The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward

At the end of the 19th century, following the emergence of technological invention, surging cities, and thinkers like Darwin, Freud, and Marx, disruptive rumblings—foreshocks—shook the world of the Western arts.

By the 1920s, the philosophical and aesthetic earthquake of modernism had separated artists from their artistic forebears.  Impressionism made clear that art was a self-conscious act; the “-isms” that followed became increasingly abstract. Musical composition meandered from harmony; literature no longer presented reliable narratives; and dance, theater, and even opera distanced themselves from straightforward storytelling.

Fine art, literature, music, theater, and dance turned to innovation as a primary aesthetic creed and Ezra Pound’s “Make it new” defined the movement.

The arts suffered a major aftershock in the 1960s when feminists and minority voices, long underrepresented, surfaced. The healthy influx of voices revitalized the performing, visual, and literary arts, but further separated art from its roots.

Today, that rift may be closing a bit. Classical music blogs are offering complete works rather than snippets; opera singers like Joyce DiDonato are reinvigorating the public’s appetite for baroque music; the Atelier movement in New York is re-exploring representational painting; and Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, is captivating audiences with spectacular all-male productions of Shakespeare, to list a few examples.

But the more than 100-year disruption to the arts of the past provokes questions: Are the classics worth holding on to? Do they have a place today?

This series of articles asks practitioners of the classical arts—actors, musicians, singers, writers, dancers, painters—as well as those associated with the arts—curators, galleries owners, producers, educators—to respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us.

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