Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Up To Date = Out Of Date

I just ran across an article about what makes a work of art seem dated in the New Yorker. It is one of those articles that I think of as "high-class journalism". By that I mean that it has some of the trappings of a thoughtful piece, but basically skitters around on the surface. You can tell it's the New Yorker because they use the word 'septuagenarian'.

The methodology started out ok: let's compare two Australian movies from the 70s, Walkabout and Mad Max. One seems dated, Walkabout, but the other does not.
Amidst a recent spate of travelling in Australia, I watched two films from that country, both released in the nineteen-seventies: Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” from 1971, and George Miller’s “Mad Max,” from 1979. I was struck by how much Roeg’s film felt of its time, and how little did Miller’s. It is true that eight years separate the two, bookending a decade—and one might argue that 1971 was, in essence, still the nineteen-sixties. But “Walkabout,” while it retains an impressionistic power, is filled with moments that jar for a different reason: they seem irrevocably dated.
By contrast, “Mad Max” felt remarkably fresh, as if it could have been made in the nineteen-eighties—or last week. But why? What actually makes a work of art—a film, a novel, architecture, fashion—seem “dated”? The Web site of Merriam-Webster defines dated as “outmoded, old-fashioned.” And yet, this lacks explanatory power; every historical artifact (not to mention some that are new and “already dated”) could fall under that rubric. Why do some things seamlessly slip from their temporal context? When does something cross from historically appropriate to “dated”? And is there a time window for datedness, a kind of reverse statute of limitations, beyond which things are doomed by their historical patina?
Regular readers of this blog should be able to see the problem here. The writer is trying to do aesthetic evaluation without realizing it. He thinks there is some kind of historical issue here because that is the way he has framed it: "what makes a work of art seem dated?" You have to recognize that the real question is aesthetic because you are not dealing with computers or cellphones or cars, but with works of art. Historical detritus is just another aesthetic material.

I was just watching a clip on YouTube where Christopher Hitchens and three other people were discussing Homer's Odyssey. Is it 'dated'? It would pretty much have to be as it is one of the oldest works of Western literature. And, in many people's view, still the best. It is very much of its time, but also universal.

In the New Yorker piece, Tom Vanderbuilt makes this observation:
What makes a work of art seem dated, I would suggest, is a sort of overdetermined reliance on the tropes, whether of subject or style, of the day—a kind of historical narcissism. 
That sort of expresses it, though using the word "trope" is going to make the essay age pretty rapidly! As my philosophy prof used to say, "let me rephrase": A work of art will have a brief lifespan if it tries too hard to be up to date. Using fashionable terms like "trope" would be an example. In other words, you are trying to appeal to the audience by reaching out to them. Being 'hip' and "with it". Remember that you are trying to tell a story. Let your characters drive the story.

In music, I think that we will find, as time goes on, that a lot of the very hip, up-to-date works of the avant-garde will age badly because they were trying hard to be fashionable and up-to-date in terms of modernism. There was a time when the music of Harry Partch was seen as possibly the "music of the future":

There are some great bits in there, but I think it is safe to say that it has aged badly. Another terribly fashionable composer from not long ago was Sylvano Busotti. Here is a little tune for voice and guitar:

Both of these composers are putting the extremely heavy burden on themselves of trying to write the "music of the future". All music of the past has to be ruthlessly expunged. Alas, only very few composers are up to that challenge! Stravinsky was one, but his music still has a lot of the past in it. The issue is NOT to be up-to-date, it is to make a good piece of music. Aesthetically. It's not a historical problem, it's an aesthetic problem. Stravinsky never forgot that:


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