explain why old artforms tend to have old masters:

  1. Dilution: Newer artforms may not be wholly alien to the existing ones:[13] although writing for theatre is different to writing for film, one can imagine people able in one successfully ‘turning their hand’ to the other. If ‘theatre’ becomes ‘theatre’ and ‘film’, this could halve the number of remaining playwrights.
  2. Popularity: Of course, the split between newer and older media tends to be slanted to the newer: many more people listen to pop songs than operatic arias, or television series than theatre. So out of the ‘playwright/screenwriter’ talent pool, fewer end up in theatre.
  3. Adverse selection: The popularity of new artforms makes success in their creation much more lucrative (compare Hans Zimmer to Steve Reich). Insofar as modern artists have pecuniary incentives, this could push the very best towards these newer artforms.

So perhaps the Sophocleses of modern Athens are in writers’ rooms for high-brow TV serials, and its Homers are composing rap rather than poetic epic.

Even if we grant this pro tanto,[14] this only pushes us one step back. Perhaps this explains why the ‘classics’ retain their prominence in the ‘old’ artforms. Yet we should still expect the current crop of art overall to be richer now, even if it is distributed differently across available media.[15] If we care about the best art simpliciter, rather than ‘best poetic epic’ or ‘best violin sonata’, old art should still usually be supplanted amongst the very best. We should turn our attention more towards TV serials than novels, or film scores over symphonies.[16]

Been there, done that – all else is pastiche

Another consideration which pushes in a similar direction to the one above (and is susceptible to similar criticisms) is the idea that older artforms/genres/whatever can be ‘mined out’, leaving little incentive (or value) for artists to return to these to try and do better. Maybe one of the geniuses of today could compose music ‘in a baroque style’ better than what Bach himself wrote. Yet he and his contemporaries plucked all but the very highest-hanging fruit in this area.  

High art and lower pleasures

Another story could be this. Even though there is a much greater wealth of artistic energy now than before, this is squandered. We should not turn our attention to TV serials over novels, because this is artistic pablum for mere entertainment, and even the most able practitioners have their wings clipped by these ‘media’, and so cannot soar to similar heights to those who remain in the ‘canonical’ forms and produce ‘real art’.

As stated, this is easy to ridicule: not only by the standard signalling/pretension debunking (has anyone actually read Ulysses?);[17] but also as ahistorical overreach (lots of what we now regard as ‘high art’ was not created with such self-serious aspiration in mind);[18] and it tars modern work with too broad a brush (even if we grant most work in film is aimed at ‘mere blockbuster entertainment’, the smaller proportion that aiming to ‘high art’ remains substantial). Besides, why say what we’re calling ‘high art’ is better art than the popular stuff? People’s implied preferences point in the other direction, and maybe the best explanation is they actually enjoy their art, whilst you enjoy feeling smug about your more ‘refined’ taste. (cf.)

Yet if ‘high’ art could be defended with the underlying snobbishness substantially adulterated, this better defense could run something like this:

There is something to the distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ art. ‘Airport novels’ serve different purposes than some ultra-hard sci-fi[19], likewise a catchy hit versus a concept album, likewise a hollywood blockbuster versus an avant-garde art-house flick. Perhaps the common theme is a greater demand being made on the audience: say music which offers less when piped into your headphones whilst checking email, but intended to reward careful study and concentration.

Thus, in ascending order of snobbishness, we could say:

(1) ‘Higher’ art is a complementary good, and the canon is a particularly good source of it: Even if ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ are misnomers (perhaps ‘harder’ versus ‘softer’?) the former still have their place. Although there’s plenty to celebrate and enjoy for ‘softer’ more accessible art, there’s somewhat different goods on offer from harder art, and usually better to have a mix of both (Grosse Fuge probably isn’t the best for your house party;[20] but Call me maybe may not have the greatest riches for careful excavation to reveal).[21]

The consensus canon doesn’t have a monopoly on harder art. Yet it does maintain a niche as one of the better ‘go-to’ reservoirs: one, the proportion is greater (there are accessible parts of the classical repertoire, and ‘harder’ bits of pop music, but pop music tends more accessible); second (related to the point about time lag) these areas are more easily plotted out in common knowledge – there’s an established ‘canon’ of great works in classical literature to start with, less so for science fiction.

