Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Twentieth century art is like the dark ages. Not that it's bad -- quite the opposite.

In his book Nonzero, Robert Wright describes how the Greco-Roman republican system was democratic only at the very top. Only Greek men were citizens -- slaves and women existed only to serve the citizenry. Similarly, vast numbers of citizens existed only to serve the Roman nobility.

During the dark ages, this order was overthrown. It was then taken up by its conquerors, the German tribes, who, over the next thousand years, developed into the Renaissance Europeans. With the American and French Revolutions, the ideals of equality and equal representation were extended to all white men, and then (with universal sufferage) to all white people, and eventually (with the abolition of slavery) equally to all humans. The democratic order had been extended to the entire species.

Art around the turn of the century, like the Zeigfeld follies or the ceiling of the Congress Hotel in Chicago, has a certain sublimity that we now look back on as naive and pretentious. It was the height of the old, nineteenth century European order. In the twentieth century, with the garishness of Hollywood, Blues, Jazz, Elvis Preseley, Rock & Roll, etc., this nineteenth century European unity was overthrown. The great hierarchy of art was democratized, extended from being the realm of the European Elites to the rest of humanity. It moved into a wider, more inclusive order.

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