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Has Culture Peaked?


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Dylan2010

happened to be reading the article below essentially commenting non the linearity of major cultural developments and advances. But the question I'm asking is, have some elements of culture actually peaked, music for instance in as much as you can measure it, did the classical giants of the 18th and 19th Century hit a technical peak that hasnt been surpassed today? and if so what are todays "Mozarts" doing, designing video games? making movies? or otherwise focusing on mass market culture which by definition will be dumbed down somewhat to make it easily digestable so that there is no incentive or demand to try surpass what has come before?




The Valve - A Literary Organ | Why are the greatest composers all German?



I’m talking about classical music of course, and I can start with polemical oversimplification, as follows: almost all the greatest composers were from a small area in northern Europe, and all were working within a relatively short period of time. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Wagner … all of them were German. Some notable other figures (Smetana, Holst, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Grieg) came from territories proximate geographically and culturally to Germany. All these figures composed during a narrow historical timeframe from the end of the eighteenth-century to the end of the nineteenth. So this is my question, boiled down to its essentials: why is it that all the great classical composers are German, working within a tightly-defined period of a handful of decades of one another?

Thousands of years of human musical creativity has resulted in an enormous body of work, from every culture. Why should this corpus be so dominated by a small group of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Germans?
I’m not actually that interested in the supposed German dominance of the classical music canon; I’m interested in art more generally conceived. I would argue that similar phenomena are evident in all forms of art. Human artistic achievement repeats this pattern: a long period of low-level achievement, then a short period of inspired production of marvellous art by a small group of exceptional creators; then another long period of low-level production overshadowed by the canon of works by this earlier group. Let me call this phenomenon golden-age clumping; an uneuphonious phrase by which I mean that separate discourses of artistic productivity are almost always dominated by a “golden age”, a small cadre of artists working in close proximity to one another.

For example: classical literature from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD (that’s 700 years, give or take) was dominated by the brilliant achievement of just such a small group, all from the same city (Athens), all working within a hundred years of one another (in the 5th century BC), many of them friends: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, names that are still resonant today. These poets, dramatists, philosophers and historians, overshadowed Western culture for two millennia. It is not that nobody else was writing between the 5th century and the Renaissance. On the contrary, each generation produced myriad scribblers and thinkers, aspirants to the golden-age mantle. They just weren’t as good as the golden names of Periclean Athens.

Here’s another example: in two hundred years England gave the world Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning: no poetry written before or since, I patriotically (or chauvinistically) assert, comes close to the cultural dominance of the poetry written by that group. Great poets have come and gone all over the world, of course; but this list represents some of the most influential and dominant grouping in the history of world poetry.

Painting has been a feature of every single world culture for thousands of years, and yet our notions of ‘great painting’ are still rooted in two clumps: a handful of Italian Renaissance painters on the one hand; and a handful of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century French painters (or painters who lived and worked in France) on the other. Why should this be? Moreover the enduring success of the second group is grounded in the fact that they invented a new way of doing painting, and so created a body of work distinct from the Renaissance masters. What does this tell us?

And what about fiction? Two hundred thousand new novels are printed every year. Many of them are good. Yet I’ll hazard a prediction that no novelists working in any language today will have the enduring cultural weight and influence enjoyed by a group of a dozen-or-so French, British and Russian novelists from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century’, amongst them Jane Austen, Scott, George Eliot, the Brontes, Dickens, Flaubert, Hugo, Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Henry James, Balzac, Zola, Conrad, Proust, James Joyce.
 

LamportsEdge

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Doubt it. I dare say that this question has been posed many times in many cultures worldwide since the dawn of the ability to ponder philosophy.

I think the notion of a plateau or stasis in culture may just be a reflection of our short-termist view of society.

We have on average three score years and ten or thereabouts and have as part of the digitalisation of the industrial age experienced a sense of the jaded about modern Europe and its place in the world perhaps.

There is evidence the Greek and Roman philosophers pondered these things at various times also.

I rather like the 'Long Now Foundation' which include Brian Eno as a supporter and thinker which deprecates our current habit of thinking only of the 'now' and the near future rather than thinking and pondering on 10,000 years ahead for example.

Our current psychological cultural view may be a little jaded and hesitant about what comes next but there is no evidence that the natural human impulse to walk across a flat nowhere towards a distant horizon on instinct is lessened any- in Europe or elsewhere.
 

Prester Jim

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happened to be reading the article below essentially commenting non the linearity of major cultural developments and advances. But the question I'm asking is, have some elements of culture actually peaked, music for instance in as much as you can measure it, did the classical giants of the 18th and 19th Century hit a technical peak that hasnt been surpassed today? and if so what are todays "Mozarts" doing, designing video games? making movies? or otherwise focusing on mass market culture which by definition will be dumbed down somewhat to make it easily digestable so that there is no incentive or demand to try surpass what has come before?




