A conversation with a co-worker prompted thoughts about the relationship between a culture’s perspective on creativity and how the dynamic of this perspective changes dependent upon where a culture is “at” on an as-yet-to-be-defined spectrum of continuity.
Let me make this even less clear. Consider ancient Greece, or better yet, Rome. The rise and fall of the Roman empire (somebody should write a book about that) is generally perceived of in linear terms. Birth of the nascent city, rise, golden age, political turmoil, rampant hedonism, moral decay, invasion, and bye bye Rome. Throughout Rome’s history, art and culture were integral to the social identity of the people–or at least to those people who held power. It is generally easy to identify a typically Roman structure by its motifs. Cultural expression certainly changed throughout the timeline of the empire yet an unmistakable continuity existed. The same can be said for most cultures–Greece, China, Persia, and on down the line all had particularly unique artistic monikers.
As the West continued into the modern period, continuity stumbled and ultimately shattered and we were left with art that is both forwards and backwards thinking. Pick a contemporary piece from the last ten years and it can be very difficult to isolate the culture or country of origin. The accessibility of information available via television, the internet, and ease of travel have facilitated an interwoven network of cross-cultural exchange that has largely nullified the uniqueness that was available to the ancients largely due to the insulated nature of their cultures. Sure, cross-cultural exchange happened, but the vast majority of people seldom ventured further than 10 or 20 miles from home in their lifetime.
Now days, art–and by “art” I mean those cultural products that are discussed and exhibited with the stamp of approval from the upper echelons of the cultural milieu–gains merit based upon much different terms. No longer is anyone concerned with creating a style that is reflective of the people who created it–at least in terms of providing a cultural unity that is unique to a particular group of people, a “style,” if you will. Notoriety, marketability, boundary-pushing, and so forth are the heralds of the modern artist, or artiste. So many voices are finding expression via the internet and this coupled with a level of widespread luxury inconceivable 200 years ago, forces modern-day artists to market themselves in the manner that will get them the most attention because there are several thousand others out there trying to do the exact same thing.
What will the 21st century’s cultural legacy be? Will historians look back upon these days as the progenitor of a greater future? Or will they be viewed as the birth pangs of a world struggling to find its voice within the din of mass communication devices? I don’t have any idea but I am firmly convinced that we are in a period of cultural transition the likes of which the world has never seen.