How do we view art from the past? Do decades or centuries make a difference?
I read an article yesterday about the show Friends. In the article David Schwimmer defended the sitcom as groundbreaking for its time. However, by today’s standards it lacks diversity and would be thrown in the gulag of bigotry for homophobia and racism.
This article sent my mind reeling. I remember a time when parents wouldn’t let their kids watch Friends because of the message it sent.
But now I ponder on how art ages.
We have trouble looking at the past without our modern blinders. That is especially true for people who grew up after the fact. For my generation, that was the Vietnam War. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. A fact that blew my mind was the realization that I was born only a few years after the conclusion of the war.
To put the modern blinders in perspective, I vividly recall watching Full Metal Jacket with my best friend. About halfway through the movie my dad cleared his throat and said, “See what you guys missed.”
We about jumped out of our skins, not realizing that my dad had been standing there watching with us.
That comment sparked something in me. My buddy and I were in high school. If we had been born a couple decades earlier we would be looking at the draft, we would be looking at war. Instead of being kids in high school we could have had life and death thrust upon us.
But we like to sit in our safe screen-bound thrones and pretend that we can truly relate to what came before us. We like to look at the past as if we are better than what came before.
This doesn’t stop twenty years ago. This is a malady common to man.
Another example would be E.E. Cummings. People today cannot move past the fact that some of his poetry contained racial slurs. Readers get hung up on the words and miss the meaning of the art.
We forget that Cummings was born at the turn of the century, and not this last one. We forget that the world was different.
I’m not saying that the world was better or that people were better back then, I’m saying that they were different in their world views. As students of history and art we must put ourselves into their world to understand their creations.
My last example of the disconnect between today and past is the song Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. We cry racism in every statement, political or otherwise, but have lost our understanding of what those who came before us endured.
I would guess very few people younger than me have ever heard this song, much less listened to and understood the lyrics.
Take a moment to absorb the song and try to step outside of today’s standards.
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Art ages differently for each of us and try as we might, we are forced to look through the glasses of our current time. To discredit something that came before us because it doesn’t fit into our current world view is to shame ourselves. Remember, in a decade or two, or perhaps a century, people will be looking back at what we have created and shaking their heads because it doesn’t fit with what they know.
Art is a reflection of society: the good, the bad, and the ugly. To understand the art in all its forms is to sneak a glimpse into the lives of those who lived it.
What does our art now say about our society?
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Whoa, heavy post. Sorry for that. I’m going to head upstairs and write a swashbuckling adventure because I want to escape. For a time I will stare out my window at the hills of the Southern Tier and lose myself in a distant future.
I hope all of you keep on reading and creating, and most importantly, keep on flying the Black.