Here comfortably sitting on our well padded seats in 2016 – probably looking at stuff online on a slim piece of glass and plastic, or maybe a hinged something that purrs a little and is warm to the touch – we are all so used to the ‘new’ the ‘exciting’ the ‘dynamic’ that we accept it without quibble, merely making a mental note of its shortcomings to add to our review later. The new is no longer a novelty, in fact we expect and demand it.
In some ways this is sad. I think we miss out on a lot of excitement by being so blasé about innovation. I remember my grandmother – born 1890 – and her delighted wonder at the first men in space. Just in her lifetime the world had gone from the fastest form of transport being a train, to men orbiting the earth. “It’s just like Jules Verne!” she said.
But technology isn’t the only thing that changes. There are works of beauty that are so much a part of our list of artistic icons that they are immediately recognisable. In fact it can be hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. If you want to reference them in a story it’s always a good idea to check on their dates, just in case. Your modern day protagonist may admire his love interest’s smile, likening its mysterious quality to that of the 16th century Mona Lisa but in the 17th or 18th century he is unlikely to have been able to see the original, or a copy or engraving or parody, to make the comparison.
However he might have read Vasari’s description of the painting which is approving to say the least:
Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art could imitate nature could readily perceive this from the head; since therein are counterfeited all those minutenesses that with subtlety are able to be painted: seeing that the eyes had that lustre and moistness which are always seen in the living creature, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution. The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, appeared to be alive. The mouth with its opening, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse: and indeed it may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every brave artificer, be he who he may, tremble and lose courage.
Bigging it up a bit there, and no mention of the very real possibility that the famous close lipped smile may have been to conceal bad teeth.
Critics weren’t always favourable when it came to innovation. The School of Impressionism bombed on its first major showing:
This school does away with two things: line, without which it is impossible to reproduce any form, animate or inanimate, and colour, which gives the form the appearance of reality.
Dirty three-quarters of a canvas with black and white, rub the rest with yellow, dot it with red and blue blobs at random, and you will have an impression of spring before which the initiates will swoon in ecstasy.
Smear a panel with grey, plonk some black and yellow lines across it, and the enlightened few, the visionaries, exclaim: Isn’t that a perfect impression of the bois de Meudon?
When the human figure is involved, it is another matter entirely: the aim is not to render its form, its relief, its expression – it is enough to give an impression with no definite line, no colour, light or shadow; in the implementation of so extravagant a theory, artists fall into hopeless, grotesque confusion, happily without precedent in art, for it is quite simply the negation of the most elementary rules of drawing and painting. The scribblings of a child have a naivety, a sincerity which make one smile, but the excesses of this school sicken or disgust.
“The exhibition of the Revoltes”
April 29, 1874
So a late Victorian gent with an eye for art might have seen some of this work but there’s no guarantee that he’d approve of it.
In music too, standard works that are ubiquitous, in fact officially sanctioned, were considered shocking. Here’s Guiseppe Verdi’s comment on the first performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony:
“marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the last. No one will ever surpass the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement.”
Another critic was even less enthusiastic:
Beethoven is still a magician, and it has pleased him on this occasion to raise something supernatural, to which this critic does not consent.
And now it’s the official theme tune of the EU, whose policies do indeed sometimes smack of those strange and eldritch things, beyond the wot of mankind.
Times change, and so do attitudes, but on the whole critics don’t. Even though we are used to new and wonderful things there are still always people happy and delighted to point out their shortcomings. In a hundred years I’m sure there will be things we adore now that have fallen into obscurity, unpopular things that are considered the pinnacle of our current civilisation and novelists writing stories set in 2016 whose heroes whole heartedly approve of them.
Just for a change of pace, here’s the Ode to Joy given a very modern al fresco treatment.