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The State of the Arts in 21st Century North America

What does art and being an artist mean in the 21st century?

For the last year, Sørina Higgins has been interviewing poets, novelists, musicians, photographers, critics, professors, and theologians in order to get a sense of what art and being an artist means in the 21st century.

I would like to take the pulse of the moment: to discover, express, and discuss the current state of the arts in North America. I would like to ascertain the driving ideologies that inform the prevailing techniques in poetry, “high-brow” fiction, the visual arts, new musical compositions in the best classical tradition, and the synthetic arts such as dance and theatre.

While this sounds like a large and lofty project, I am approaching it via small steps: weekly interviews with artists or thinkers-about-the-arts, published on this blog every Monday. The interviewees will include religious and main-stream artists, as well as people who think about the arts and culture, even if they do not make art themselves. There will be poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, musicians, composers, visual artists, actors, conductors, students in college art departments, teachers, professors, department heads, and chairpersons of arts organizations.

In each interview, I ask these people what techniques, topics, and theories inform their own work (or the arts they study) and that of their genre(s) as a whole. I ask them to comment on the current state of the arts and sometimes see if they have thought about present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and culture.

I’m still making my way through the interviews — there are nearly fifty of them — but Higgins has posted a summary of her findings at The Curator:

Now I have a composite portrait, made up of glimpses into fifty-some-odd artistic lives, and what does that palimpsest reveal?

It reveals the death of Romanticism. Of course, we already knew that Romanticism is dead everywhere except, well, except for film scores, individualism, environmentalism, landscape painting, figurative sculpture, our idolatry of sexual romance… But we may have overlooked the fact that the Artist of the nineteenth century no longer works in the twenty-first.

The Solitary Genius has been replaced by the high-energy young artsy person who understands money, management, public relations, and education as well as she understands her craft. She believes art is an industry, not a monastery. This person, latte in one hand, SmartPhone in the other, opens up to the audience, inviting viewers to share in the creative process from idea through execution to interpretation. This suit-clad hard-working urbanite has one goal: engage the audience. It’s about collaboration, entertainment, openness, and diversity. It’s about real people, not inspired supermen. It’s about making connections across the arts.

One aspect of Higgins’ analysis that I found particularly interesting was her characterization of the age-old struggle between the “Old” and the “New”, between the traditional and the cutting edge:

The revolution in poetry was the invention of free verse, around about the nineteen ’teens and ’20s. This led to a second wave of confessional verse. By the ’80s, the only way to be radical was to write formal poetry, and a poetry war began. All of the poets I interviewed pick and choose from the gamut of free and formal techniques without inhibition. Some of them have learned that the only way forward is back.

The big revolution in music was the invention of the 12-tone row, or dodecaphonic music, around about the 1940s. By the ’60s, this was the new establishment. Any composer who wanted to be taken seriously had to write 12-tone, or at least atonal, music. Minimalism was a re-reaction, but has become another familiar member of the ruling regime. Many of the composers I interviewed are trying to find a newly tonal voice of either simplicity or expansion.


So the old rebellion has become the new tradition, and the new rebellion is turning back to even older traditions. At this moment of transition, there is an openness to new ideas, new voices, new methods, and newcomers. The positive side of such openness is the rich variety it makes possible. The negative side is the proliferation of, quite simply, bad art. Also, art about badness. Lewd content is old hat. Moral certainty is rated as propaganda or, worse, hate speech. Nobody wants to admit to communicating a message through art.

And, unsurprisingly, hardly anybody wants to talk about theories, put themselves in categories, or offer a label for our times. One composer might consider herself a “Maximalist.” One poet might fit the term “Expansive Poetry.” One theatre director has developed “Panoramic Theatre.” One graphic designer advocates stewardship of the “Creative Economy.” There is a movement towards more Storytelling in literature, film, and radio. Form and Narrative are alive and well. While I am not prepared to label my era yet, either, all of these words suggest something large, welcoming, vital, and comprehensive.

As I read this portion of Higgins’ article, I couldn’t help but consider my own particular artistic field: web design. I’ll admit that the comparison doesn’t quite hold up, as I don’t think web design yet has anything approaching the schools of thought or ideologies that you find in, say, poetry or music: pragmatism still reigns fairly supreme in the field.

That being said, it got me to thinking that, on the one hand, web design is constantly in a state of rebellion, constantly reinventing itself thanks to technological advances (e.g., newer, more advanced browsers capable of taking advantage of new HTML and CSS specifications). On the other hand, it’s a medium that also tries to adhere to, and find some foundation in, the past (e.g., classic typographic standards).

Higgins’ conclusions are both troubling and encouraging, and acutely describe the struggle that artists have always faced when it comes to creating work that matters:

Artists long to offer something for the sustenance of the inner life. They look to the past to find what the present is missing. They value mystery and intimation over virtuosity. The source of their inspiration is in their embodiment. Some of them are recovering their lost role as public voices: heralds of ceremony, satirists of government, and meaning-makers after tragedy. Beneath the varied techniques, artists offer what human beings have always needed: horror and hope, fear and faith, grief and glory. Dana Gioia told me, “I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths.” The art of the moment that has troubling surfaces and no depth will not last, no matter how accessible, engaging, entertaining, or inclusive. Works that are profound and well-crafted will last, as they have always done.

I love that quote, “I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths.” It seems to describe so well the type of art that I want to have in my life: art that may seem simple and straightforward, but that as you begin to explore it more and more, proves more troubling, confounding, and even disturbing (not necessarily a bad thing) than previously thought. It’s art that challenges to be sure, but proves oh so rewarding in the long run.

All in all, a fascinating and thought-provoking article that should be of interest to anyone who has some modicum of interest in the arts, and what they mean for us here and now.

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