Should Art Be Timeless or Should It Speak to Something More Current?

By Kirsch, Adam | International New York Times, October 16, 2015 | Go to article overview

Should Art Be Timeless or Should It Speak to Something More Current?


Kirsch, Adam, International New York Times


If you Google "Homer" and "bees," you get images of Homer Simpson, not quotations from the "Iliad."

If you Google "Homer" and "bees," you get images of Homer Simpson, not quotations from the "Iliad."

In the early Renaissance, a writer who longed for immortality knew that his best bet was to write in Latin. After all, the humanist intellectuals of that era were obsessed with the Latin style of writers like Cicero and Virgil, who had lived a millennium and a half before; why wouldn't the readers of the year 3000 still be reading and writing the same classical language? Latin was timeless, in a way that vernacular tongues like Italian and French couldn't hope to be. Following this logic, Poliziano composed his "Manto" in Latin, and Petrarch did the same with his epic "Africa." Today, of course, those works are known only to a few specialists in Neo-Latin literature. It is Petrarch's Italian lyrics, his sonnets to his beloved Laura -- along with vernacular works by Dante and Rabelais, Cervantes and Montaigne -- that went on to influence the course of European literature.

The fate of the Neo-Latin writers, who were defeated by time because they aimed too directly for timelessness, teaches a lesson that modern writers have had to learn again and again. When Wordsworth, at the beginning of the 19th century, mocked the artificial diction of English poetry and dared to write about real figures from contemporary life -- demobilized soldiers, tramps, "idiot" children -- he was subjected to vicious abuse by critics. Surely, they argued, poetry was a timeless realm, in which diction and subject matter were supposed to be elevated and generalized; how could the mere anecdotes of Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads" be real poetry? Again, a hundred or so years later, shocked readers objected to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" for including props of contemporary life, like motorcar horns and music-hall lyrics. Yet today it is precisely these poets who are the classics, while their more conventionally poetic rivals are forgotten. …

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