Continued Artistic Relevance

A large number of people swear that when they go back and re-read Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, it’s a different book; it has different things to say; there are things in it that the reader has not seen before. This is a phenomenon that is not limited to Illusions; rather, it happens with almost any work that manages to stay relevant over time, or “hold up,” as some would say.

Composer and pianist Philip Glass has noticed the same phenomenon with regards to pieces of music, although he does not believe that the pieces have changed. Instead he believes that other things have changed and that change impacts the music: “What I found most interesting in coming back to many of these pieces is that something has changed. The music remains the same but I have changed, the world has changed, the way people hear, including myself, has changed. That change, or metamorphosis, is what interests me.”

It seems that there three ways to classify works of art over time: (1) there are those that “hold up,” that is, they continue to speak to their audiences, although, as noted above, some things seem to change or parts that were of lesser importance early on are now very important. (2) There are also those works that do not hold up without help, that is to say they lose their relevance and have to be made relevant to interest a “modern” audience. This often happens with musical theatre revivals, perhaps because musical theatre is so topical and temporal. This also happens with other types of works as well, often comedies—for the same reasons. (3)Then there are works that lose their relevance entirely as time passes. This is usually work that is tightly tied to temporal and topical aspects of the era in which it was created. There is very little way that such a work can resonate with an audience not of its time except as a cultural curiosity.

And while Glass is interested in the change itself, others are concerned what it is that makes a work continue to stay relevant to an audience over time, even though the specifics of what parts of the work actually speak to the audience may change. Certainly, a study of all types of art could be done to isolate those qualities that cause a work to remain relevant even though the audience may go through decades of cultural change, but the result would likely be a rather dry academic work that would say that those works that present problems and conditions that are universally human are the ones that will remain relevant. This, however, would be of little use to the working artist, because we all know that if we make our work too universal, it will not gain traction with the current audience and thus have no current relevance, much less relevance to future audience members.

The best solution is, I think, to forget future relevance. We need to make our work relevant to our current audience; we need to allow it to touch on universally human characteristics. Beyond that, we need only to strive to make it the best it can be. Whether it is relevant in the future is really up to future publishers, producers, and audiences. We need to worry less about some nebulous legacy and more about the art we create and its impact on its immediate audience.

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Date: Sunday, 28. January 2024 20:10
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