No more heroes? Art, genius and tradition

Tuesday 16 October, 6.30pm until 8.30pm, Foyles Charing Cross Road

The German composer Robert Schumann praised the Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s early works, calling him a genius and lauding the music’s ‘intense nationalism’. But, Schumann wrote, ‘Art requires more. The minor interests of the soil on which he was born had to sacrifice themselves to the universal ones.’ And Chopin’s later works are indeed said to edge further and further towards this internationalist style. But can we think in terms of artistic universals today? Is greatness conceivable in local or national terms, or global ones? What are contemporary artists aiming to achieve, and is it for everyone?

It’s easy to look at the contemporary arts and bemoan a lack of greatness or ambition. How can we compare a light going on and off to a painting by Rembrandt? New classical music seems ghettoised and unappealing to the general public, and jazz is perhaps also shutting itself off from new audiences. But can we speak of a decline without endorsing a Schumannesque belief in universalism – if art has changed its scope, is this defeatism or progress? Furthermore, from where do artists themselves draw inspiration? Do the masterpieces of the canon inspire fresh work, or does their continual presence stifle creativity? Now that even avant-gardism seems to have run its course, are new works forever in a grim dialogue with the great remains of former, better artistic times?

In any case, Tate Modern audiences are growing ever higher, after all, and there is plenty of interest as well for ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions of past greats. But will the emerging artists today provoke the same level of reverence as their predecessors do today in coming centuries? And is it really the art of the past that we love so much, or the stories and mythology which surround them? Either way, there is no stopping efforts at broadening the artistic canon’s cultural reach, in music as much as visual art – from worldwide opera broadcasts from the Met, to Venezuela’s vaunted music programme El Sistema taking Western classical music as an agent for social change. Can we call efforts to bring the arts to all classes and cultures a noble sort of universalism – or is it just globalisation? Finally, what does it really mean to live in a world with such an obsession with the art of the past, in all its greatness? Does looking back stop us looking forward? Where are today’s Schumanns – or do we even need any?

Manick Govinda
head, artists' advisory services, Artsadmin; member, Mayor of London's Cultural Strategy Group; coordinator, Manifesto Club's Visiting Artists campaign

Fisun Güner
freelance writer; visual arts editor, The Arts Desk

Paul Kilbey
music critic; reviews editor, Bachtrack

Sara Radstone
artist; tutor, HE Diploma in Fine and Applied Arts (Ceramics), The City Lit, London

Chris Sharp
contemporary music programmer, Barbican Centre; formerly, managing director, independent label 4AD

Dave Wybrow
director, Cockpit Theatre

David Bowden
coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; columnist, spiked

Produced by
David Bowden coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; columnist, spiked
Paul Kilbey music critic; reviews editor, Bachtrack
Recommended readings
Am I the only fan of modern classical music?

People expect melody and emotion from their music; but just because modern classical doesn't conform to this doesn't make it worthless

Paul Kilbey, Independent, 12 October 2012

The Classic Brits are Not What's Wrong With Classical Music

Classical music is obsessed with the past to the point that it believes in its own death - or at least it's sufficiently concerned about its health to feel threatened by an event as irrelevant as the Classic Brits.

Paul Kilbey, Huffington Post, 9 October 2012

At last: the Classic Brit Awards exposed as a sickening crime against classical music

The truth is that there is simply no need to go down the Classic Brit route. What you are in effect saying with this monstrous spectacle is that Joe Public is too uncultured, too dense, too stupid to deal with an unedited, beautifully played Chopin mazurka, Mendelssohn concerto or Beethoven sonata.

James Rhodes, Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2012

Bach Is Still Revving Up Engine of Musical Innovation Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, 7 October 2012

The pernicious rise of “indie-classical”

If you think classical music is snobbish, just take a look at indie culture.

En Liang Khong, New Statesman, 23 July 2012

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