Art for Our Time

Why we need the creativity of our contemporaries.

On the Create channel, Andrew Collins asks, why write, when it hardly seems possible that there exists anything new to be said? How can modern folk dare to create in the shadow of 20-plus centuries of masterpieces like Dante’s Comedy and Beethoven’s Fifth?

The complementary question is, why should I bother about new art — going to new plays, exploring new music and poetry?

Collins answers his own question with the humble words of T.S. Eliot: “every people should have its own poetry.” And every age needs readers, watchers, and listeners willing to explore new art.

One reason we need (and love) art is that it broadens our vision of the world. In a fantastic essay on Flannery O’Conner, Cassandra Nelson argues that modern science and our seeing machines — microscopes and cameras — have shrunk our vision. Art teaches us to see the deeper meaning and relations of things. The more complex and inhuman the world becomes, the more we need art, and artists who can create a salve for our era’s particular forms of despair.

Art allows us to conceive of our ordinary lives as participating in a meaningful context, by connecting
 our time to the richness of multiple other eras. This is why Beethoven and Shakespeare are still relevant, and why it’s also worth venturing into the new territory of recent and contemporary artists.

But with the oceans of new art and entertainment available, how do we discover the good stuff?

You might find an expert, critic, or artist you trust, or sign up for a newsletter like Prufrock. But there is one really important criterion you, the lay critic, can look for in a work of art. Look for the creative ways the artist sets his own moment in relation to other moments.

Time is the essential medium of all art. Story, poetry, and music all roll out upon the rhythms of time. Even visual art — even the frozen moment on Keats’ Grecian urn — requires a methodical gaze moving in time. Art unfolds in time, but it also manipulates time, playing with and mixing up past, present, and future.

There are as many ways of manipulating time as there are works of art. Music composers do it, but it may be easier to understand the effect in drama and story.

Here are some more self-conscious examples:

  • The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which leads you and the characters forwards and then backwards again through the development, unraveling, and painful rebuilding of a romance. Neither we nor the characters are allowed to let time erase the wounds of this love, or its significance.
  • The novel 100 Years of Solitude, which describes how history keeps repeating itself among the Buendia family children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, in permutations both tragic and hilarious.

But think also of stories that circle the details of beautiful or haunting events, or look back from a place years in the future upon a pre-fall innocence or long-distant tragedy (as in so many lovely Southern novels). Or, like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, they may spend pages guiding you through the maze of one hour, and then suddenly and coldly skim years in a page.

Art allows us to consider how our own moment and place intersects with other moments and places. But it also frequently explores the overlap of our own time with the eternal, through the use of archetype. Archetypes are the “timeless” symbols and stories that an artist blends into the time-world. Think of the bits of Arthurian myth woven through Harry Potter, or the Roman archetypes behind the music of Holst’s Planets. Think of the immense, almost ridiculous, significance of the white whale in Moby Dick.

In his Myth of Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade explains the power of myth for the human psyche. Myths are symbols and rituals used by ancient and traditional cultures to transform “profane space into a transcendent space.” Myths helped people understand their own identity in a cosmic sense, grounding the transient joys and sorrows of their world. In much of the literature and art we love, it is likely the resonance of myth that has moved us.

So far, I’ve described mostly older examples. But there are artists still alive, making art that speaks into our moment. A ready example is the quirky and creative 2015 show The Leftovers, with its flashbacks and odd biblical tropes, and themes as deep as those in the Book of Job. It provides its audience with a context for tragedy and suffering, not in order to erase it, but to infuse it with significance: to ease what Eliade calls the “despair of history.” 

Of course, it’s easiest to find examples today in television and film. But don’t set the boundaries of your exploration by the selection on Netflix. It’s just as important to explore music, poetry, fiction, and visual art.

But we don’t have a Netflix for all those forms of art. And I’ll be honest; my own comfort zone in art appreciation has always been nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, and Baroque and Romantic music. So over the next few months, I plan to set out on an adventure into new art of all kinds, this side of 1960. I’ll report back periodically with my findings. I would dearly love to hear about yours as well.

Bon voyage!

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