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The Whys Of Art

Robert Conquest

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The troubles that beset the arts, though perhaps less amenable to diagnosis than those besetting the political and social order, may be thought relevant to the whole question of civilization. And their particular phenomena often seem to be melded with the attitudes one finds in those other fields.

Changes in art and cultural history have never been easy to assimilate to political or economic changes. But perhaps we have enough evidence to show that particular sub-ideologies, combined with or supported by a bureaucratic upsurge, have caused, or been associated with, what appear to be downhill trends. Different generations naturally engender different styles. No harm in that. Still, it can be argued that some fashions in the field are less troublesome than others.

In an analysis of this sort, one cannot exclude subjectivity. (And Wordsworth warned us against the "hope of reasoning [one] into approbation"). When a writer finds spokesmen of a new generation not susceptible to his or others' earlier work, several notions may occur to him. First, that tastes change. Francis T. Palgrave wrote, editing the second Golden Treasury, "nothing, it need scarcely to be said, is harder than to form an estimate, even remotely accurate, of one's own contemporary poets." So, to judge art and culture is indeed, in part, to make a more subjective assessment of the aesthetics, which is of taste. And if one asserts that a current trend or current trends are negative, one is, of course, open to the retort that, in various epochs, changes of taste have emerged deplored by the representatives of earlier trends but later seen as having their own value. True, but it is equally true that some striking and popular new art has soon proved no more than a regrettable and temporary fad -- as with the once universally acclaimed Ossian or the German poet Friedrich Klopstock.

Read the entire article on the New Criterion website (new window will open).

Posted 12/18/04



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