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10-08-2015, 23:41

THE ARTS: MIRROR OF THE AGE

If, as the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo once observed, the arts are the signature of their age, what has been happening in literature, art, music, and architecture in recent decades is a reflection of the evolving global response to the rapid changes taking place in human society today. This reaction has sometimes been described as postmodernism, although today’s developments are much too diverse to be placed under a single label. Some of the arts are still experimenting with the modernist quest for the new and the radical. Others have begun to return to more traditional styles as a reaction against globalization and a response to the search for national and cultural identity in a bewildering world (see the box on p. 329). The most appropriate label for the contemporary cultural scene, in fact, is probably pluralism. The arts today are an eclectic hybrid, combining different movements, genres, and media, as well as incorporating different ethnic or national characteristics. There is no doubt that Western culture has strongly influenced the development of the arts throughout the world in recent decades. In fact, the process has gone in both directions as art forms from Africa and Asia have profoundly enriched the cultural scene in the West. One ironic illustration is that some of the best literature in the English and French languages today is being written in the nations that were once under British or French colonial rule. Today, global interchange in the arts is playing the same creative role that the exchange of technology between different regions played in stimulating the Industrial Revolution. As one Japanese composer declared not long ago, “I would like to develop in two directions at once: as a Japanese with respect to tradition, and as a Westerner with respect to innovation. . . . In that way I can avoid isolation from the tradition and yet also push toward the future in each new work.” 6 Such a globalization of culture, however, has its price. Because of the popularity of Western culture throughout the Third World, local cultural forms are being eroded and destroyed as a result of contamination by Western music, mass television, and commercial hype. Although what has been called the “McWorld culture” of Coca- Cola, jeans, and rock is considered merely cosmetic by some, others see it as cultural neoimperialism and a real cause for alarm. How does a society preserve its traditional culture when the young prefer to spend their evenings at a Hard Rock Café rather than attend a traditional folk opera or wayang puppet theater? World conferences have been convened to safeguard traditional cultures from extinction, but is there sufficient time, money, or inclination to reverse the tide? What do contemporary trends in the art world have to say about the changes that have occurred between the beginning and the end of the twentieth century? One reply is that the euphoric optimism of artists during the age of Picasso and Stravinsky has been seriously tempered a century later. Naiveté has been replaced by cynicism or irony as protection against the underlying pessimism of the current age. One dominant characteristic of the new art is its reticence— its reserve in expressing the dissonance and disillusioning events of the past century. It would appear that we entered the twentieth century with too many expectations, hopes that had been fueled by the promise of revolution and scientific discoveries. Yet however extraordinary the recent advances in medicine, genetics, telecommunications, computer technology, and space exploration have been, humankind seems to remain as befuddled as ever. It is no wonder that despite the impressive recent advances in science, human beings entered the new millennium a little worn and subdued. What, then, are the prospects for the coming years? One critic has complained that postmodernism, “with its sad air of the parades gone by,” 7 is spent and exhausted. Others suggest that there is nothing new left to say that has not been expressed previously and more effectively. The public itself appears satiated and desensitized after a century of “shocking” art and, as in the case of world events, almost incapable of being shocked any further. Human sensibilities have been irrevocably altered by the media, by technology, and especially by the cataclysmic events that have taken place in our times. Perhaps the twentieth century was the age of revolt, representing “freedom from,” while the next hundred years will be an era seeking “freedom for.” What is comforting is that no matter how pessimistic and disillusioned people claim to be, hope springs eternal as young writers, artists, and composers continue to grapple with their craft, searching for new ways to express the human condition. How can one not be astonished by architect Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (see the photo on p. 315), with its thrusting turrets and billowing sails of titanium? Such exuberance can only testify to humanity’s indomitable spirit and ceaseless imagination—characteristics that are badly needed as the world embarks on its next century.

 

 

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