Is  Art Dead and does it really matter?

by Will Baker


Early this week I had a friend over for dinner. Actually he’s a dear friend who is also my daughter’s Godfather. It has been unusually hot here in Vermont. And as we sat in my dooryard, sipping Chardonnay, we talked about the demise of art. Thankfully a weather front was moving past while we talked, and a pleasant, seasonally cool evening breeze started to blow.

As far as access to art is concerned, I feel that I live in a fortunate place and time. True, I would have enjoyed playing the part of a Florentine Renaissance Man, but living in New England in the last part of the twentieth century has its advantages. It is a short drive or flight from here to many of the major galleries, museums and theaters in the country. And at this point in time, through technological advancements, art of all types is readily accessible. For instance, on this very web site a comprehensive library of painted images can be found. I feel fortunate that my schedule takes me to Boston and Washington D.C. on a fairly regular basis, and I can avail myself of the art that can be found there, not to mention New York City, which is only a hop skip and jump in this day and age.

Others and I have said before, due to the leisure time that is now available to many of us, never before has there been so many writers and musicians. My friend points out that there are so many artists of all types among us now that they can not all be employed. So what is the problem? This doesn’t sound like the demise of art at all.

As I write I am a little disappointed. Due to business commitments I will be unable to take advantage of a "freebie" ticket to the New York City Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake, next Tuesday night, at the Saratoga Performance Arts Center across the lake in up state New York. I am disappointed on a couple of levels. As anyone that knows me can tell you, I am not a huge fan of the ballet. But I am a fan of the Performing Arts; therefore I would have enjoyed myself. I love music, even though classical is not my first choice, and I love the dance, even though ballet is not my first choice either, therefore I would not have been bored at the ballet. I would have also enjoyed the company, had I been able to attend. The "freebie" ticket would have been courtesy of my above reference friend. And since the impetus for our discussion on the demise of art had been my friend’s announcement that he was going to see Swan Lake next week, I know that in addition to the ballet, the conversation would have been very good. It would have given me the opportunity to hear him develop an argument that he began while we were sipping wine in my dooryard, but not quite finished.

Unlike myself, my friend is an opera, ballet and classical music buff. Therefore it seemed natural for me to ask him some questions on the subject. I asked him if he thought that it appeared as though classical music and the opera had hit their "high-water" marks long ago. Although I am a fan of "popular music," I was not baiting him. I have long wondered why it appears, from my limited perspective that contemporary classical pieces are being dismissed as lightweight, and the conventional wisdom is that they will not endure. I was surprised at his answer.

If memory serves, his argument was a variation on the themes of "throwing the baby out with the bath water," and the possible loss of a global innocence brought about by advances in math and the sciences --although the Chardonnay may have clouded my recollection. It seems to me that art, by whatever definition one wishes to use, has to resonate with the individual. The point that I believe my friend was making is that over time, advances in math and the sciences have explained away much of what used to be mysterious to us. And in doing so has forced us to change our view of the world. This shift in consciousness has also changed the views of people towards other things, for instance, religion and art. The new information called for a new "world view." So we threw out the old "world view" (the bath water), but maybe the baby also (things like artistic resonance and the importance of religion in our daily lives).

This was an interesting argument and one that I did not expect to hear. I must admit that I was thinking in simpler terms: perhaps linking the perceived problem to a creative dilemma: a sense that all has been done before, or maybe that we are caught in a transition of artistic mediums. Take for instance the current state of film. For several years I have marked the trend of the major studios to release an inordinate number of remakes. I could easily rattle off a dozen examples without straining my memory, and if you are a moviegoer, you could do likewise. Why all these remakes? Can it be that we are jaded and out of ideas? And in the early days of photography, picture taking was viewed more as a curious scientific hobby than an art form. The new technology made the medium possible, however there was a transition period before the issue of photographic artistic legitimacy was decided. Perhaps something of the same sort is occurring today?

It was getting on towards mid-night and the wine was nearly finished. I told my friend about an old college professor of mine who believed that as far as art is concerned; the bar should be dramatically lowered to the point where there would be no distinction between high art and popular entertainment. My friend, who himself had taught at a university, just smiled. I could tell that he probably disagreed with my professor’s position, but he was too kind to mar what he could tell, for me, was a note-worthy recollection.

So I am left with the question, unanswered, and my own sense that there is art all around us. And of course only time will tell what endures and what does not. But I am not quite certain that endurance is all that matters. The performances of unknown, unrecorded musicians come to mind. I have seen brilliant performances of unrecorded original compositions that have moved me greatly. But they endure only in the memories of the audience. But I am certain that music that moved me nearly to tears, for me must surely be art. I’ll just have to think about this some more, and maybe share with my friend another bottle of Chardonnay over the problem.


(Essay Collection)