Who Says the Arts Are Dying?

By Cowen, Tyler | USA TODAY, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Who Says the Arts Are Dying?


Cowen, Tyler, USA TODAY


"We should not delpore modern culture, as the pessimists do. Rather, we should recognize its ... creativity, entertainment, innovation, and, above all, diversity."

THE MUSIC of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven is more accessible to today's listeners than to those of the 18th or 19th centuries. Modern concertgoers can sample an unparalleled range of musical periods, instruments, and styles. Even relatively obscure composers' material is stocked in music superstores, the largest of which carry up to 22,000 titles. One company label markets excellent performances of the classics for as little as $5.99 for 70 minutes of music. Music of all kinds--old and new--is available in great profusion.

Movies, including many silents, can be rented or purchased on videocassettes, or on DVDs for those who want higher-quality picture and sound. Modern video stores, run on a private for-profit basis, are libraries full of classic films.

New and definitive editions of many literary works, or better translations, are published regularly. The Bible and Plato, two favorites of many cultural pessimists, continue to be reissued in new editions, while many of the classics are available in paperback. Television, video stores, and bookstores give modern fans better access to the works of Shakespeare than the Elizabethans had.

Literacy and reading are two areas where the modern world comes in for especially harsh criticism, but even here the trends are largely positive. American illiteracy was far worse 100 years ago or even in the middle of the 20th century. Furthermore, the average American buys more than twice as many books today as in 1947. The number of bookstores has jumped nearly tenfold, and their average size has increased dramatically. Book superstores have become commonplace.

Contrary to the many claims, television and the Internet are not killing the book. The printed word offers unique modes of story-telling and analysis that other media have not replaced. Television and the Internet often complement reading and stimulate reader interest iii books, rather than replacing them. Today, a wide variety of talented writers are actively publishing and transcending traditional genre boundaries.

Art museum attendance is booming. Blockbuster exhibitions travel the world and bring great paintings to increasing numbers of viewers. This is in contrast to but a few decades ago, when most Americans outside of New York had few means of viewing high-quality art. In art publishing, even minor painters have published catalogues full of beautifully reproduced color plates.

Live performance of the arts has flourished as well. From 1965 to 1990, the U.S. went from having 58 symphony orchestras to nearly 300, from 27 opera companies to more than 150, and from 22 nonprofit regional theaters to 500. Contemporary Western culture, especially in the U.S., is thriving.

The market economy continually spurs new artistic innovations. Arguing the worth of particular contemporary creations is more difficult, given the tendencies for disagreement about the present-day culture. (Mozart was controversial in his time, but few dispute his merits today.) Modern creators have offered many deep and lasting works that are universal in their scope and significant in their import, delighting and enriching large numbers of intelligent fans and influencing subsequent artists. We can fully expect many modern and contemporary works to stand the test of time, just as earlier works have, even if we cannot always identify now which are the best.

The most impressive creations of contemporary culture include cinema, rock `n' roll, Pop Art and Minimalism, modern dance, jazz, genre fiction, and the modern biography, to name but a few. The architectural skylines of Manhattan, Chicago, and Hong Kong were financed and designed almost entirely by the private sector. …

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