The Valve - A Literary Organ | Why are the greatest composers all German?
No, history is not over yet and every time we think we have reached the zenith of human achievement we are proved wrong.
It may well be that the Greeks remain unsurpassed in their area but I can confidently predict that there will be many more fruitions of human genius in the future.
It may well be that the next flowering is in the area of computer and video games; story and visionary visuals and technological prowess and breakthrough forming a synergy that breaks new ground unseen before or allowing greater immersion then any of the past masters could have hoped for.
 

chriskavo

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happened to be reading the article below essentially commenting non the linearity of major cultural developments and advances. But the question I'm asking is, have some elements of culture actually peaked, music for instance in as much as you can measure it, did the classical giants of the 18th and 19th Century hit a technical peak that hasnt been surpassed today? and if so what are todays "Mozarts" doing, designing video games? making movies? or otherwise focusing on mass market culture which by definition will be dumbed down somewhat to make it easily digestable so that there is no incentive or demand to try surpass what has come before?




The Valve - A Literary Organ | Why are the greatest composers all German?

Was listening to some Beethoven the other night and in complete awe at how beautiful his music is and was wondering will we ever see his like again. The 3 'B's' Brahms, Beethoven and Bach and then you had Mozart and Schubert too and all roughly around the same time. It was the cultural zeitgeist of the time you might say but I honestly can't imagine their likes ever again. Their music was just perfect.
 

Prester Jim

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Even the statistics are on the side of the future; greater population, greater average level of education, much, greater amount of people involved in the arts, greater nutrition and fitness and excess of energy for most of the 2nd world and much of the 1st world.
It may well be that the increasing homogeneity of culture worldwide works against it...
 

LamportsEdge

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Problem is our perception of culture too... Europe since the Renaissance has been the leader in thought and reflection in the developed world, call it those nations with the liberty and ease to be the accepted centre of the commentariat in this area.

That may change with the movement of resources, endeavour and energy eastward to Asia but there is no reason to assume any perceived European lacuna or lassitude need inhabit humanity overall.
 

jmcc

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That article has a very flawed understanding of genius, Art, Literature and Music.
 

LamportsEdge

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Quite possible that at this moment in time somewhere in Asia there is a ten year old listening to a form of music that will become one element in that child's mind in the founding of a new hybrid era of classical music.

Something so inspiring that it would make Beethoven weep. There may not be such a child. But the process exists and there is no reason to assume a sudden shortage of genius in humanity so we may be just poised on the edge of a form of music that will change classical music itself forever.

We don't know. But we will when it happens.
 
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Dylan2010

Even the statistics are on the side of the future; greater population, greater average level of education, much, greater amount of people involved in the arts, greater nutrition and fitness and excess of energy for most of the 2nd world and much of the 1st world.
It may well be that the increasing homogeneity of culture worldwide works against it...
indeed, back a couple of hundred years ago, the pool of talent was much smaller as was the audience smaller all be it the composers had patrons and nolibity in mind when they were writing. " a billion middle class Asians" have the ability to move things up a gear.
 

LamportsEdge

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The arts is where it seems more obvious that new genius stands on the shoulders of past giants.

I would say given an observation of the way in which Asian students attack classical music and master the use of classical instruments it won't be long before the essential twist arrives.

Something to look forward to unless deeply wedded to the notion that only Germans, Austrians, French can wield a baton or lead an orchestra.
 
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Dylan2010

The arts is where it seems more obvious that new genius stands on the shoulders of past giants.

I would say given an observation of the way in which Asian students attack classical music and master the use of classical instruments it won't be long before the essential twist arrives.

Something to look forward to unless deeply wedded to the notion that only Germans, Austrians, French can wield a baton or lead an orchestra.
the counter argument could be though that based on "chinese mother" syndrome , they might make excellent technicians but lack the creativity to create a new hub?
 

Dadaist

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happened to be reading the article below essentially commenting non the linearity of major cultural developments and advances. But the question I'm asking is, have some elements of culture actually peaked, music for instance in as much as you can measure it, did the classical giants of the 18th and 19th Century hit a technical peak that hasnt been surpassed today? and if so what are todays "Mozarts" doing, designing video games? making movies? or otherwise focusing on mass market culture which by definition will be dumbed down somewhat to make it easily digestable so that there is no incentive or demand to try surpass what has come before?
Today’s Mozart’s are making Electronica. In the last few years, with advances in IT, there is almost no sound that can't be replicated to the same quality, by advanced music software.

In the history of art, modern art is a very recent phenomenon and IMO has still a long way to go.

Architecture has almost infinite possibilities, considering the time it takes from inception to completion of projects, many large buildings are almost out of date by the time they are finished. This of course ties into the speed at which modern art develops.

Good literature, theatre and cinema will always have something fresh to offer, as they reflect the present. Even if it is a historic piece, it is still an interpretation reflecting present understanding of the past.