(2) Old times produced more (and better) ‘higher’ art, because modern artistic output is overwhelmingly ‘lower’ art: Going further, we could allege this complementary good of ‘harder art’ is undersupplied. Perhaps the modern ‘popular hits’ in the arts are similar to to processed foods or social media: extremely good at getting the right neurons to fire, but an adversarial example to what is best for our souls.

This in concert with other factors (cf.) could mean a large enough proportion of modern production is directed to ‘lower’ art so that the best high art remains in the past. To be sure, there remains an archipelago of artistic communities trying to reach the heights and depths of artistic expression, but even taking these together gives a much more meagre harvest than already stockpiled in the established canon.

(3) New artforms suck for producing higher art: Going still further, we could say not only that artists not only choose not to try for higher art, but even when they do, they are hobbled by limitations that apply now which did not apply in the past. Perhaps some mix of these considerations:

  • ‘Intrinsically’ ill-suited: Maybe what is best in literature is characterisation, and thus the proliferation of genre writing imposes tropes that distract from the best of what is literature. Maybe what is best in literature is orchestration, structure, tonality (etc.) things which modern music tends to neglect. And so on.
  • Closure of the canon: Perhaps for some art forms we can talk of a loss of a recognised ‘canon’ in contemporary practice. The decline of the western tonal system which marks the end of the common practice era has left no heir apparent, instead a radiation of different approaches (cf.). Perhaps diversification has some costs: maybe the best opportunities for great art lie when there is a tradition of existing work in which the audience can be assumed to be implicitly familiar – akin to how we might think there is a golden mean between small town claustrophobia (hidebound to the small old ways of doing things) and big city anomie (you have thousands of facebook friends, but too few of the really important sort).
  • Under- and over-division of labour: Lots of modern artforms are produced by large teams (compare a novel to a TV serial script, leave alone directors, production, etc). Yet team efforts might be additive, and so lower variance in the right tail (e.g. even if you are the greatest writer of all time, your contribution is dragged down by your merely brilliant peers). Erring in the other direction, there are cases of insufficiently divided labour: able performers usually shouldn’t be ‘writing their own songs’, and the sneering about EDM artists “only knowing how to play a Macbook” is misplaced.

This considerations are listed in ascending snobbishness but descending plausibility. Perhaps there is something to the claim the canon is a handy vehicle for lots of harder art; maybe to the claim that there are features that drive modern output away from harder art, but challenging to maintain they are sufficiently omnipotent; the later points about intrinsic limitations look tendentious and with limited applicable scope, even if they just about survive as pro tanto considerations.

Conclusion

In the first part I gave the case why we should expect modern artistic resources to be far greater than those of previous times. In the second, I explored possible defences of why nonetheless we the consensus canon of (usually) older work is still worthy of attention. How should one condense this cloud of considerations?

The second part first. Taken together, I think there is qualified defense of old art can be made, although it does so by shifting across a variety of grounds: perhaps there is a defensible notion of ‘higher’ art (although we might disclaim the normative connation of the distinction); perhaps modern incentives do slant away from this more than was the case than before (although many modern artists aim to produce this work nonetheless); and perhaps the canon offers an easy route to funnel people to enjoying these goods (although if someone ‘gets their fix’ from something extra-canonical, this is no cause for pity).

On the first part, I am emphatic rather than equivocal. Art should not be an exception to new optimism: by virtue of mere population we should expect recent times to have more brilliant artists than any time before, and the very greatest talents of today should be even more gifted than those of previous times. The conditions in which these people live has also dramatically improved, and this tends to provide substantial flow-through benefit to artistic achievement. Compared to this, countervailing considerations fade into insignificance.

