Tuesday, May 02, 2006

You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone

You don’t have to exhibit the piety of a Sister Wendy to appreciate the renaissance’s wealth of religious art. Indeed, indifference to religion makes it easier to view these images as art instead of objects of use. I expect that something similar will eventually occur in the evaluation of the enormous mass of commercial art produced in our era. Once nobody gives a damn what the picture was an ad for, when the corporate sponsor has become as forgotten as the various “my honey lords” of Elizabethan prefaces, when the political purpose of the poster is simply quaint, it will be noticed that the 20th and 21st Centuries were ages of staggering creativity.

Contrary to the presumption that excellence is hard to winnow from the dreck, the challenge for the art historian will be how to deal with a volume of highly accomplished work that dwarfs the capacities of any possible human appreciator. The currently available technical means of preservation make it likely that a far higher proportion of artifacts will persist, at least in virtual form, even in the wake of a serious contraction of human civilization. Classicism is a very pleasant form of scholarship in part because the paucity of the surviving evidence makes it possible to take a synoptic view of the field. The humanists owe something to the monks who didn’t chose to copy everything and the Goths who thinned out the statuary garden. No guarantee that the next round of barbarians will prove as helpful to the savants who try to comprehend the American Centuries. Too many DVDs. Too many deleted scenes.

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