Within the culture of industrialized liberal democratic societies people tend to be more interested and preoccupied with new music, new literature, rather than forms of art that have flourished in earlier eras. For example, music aficionados tend to be driven to explore newly released music rather than exploring earlier forms of music. Likewise, connoisseurs of literature tend to be on the lookout for the next great book series, rather than being preoccupied with some earlier literary tradition. Of course I am not suggesting that there are no people who are enamored with older forms of the arts, but there is a general tendency towards the new and novel and against older forms. Now this is not something unique to modern liberal democratic societies, but it is peculiar in that unlike in many other previous societies it is fairly easy for a member of a modern liberal democratic society to experience arts that have flourished in previous eras because of the growth of technology and the ease with which art can be shared. A member of the learned class of Renaissance Florence may have been interested in the poetry of Ancient China, but it was relatively difficulty for him to access that poetry, whereas we today can access it through a simple search on the internet.
This excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts is problematic as it prevents us from learning from the vast intellectual wisdom of the past and prevents us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Now towards the end of this entry I will go into more detail as to why I think this excessive preoccupation with novelty is problematic, but in the meantime I want to try to give a basic sketch of why we have this excessive preoccupation with novelty in the arts in our society.
One plausible cause of the preoccupation is the societal prejudice that dismisses the relevance of the wisdom of early ages. Any person who has studied the canonical texts of Western Philosophy knows that for many, most of these texts within this tradition can only be of antiquarian, academic interest. For such people there is nothing we can learn from Aristotle, as his teachings are irrelevant to our present situation, and they represent a backwards past. In sum, this idea suggests that we should be more interested in newer art forms as they speak more to our present predicament whereas earlier art forms do not speak to the issues that arise within our live. This idea tends to lead people to be dismissive of earlier art, as it does not relate to their particular experiences, and to be preoccupied with novelty in the arts. Nonetheless, there is a grain of truth within this idea in that while I may appreciate Moliere it is difficult for me to fully understand all the dimensions of his work, as it was developed against the background of an entirely different context than the one that I now inhabit. However, the problem is that art often speaks to what is shared across all human lives, rather than what is particular to a given time within a given society, so even if newer arts speak more to our current predicament, older art forms can speak equally well to the general human predicament as it is experienced across varying historical eras. So we have little reason to be preoccupied with newer art, as there is no reason to think that we cannot learn something about the human predicament from older art forms.
The second cause reinforces the preceding cause. This second cause is our desire to share our appreciation of arts with others. If others are preoccupied with novel forms of the arts we will tend to follow suit, because sharing our appreciation of the arts with others is much better than enjoying them on one’s own. I may love the works of Mahler, but I find myself less drawn to being preoccupied with his work then newer composers, as I have not found a friend yet who I can discuss and appreciate his music with. We don’t simply want to enjoy the art on our own we want to discuss the art with others and share our appreciation with others. This is a perfectly valid desire, and I have no criticism for it, but unfortunately it has the problematic consequence of reinforcing conformity as people are drawn to forms of art that are widely appreciated within a particular social context.
Earlier, I laid out a couple of reasons as to why the preoccupation with novel arts is problematic. The first was that is prevents us from learning from the wisdom of earlier ages. This is problematic, because novel arts tend to simply reinforce our existing prejudices, whereas earlier art forms often present us with wisdom which can supplement and critique our current beliefs. For example, after reading Moliere’s the Misanthrope I may have a new appreciation of the importance of politeness and tact, and the danger of always being completely authentic and honest. Furthermore, this new appreciation would cut against the tendency of modern thought to extol the virtues of brutal honesty and authenticity. Thus, earlier forms of art often provide us with unique resources to supplement and correct our understanding, by confronting us with alternative perspectives, which allow us to properly assess our own beliefs. But if we are preoccupied with novel arts we do not encounter this wisdom and thus our growth is inhibited.
The second reason was that an occupation with novel arts can impoverish our lives by preventing us from experiencing the beauty of previous art forms. No matter how many great pop songs one hears, one’s life is richer if one has also experienced a great classical symphony. The forms of beauty of the pop song and the classical symphony are distinct, and are lives are enriched as we are exposed to a wider variety of beautiful forms. A focus on novel arts tends to limit us to a more narrow selection of beautiful forms and consequently impoverishes our lives. Furthermore, one additional benefit to experiencing earlier art forms is that we also begin to see certain flaws in novel arts as we are exposed to other earlier art forms and see what they do well, and what is missing from novel arts, and this helps us to develop a more refined appreciation of the arts. Consequently, our preoccupation with novel arts is something that we should try to overcome.