Wherever ‘golden ages’ may lie for particular artforms, the golden age for art generally is now. We can admire the great achievements of the past, but not be overshadowed by them; we can hope, and expect, to do even better still – above us, only sky.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Alex Barry, Robert Beagrie, Haydn Belfield, Eric Drexler, Owain Evans, Habiba Islam, Caroline Jeanmaire, Jelena Luketina, Cassidy Nelson, Richard Ngo, Anders Sandberg, Tanya Singh, Pablo Stafforini, Philip Trammel, Robert Wiblin, and some participants at the SF Leaders forum for the conversations that helped germinate this piece. Do not hold them responsible for my mistakes.


[1] I also owe various debts to conversations I had at and around EAG in San Francisco, and around FHI in Oxford (see acknowledgments). As these are only half remembered, I’m reluctant to cite particular points to particular people, for fear of being unwittingly uncharitable to them. Folks who think I am accurately plagiarising them instead are welcome to prod me to be attributed.

[2] ‘Best of’ a population allows you to gerrymander by picking what population you have in mind: was Sophocles the best playwright in Athens, or Greece, or the world? In defence, I suggest picking the relevant country-ish seems a fair comparison (and although it begs questions I address later on, the density of ‘classic greek playwrights’ is hard to explain by it just-so-happening that multiple 6 sigma + events happened to collide in a very small population over a very short time). Ultimately, simple appeal to the world population (which rose by about 1.5 orders of magnitude between then and now) gives a fair argumentative backstop.

[3] Similar stories apply to being born the ‘wrong’ race, class, creed, sexual orientation, etc.

[4] With the possible exception of Aesop.

[5] The common cause which unifies all of this is likely the industrial revolution, as ably argued by Luke Muehlhauser.

[6] It is conspicuous the ‘leading lights’ of this golden age (e.g. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin) were either nobility or managed to enter into lucrative professions. It is hard to imagine them achieving similar success if they were born as serfs.

[7] My favourite (recent) example. The Beatles in their early days trekked across Liverpool to find someone who could show them how to play a B7 chord. It takes me about 10 seconds with an internet browser.

[8] Another very crude (but ‘hard’) metric would be the upper range of violin register has increased over time for virtuoso music. In the baroque era very little went above A6-C6, about 3rd position on the ‘E’ string. One of the more famous show-pieces around a century later went up to (ignoring harmonics) F#7, around an octave higher. Some contemporary virtuosi play the same piece, directly transcribed, on the cello!

[9] Pace any novelty effects: even if we supposed it was the case that people processed through a large part of the classical canon as their first priority, but then decide there is better ‘return’ to (e.g.) listening to some modern music for the first time than Beethoven’s 9th yet again, I’m confident the general trend is not much defrayed by this consideration.

[10] Among a long string of indictments, the consensus canon is also very slanted by place as well as time. Across history, a lot of people outside europe spent time creating art. It would be surprising if it so happened that none of them ended up producing some of the very best work.

[11] Or cases where people who are now most lauded for X were mostly lauded for Y by their contemporaries. Hume during his life enjoyed much more success with his historical work than his philosophical writing (the Treatise “Fell dead-born from the press”). Bach’s initial posthumous reputation centered more around his skills at the organ and in teaching rather than as a composer.  

[12] Although doing this might not be very public spirited. Perhaps we should spend some of our energies considering recent work, and so help build the canon for future generations, akin to the proverbial old men planting trees despite knowing they will never enjoy their shade.

[13] I understand a common account given of the early days of particular media is it starts off mostly imitating a previous one until people gain a better understanding of its finer-grained strengths and limitations. Film can be more than ‘recorded theatre’, and perhaps ‘arty’ video games can be more than ‘interactive films’.

