It was good news to see four sold-out concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony performing Beethoven’s 9th symphony (Ode to Joy) at Heinz Hall. It was disheartening to see many of the patrons using walkers and hearing aids with few twenty-somethings in attendance. One would expect that the symphony’s performance highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones rock album Let It Bleed, later in July, will show the opposite demographics. Arguably, to many millennials, the Rolling Stones are interesting but ancient history and Beethoven is unapproachable.
The popular music scene is bursting with unknown young artists, many with little formal training. The trick is to post new tunes online that have been cobbled together electronically in the family basement. If conditions are right the song will go viral with millions of “hits” in a matter of days. The artist becomes an instant celebrity. Similar success stories are now common among painters and writers who utilize social media and the internet to gain instant recognition.
How is it possible that our culture can accommodate both classical and this modern wave of “streaming” creative arts? Will the old eventually give way to the new, with the world’s symphonies forced to play only modern music to survive? Will classical literature, art and music appreciation classes disappear from college curriculums? Will Shakespeare festivals like Stratford Ontario, now featuring lightweight musicals along with the Bard, eventually feature no Shakespeare at all?
In many respects our culture is experiencing a new “quarrel of the ancients and the moderns.” This term was first used to explain a literary and artistic debate in the early 17th century. Sir William Temple argued against the modern position in his essay On Ancient and Modern Learning, invoking the famous quote, “we see more only because we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.” In support of the modern position, humanists like Francis Bacon argued that the three greatest inventions of his time (printing press, gunpowder, the compass) would invariably prove the superiority of the “Moderns.”
The “Ancients” supported the merits of the philosophers, authors, and painters from antiquity contending that a Modern could do no better than imitate them. The “Moderns” countered with the argument that modern scholarship allowed man to surpass the Ancients in knowledge and therefore the ability to create.
Classical artists seem to be strongly on the side of the Ancients. No one would doubt that Mozart benefited from Bach, Beethoven learned from Mozart and that all classical composers post Beethoven learned from him. Picasso once proclaimed that “Cezanne is the father of us all.” Picasso spent years on a large painting that was his tribute to his Spanish muse. The work is a cubist interpretation of Velazquez’s major Renaissance effort, “The Guardian.”
It is interesting that when civilization is at its lowest place, the Ancients are often invoked. Christianity in the Middle Ages sought to erase “pagan” Hellenistic and Roman thought and creativity from common memory, plunging Christendom into the dark. Scholars throughout Europe, through the exchange of letters, rediscovered ancient philosophy, art and secular writings, leading to the Renaissance.
American legal philosophy, developed from the English common law has always sided with the Ancients. The guiding principle of “stare decisis” meaning, “to stand by that which is decided” compels Judges to follow precedent in their legal decisions. Similarly, conservative political thought calls for careful deliberations before making changes to policies that have stood the test of time.
When it comes to literature, the advocate of the Ancient’s position has long been Harold Bloom. This 90-something Yale professor has written volumes to support his position that Shakespeare and Dante are the gold standard, with all literature that came after imitations of the original. Bloom believes that “there always will be incessant readers who will go on reading the great books of the past, despite the proliferation of fresh technologies for distraction.” He points out that “such a reader does not read for easy pleasure, but rather to enlarge a solitary existence.”
This point raised by Bloom opens another door into understanding our renewed quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. Our modern culture thrives on change. It creates new goods and services, and teaches us to want them. It adds new technologies, things and ideas at an increasingly rapid rate. The amount of cultural change experienced in America between 1950 and 2019 is far greater than the amount of change experienced in the entire 18th and 19th centuries.
New works of music, literature and painting play to our instant gratification and require little effort on our part to appreciate. While all are in some respect “creative,” few are derivative or build on what has come before.
Today’s internet-driven culture is clearly on the side of the Moderns. Nevertheless, if history offers any lessons, there will come a time when our culture experiences a backlash against the superficial, sensory overload of what passes for the modern.
While time buries almost all human effort, certain creative works of genius will always prevail. No doubt, some of this genius will result from modern sources. But it would not surprise me to find the children of our grandchildren “rediscovering” what the Ancients have to offer in enriching their understanding of what it means to be human.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.