I agree with LamportsEdge in relation to cultural perceptions of past civilizations. I would imagine that for example isolated empires in South America believed that they had reached cultural peaks when their art etc. was so much more advanced than what came before.
 

publicrealm

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happened to be reading the article below essentially commenting non the linearity of major cultural developments and advances. But the question I'm asking is, have some elements of culture actually peaked, music for instance in as much as you can measure it, did the classical giants of the 18th and 19th Century hit a technical peak that hasnt been surpassed today? and if so what are todays "Mozarts" doing, designing video games? making movies? or otherwise focusing on mass market culture which by definition will be dumbed down somewhat to make it easily digestable so that there is no incentive or demand to try surpass what has come before?




The Valve - A Literary Organ | Why are the greatest composers all German?
It's an interesting question okay.

I'm inclined to think that in areas of musical composition and representational art we peaked long ago.

I think that saying this about 'art' is fundamentally different from saying - as was said in the eary 20th Century - that the limit of vehicle speed had been reached as the human frame could withstand no more.

I think that technology will continue to improve but I cannot conceive of any improvement on Bach, Handel and the many other great Baroque composers - or of the great Renaissance artists.


The 17th and 18th Centurys then. (But I would 'pass' on their healthcare systems)
 

LamportsEdge

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the counter argument could be though that based on "chinese mother" syndrome , they might make excellent technicians but lack the creativity to create a new hub?
Sure. Then again the same could have been said about all the European students of music who were contemporaries of Beethoven, or Mozart... all forgotten except the very best and those who added immeasurably to classical music. One in a hundred thousand, one in a million, one in a billion?

It is entirely likely also that there were more Beethovens who never got the chance to even see a piano or hear a violin.
 

jmcc

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The arts is where it seems more obvious that new genius stands on the shoulders of past giants.
The problem is with the critics deciding what is genius and what is not. Mozart, Beethoven and Bach all went through a long period of training and practice. The same applied to artists in the Renaissance. Most people today would not have the dedication, the determination and the abilities to undergo the same levels of training so there was a high level of attrition.

As for the dodgy argument about Greek literature - much of Greek literature was saved and propagated by Roman social climbers who wanted to appear sophisticated. The funny thing is that the most profound and interesting Greek literature could have been lost because the Sindo readers of the Roman Empire could not understand it. The same might apply to the Romantic poets and some of the dreadful English literature of the 19th Century.
 

FakeViking

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The arts is where it seems more obvious that new genius stands on the shoulders of past giants.

I would say given an observation of the way in which Asian students attack classical music and master the use of classical instruments it won't be long before the essential twist arrives.

Something to look forward to unless deeply wedded to the notion that only Germans, Austrians, French can wield a baton or lead an orchestra.
The advances in music in Latin America is also remarkable. Musicians like Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the wonderful pianist Gabriella Montera are the result of a brilliant system of music education.

On the premise of the thread, that cluture has peaked, I completely disagree. In terms of music, more orchestral and choral music is written today than ever before. The great composers are and always will be outstanding, but ours and future generations will also produce musical genius. And bear in mind that in Mozart's day only the wealthy could afford music, these days everyone can have any genre they want all the time for little cost.
 

LamportsEdge

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The problem is with the critics deciding what is genius and what is not. Mozart, Beethoven and Bach all went through a long period of training and practice. The same applied to artists in the Renaissance. Most people today would not have the dedication, the determination and the abilities to undergo the same levels of training so there was a high level of attrition.

As for the dodgy argument about Greek literature - much of Greek literature was saved and propagated by Roman social climbers who wanted to appear sophisticated. The funny thing is that the most profound and interesting Greek literature could have been lost because the Sindo readers of the Roman Empire could not understand it. The same might apply to the Romantic poets and some of the dreadful English literature of the 19th Century.
Absolutely agree. You only have to realise with a chill that papyrus was often overwritten to wonder what works of genius are lost to the world under a business agreement between two traders:)

If I recall correctly some of Aristotle's work was only rescued by our technology from scraped over scraps of parchment overwritten with later work.

I agree that genius only enters the stage when the vehicle knows every inch of the stage by instinct. The interesting thing there about Asia and China in particular is the deep respect for music and the long hard patient road. 100,000 violinists may achieve concert level/interpretation level but that is not a bad number from which to hope for one or two breathtakers?
 

R3volution_R3ady

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The human species is still in it's infancy.

Our egg hasn't even hatched.
 

LamportsEdge

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Provided we find some way to relate population to resources without destroying our nest I see no reason why we should not consider our age as quite an early one.

Next logical steps are off-planet colonisation, possibly followed as seems to be our nature, in scrapping between ourselves over interplanetary resources such as asteroid mining.

Already planned and underway I believe. The mining, that is. Not the war as we need to identify a profitable procedure first before someone decides to steal it instead of getting it the hard way.

We definitely show more potential than history:)
 
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Dylan2010

The human species is still in it's infancy.

Our egg hasn't even hatched.
`

probably should have qualified by saying more a reflection of the last 100 years , not the next 200. In other areas of human culture like sports, development has been linear to exponential, a 1930's gymnast medal winner wouldnt probably make it into their country's nationals today for instance. At the same time it proably wouldnt be fair to use that measure against the arts in certain respects although as other posters mentioned dedication to a single prusuit is an important ingtedient for instance with music
 
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