‘Thou shalt worship the arts for what they are’. So says John Tusa, director of the Barbican Centre in London, in a speech transcript that laments the state of the arts – both its overabundance and undersignificance in society today. With ten commandments of his own, Tusa tackles such issues as profits, performance indicators, history, philanthropy, and the common good. Perhaps his most interesting point though has to do with the shift away from the arts as a source for inspiration…
The proposition here is that the social, political and cultural events of the 1960s created a new world, a new sensibility where the present was more important than the past; where the instant was valued more highly than the considered; where the sheer immediacy of new creation was more satisfying than any connection with the achievements of the past; and where awareness of the potential of the future was valued more than the accumulated sense of past knowledge. It was a world, too, where the availability of information became separated from understanding of that information, and a historical perspective was rejected as prescriptive and authoritarian.
Far from withdrawing from the challenge of the busy, modern world, we should think of the millions who have yet to enjoy the revelation of their first sound of Beethoven, their first sight of Picasso, their first look at Michelangelo, and who will be bowled over by the experience. We should not forget that the most radical artists of today, including composers such as Alfred Schnittke and John Adams, find essential inspiration from the past for their creation of the new.
We know that the collective experiences conjured in these places contribute to the way society feels; the ideas generated there shape the way we understand; the images created there colour the way we see. And we know that any society which cuts itself off from such a body of inspiration, does risk cutting itself off from the future. At their best, the arts are a creative test bed where the best of the past is combined with the openness of the present to produce the transformation of the new.