Impermanent Art

For most of the history of the world "art" was something that served a utility function. Most of it was generated for use in various ceremonies and wasn't valued as an independent object. The only exception might be the religious art which started to be created during the Renaissance to decorate churches, and a little later, the homes of the elite.

Even so much of it was set aside after a generation or two and replaced by something more fashionable. This was especially true of music where original works were expected routinely. Without a way to reproduce the works mechanically they had little circulation either.

The artist was also considered a type of skilled workman and did not have a high place in society. This started to change for painters with the rise of the Dutch genre school and for music with Beethoven. Mozart was a composer who worked at the whim of the courts, Beethoven was an "artist" who worked on what he wished, even if he did get paid for it.

The rise of recorded music presented a new aspect. The volume of music being generated grew tremendously as did the appetite for the new. This led to an entire popular music industry. A hit song might last in the public eye for only a few weeks. I don't think that those producing such works had any thoughts about creating timeless masterpieces. The same was true for jazz and musical comedies.

At the same time the transient culture was becoming a big business there continued to be a small group of fine artists who did think they were creating something of lasting value. Mostly this group as worked in the western classical music tradition, painting and sculpture and, to a lesser degree, literature.

Over the past few decades there has arisen an academic discipline which studies the transient arts as cultural phenomenon worthy of investigation and preservation. We now see schools of jazz studies where students are explicitly schooled in the various styles of musicians of the past. The same is true of motion pictures, the only new art form developed in the 20th Century.

Over the past few years the rise of the internet and the home computer has given almost anyone the opportunity to create art and disseminate it worldwide. Much of it is obviously aimed at the audience of the moment and it's transient nature will make it hard for future cultural historians to study it as is now done with formally published material.

Has the concept of timeless art become irrelevant? Is it restricted to only those corners of the world where money can be made selling unique artifacts like an oil painting? Have we returned to the strictly utilitarian model that existed before the Romantic era? Will anything produced now become part of the cultural heritage? Can you name a timeless work of art that will fall into this category that has been been produced in the past several decades? Does it even make sense to ask who the Shakespeare of today is?


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Copyright © 2008 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.