(Brenda Harness, Art Historian; http://www.finearttouch.com/Renaissance_Rivals_Raphael_and_Michelangelo.html)
(Luke Hickman; http://bluray.highdefdigest.com/news/show/HDD_Study_Hall/Martin_Scorsese/
(Scott Beauchamp and Alex Shephard; http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/bob-dylan-and-john-lennons-weird-one-sided-relationship/262680/)
Through this blog, I spent the last two weeks extoling the music, theater and films that not only entertained me throughout 2012, but in large part sustained me.
Still, on days when I don’t have anything more acute to annoy me, I routinely find myself perplexed by what I perceive as a relative scarcity of newfound artistic brilliance pervading entertainment and cultural realms.
The seeming paradox isn't lost on me and I do not mean to disregard myriad examples of creative excellence exhibited by talented individuals in many fields, nor denigrate the wide variety of performances and creations that truly do enrich my life.
From actors amazing me within storefront theaters, to poets garnering rapt attention at public readings, to painters, photographers and sculptors peddling their wares at art fairs, to rock, jazz, blues, classical and other musicians making people smile—somewhere—every night of the year, and even to TV shows I enjoy week-after-week, there are innumerable “great artists” out there, who I admire and appreciate, many even without any direct awareness.
But while realizing the triteness of perpetually kvetching about how things used to be better, I genuinely believe that when it comes to transcendent artists of recent vintage with a modicum of mainstream relevance, it’s possible we may be at a historically low ebb. (Take a look at my Best Concerts of 2012 and Best Albums, and you'll notice a preponderance of old, or at least well-established, artists, rather than new ones.)
I’m not sure why this is, although I have to imagine the internet is somehow to blame, between splintering our attention, sensationalizing the superficial, simplifying the educational & creation process, abbreviating artistic gestation and aggrandizing the pursuit of the almighty dollar far above any aesthetic appreciation.
Yet this still doesn’t explain to me why I can only name a relative paucity of new artists—perhaps emerging since the turn of the century—who have a fair amount of mainstream acclaim, or who are, to my awareness and assessment, worthy of it.
Practitioners in the following realms used to be widely celebrated, but...
who can you name that has come to attention within the past 10 years or so and shown signs of historic significance in these areas: rock band, jazz musician, folk singer, classical musician, classical composer, Broadway composer, painter, sculptor, poet, movie director, movie star, stand-up comedian, cartoonist, photographer, dancer, architect, playwright and journalist?If you can cite 10 names, combined, I’d be impressed.
Now, I realize that “historic significance” is open to interpretation and hard to judge without some chronological distance. And I really don’t know if people like Miles Davis, Allan Ginsburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Lenny Bruce, Joan Baez and Leonard Bernstein were truly household names. Perhaps their stature has grown once their legacies were shown to endure.
And I certainly realize my gripes are nothing new. Generation after generation, throughout history, has likely derided the relative fatuousness of subsequent ones. But my point here is really to point out that whether during the actual Renaissance or as exemplified by artistic torrents ranging from Impressionism to Bebop to the first 25-year surge of rock ’n roll, truly transcendent (or even just great) artists rarely developed or existed in a vacuum.
As illustrated by the anecdotes that opened this piece, talented creators—including many of the most historically exalted—have been inspired by their peers. And although nowadays, extraordinary gifted artists will still occasionally rise above the din, I really don’t see much evidence of what I call the “creative cluster effect,” in which great painters or authors or rock bands or movie directors engage in a (real or merely perceived) game of “Can you top this?”
Take for just one example, rock music in the 1960s. The Beatles exploded on the scene, having themselves been influenced by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and other American rock pioneers. After the Beatles came to America in 1964, bands like The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark 5, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, The Yardbirds and The Who would soon follow, and all these years later, much of the music made by these artists still holds up.
Of course, you also had Motown going on, with the Supremes and the Miracles and the Temptations and on and on, as well as other American vocal groups such as the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. And with the rising tide of Vietnam in the background, Bob Dylan’s reverence for Woody Guthrie helped spur him to bring activism to pop music, with songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Masters of War.”
Over the next decade or so, these artists would directly or indirectly, and perhaps a bit coincidentally, push each other to musical heights that—in breadth and depth, within pop music genres—haven’t been topped since. As referenced at top, Dylan prompted the Beatles to get more political. And the Beach Boys’ brilliant Pet Sounds album clearly helped to inspire Sgt. Pepper’s, upon whose release the breakdown of Brian Wilson showed just how seriously the artists were about competing with each other.
Take a look at the Wikipedia page for “1967 in Music” as well as the year’s page on the “Best Ever Albums” website. 1967 saw the release of two new albums, each, by the Beatles, Stones, Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Traffic, plus masterpieces from The Velvet Underground, Love, Cream, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane, Dylan, The Kinks, The Who, The Moody Blues and more.
One of the more astonishing things to think about is that the Are You Experienced? album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience—on which Hendrix introduced a plethora of new sounds—was only a decade removed from Buddy Holly’s astonishing yet much more musically quaint output. Does anything today sound that much different from 2002?
I truly believe the period from 1955-1980 represents a rock ’n roll renaissance that likely will never be seen again. Narrowing it down even just to 1964-1975, the amount of great musical artists who came of age—besides those already mentioned, the Byrds, Creedence, CSN, Neil Young, Elton, Bowie, Queen, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, The Faces, Santana and many others—is rather mindblowing.
Now, I realize that we may very well be in the midst a “Creative Cluster” in the genre of Electronic Dance Music, which isn’t rendered inconsequential by the fact that I don’t care about it.
Similarly, even though it’s also a bit beyond my own personal tastes, I would argue that “Dramatic TV Series created by Cable TV Channels” may be our greatest Creative Cluster of the moment, with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dexter, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, etc. supposedly being among the best on TV. It also seems possible that dramatic television is the only artistic genre currently at an all-time peak. (Though for TV itself, I prefer the ’70s sitcom cluster with All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, Taxi, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork & Mindy, etc.).
Further countering my own hypothesis, which seems to hold up best largely in the realm of pop music, perhaps the ongoing Technology Cluster that has Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon continually playing the “Can you top this?” game will go down in history as something of a Renaissance in its own way.
I guess it’s possible that we can only have a certain amount of Creative Clusters at the same time, and they come and go. I mean, if the 1930’s had a cluster of historically significant classical music composers, or the 1970s a cluster of museum-level fine artists, I can’t say that the practitioners of such readily come to mind.
So perhaps it’s just a matter of time before another Nirvana-Pearl Jam-Soundgarden-Alice in Chains-Smashing Pumpkins cluster comes along, or maybe in time I’ll eventually see the Tarantino-Fincher-Aronofsky-Coen Bros. cluster as estimable as the Coppola-Scorsese-Spielberg-Lucas cluster of the early ’70s.
In sum, I’m not really sure what my conclusion is, just that something seems lacking.