Saturday, November 27, 2004 +

JB: The Future of the Arts (1976)

From Jacques Barzun, “The Future of the Arts,” Britannica Book of the Year 1976

The state of the arts leads us to infer that the continuous period of 500 years of individualist art that has lasted since the Renaissance, the high, complicated art of the museum, the library, and concert hall, has come to an end. There is nothing more to be squeezed out of its principles and methods. Mankind has moved away from its premises—in both senses of the word. If we look at our political and social institutions, our manners and mores, our philosophical beliefs, and our old mother tongue, we observe the same confusion, the same diversity, and the same self-destruction. Consequently, the image of leveling down should not be taken as signifying merely the equalizing of social and economic conditions; it also means the tearing down of an edifice to make the ground level for another. The edifice is the culture of the West since the Renaissance.

That is the first plausible inference from the scene before us. A second is that when the ground is leveled, when the young of the next generation, or the second or third after that, have completely lost touch with what we mean by art, they will then be in a position to create a new art of their own—together with devising means of using and spreading it. For art in its essence is not what is found in libraries and museums; art originally and eternally resides in the human breast, and it will spring up again, as fresh as on the first day, when the old memories are gone. It is futile to speculate on what this art will look like or sound like. If we knew what it would be, its creation and enjoyment would be possible now—and this, obviously, is not possible. I would risk saying only that the chances are good that the future will create a collective, popular art, like the art of the Middle Ages—an art that has the wide appeal of simplicity—and scarcity. It will be produced under hard conditions of life. For I assume that we stand at one of those great historical turnarounds, when everything or nearly everything seems to go to pieces at once, defies patchwork reforms, and calls for a succession of improvised makeshifts on the part of the gifted and energetic, who are often the crude and single-minded.