[14] And it has to go pretty far to make the talent pool shrink in absolute terms given the very large factors on the other side of the scale – maybe plausible for poetic epic, but a harder sell for theatre.

[15] There are countervailing considerations here too: we might argue in principle newer media should be better as they have a wider base of technological capability to take advantage of, and in practice take the trend on consumption towards newer from older to be evidence of their superiority. Or we could make an allocative efficiency argument: insofar as skills for theatre and film subtly diverge, people who have a particular knack for one over the other can enter their favoured discipline. Perhaps Aristophanes could have done even better if he could have written sitcoms instead.

[16] Further (and similar to before), the slant in popular interest (people generally spend a lot more time watching films or TV than reading, say) gives some evidence for thinking the ‘new’ media are in some sense better than the old.

[17] My favourite is the ongoing novelty of historically inauthentic audienceship in classical music: heaven forfend you applaud between movements, yet Beethoven got mad when the audience to one of his late quartets did not demand an encore of the last movement but did so for two in the middle.

[18] Unlike modern day literary fiction, great novels in the golden age were popular: commonly serialised in newspapers and held a wide audience of the ‘reading public’. Perhaps even the most ardent admirer of Haydn (who was infamously avaricious) could concede not every one of his 106 symphonies was each an attempt by him to summit the highest peaks of musical expression.  

[19] “A few reviewers complained that they had trouble keeping straight the physical meanings of the Splinterites’ directions. This leaves me wondering if they’ve really never encountered a book before that benefits from being read with a pad of paper and a pen beside it, or whether they’re just so hung up on the idea that only non-fiction should be accompanied by note-taking and diagram-scribbling that it never even occurred to them to do this. I realise that some people do much of their reading with one hand on a strap in a crowded bus or train carriage, but books simply don’t come with a guarantee that they can be properly enjoyed under such conditions.” – Greg Egan

[20] Save as a joke for counter/signalling purposes: “Oh, you don’t listen to tonality-stretching counterpoint to while away the time? Mind the Infinite Jest on the coffee table – I’m re-reading it for some light relief”.

[21] But note a lot of craft goes into something like Call me maybe – see this account for just mixing the track as an example.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Is old art obsolete?

  1. FWIW, I broadly agree with your take.

    I’ll comment on music, the art form I know most thoroughly. In my opinion, the vast, vast majority of great music has been produced post-WWII. One reason (among several) that this can be difficult to see, however, is that most of the best music produced post-WWII is pretty inaccessible for most listeners. This might be because the most instantly listenable creative ideas — e.g. the idea of a (tonal) fugue — were ~fully explored first, and later artists were left to explore less instantly listenable forms, e.g. the whiplash-inducing polystylism of Alfred Schnittke (in contemporary classical) or John Zorn (in jazz) or Frank Zappa (in rock), or whatever. Of course there are some exceptions, e.g. Arvo Part’s (quite accessible) “holy minimalism,” peaking perhaps with Tabula Rasa (1977).

    I’m not sure whether a similar “exhaustion of broadly-accessible fruit” can explain the (probably false) appearance of artistic decline in other fields, but it might.

    Like

  2. I’m glad that your procrastivity is really interesting, but I think you’re wrong here, and there’s something else going on.

    I’d suggest that the historical process is part of the artistic merit of a piece. I’m convinced that there’s virtue to history in art – my enjoyment is in part a function of an appreciation of different contexts and the process by which this art influenced other art and the development of later styles.

    This might be partly signalling, but there is something that is in fact different about art that has a context. Part of my enjoyment of Rembrandt is how he exemplified a dutch painting movement and perfected it, and I like Salvador Dali because I understand the way in which his surrealist style was influenced by revolting against earlier styles, and how he influenced later art. I don’t feel this way, but I have heard others say that part of why they appreciate the Mona Lisa is because they know the story of how it came to be recognized as great art, and they want to share in that story. These types of value can’t be present in new art, because it doesn’t have the same context or history.

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