Art has been a key aspect of human existence pretty much since the dawn of civilisation. From the earliest cave paintings to modern electronic dance music, art, in its many forms, attempts to express the human condition, shining a light on all that is good and evil in our subjective experience of the world around us. But the world around us changes. So too does our art.
The case for classical
We all still know about it. That would be the first plus point for classic art. Who among us can’t recognise da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? Who can honestly say that they have never heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata? These landmarks of artistic history remain recognisable hundreds of years after their creation, and are often still heralded as some of the greatest works of all time. Clearly, such art carries with it a certain inherent respect, simply by virtue of its age.
Not to mention that classic art is where it all began. New, contemporary art would arguably not exist without that which came before it. Many of the basic techniques, concepts and conventions which now form the foundations of an artistic education, regardless of field, were developed by visionary classical artists. If ever there were an argument for the superiority of classical art, would it not be that modern art could not exist without it?
Classical art grants its consumer’s more than just artistic satiation and personal cultural expansion; it offers a window into history. Wander through the National Gallery and you’ll wander through time. Centuries of artistic invention roll past from the 1200s, through the development of that ever useful ‘perspective’, right up to the 20th century.
Beyond curiosity, classical art can tell us a lot about society at the time of their creation. There is something decidedly meaningful and captivating in standing before a painting or listening to an opera, and knowing that you are experiencing emotions bestowed unto you by an individual who lived in a different world, many lifetimes ago.
The case for contemporary
Though each generation no doubt would argue the same, the seismic shifts that have taken place in society over the last couple of generations have left behind a world ever reeling from constant change. And where there is change, there is art.
Modern and contemporary art is of the here and now. The likes of Ed Sheeran regularly reference technologies that neither Beethoven nor Chopin would have ever dreamed of, in styles of music you would have been unlikely to hear at the turn of the 19th century. Equally, the bright and cartoony ‘Pop Art’ of Andy Warhol, while suited to 1950s Western society, would perhaps look slightly out of place on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
These more recent creations offer us not the opportunity to look back, but rather to reflect on things as they are today and, if necessary, to then do something about them. We feel connected to modern art not out of nostalgia or detached interest, but because the experiences that drive contemporary artists to write their plays or capture their photographs are the same experiences that we, the consumers of that art, live through as well. Where the classical tells us how things were, the contemporary tells us that we are not alone in our experiences and that someone out there really does know how we feel.
Besides, one could argue that this entire debate is moot. Given enough time, what is now contemporary will become classical, and the unimaginable creations of future artists will take up the mantle of ‘modern’. Say what you will about art, but it always keeps up with the times. Sometimes it even makes them what they are.