Looking for ourselves

Arts, less likely to be overtly religious, still ask 'Who am I?'

Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter," a painting on vellum commissioned by Germany's Otto III about the year 1000, evokes a feeling of the coincident majesty and humility of Jesus. In the background, wide-eyed onlookers emphasize that something sacred is taking place.

At the right, Barbara Kruger's painting " 'Untitled' (Tell us something we don't know)" from near the end of the millennium (1987) is filled with eyes, too. But viewers may find them more disturbing than inspirational.

As the second millennium dawned, art in the Western world was almost exclusively in the service of the Christian church, which used architecture, music, and the visual arts to bring its message to the illiterate masses.

Today art and religion are often seen as incompatible. Art is thought of as secular, posing its own answers (or suggesting the impossibility of finding them) to fundamental questions about life.

Beyond secularization, another big change has occurred in the arts in the last 1,000 years, at least from the Western perspective. That has been the "democratization" of the arts, made vastly more available through technological changes like the printing press and television. Rapid communication has also promoted the discovery and appreciation of the rich artistic traditions of the non-Western world, from Chinese landscape painting to Inuit carvings to Islamic calligraphy.

In a countertrend, the closing millennium saw an increase in the perception of some arts as a luxury intended for a small elite (the birth of opera, ballet).

Much of the millennium was spent trying to codify an aesthetic for art, a set of rules with which to judge it. Was art's aim to invoke pleasure? To serve "the greater glory of God"? Provide moral uplift? Skillfully mimic nature? Voice truths about the human condition? Answer the question "Who am I?"

The 1900s saw these purposes severely challenged in painting, music, theater, and elsewhere. "Art for art's sake" argued that art doesn't require a moral or practical purpose or outcome. Today the arts often challenge, provoke, shock. The very definition of "what is art" is intensely debated.

The "fine" or "high" arts now face the task of remaining relevant in a world awash in popular culture. Art institutions are scrambling to embrace new audiences by blurring the distinction between fine and "pop" art. While a Beethoven symphony might have drawn on a German folk tune, for example, a 20th-century orchestral composition might "quote" American jazz, Brazilian samba, or street-smart hip-hop. It might employ ambient sounds or electronic enhancements.

The millennium ends with many question marks. Do we need training and specialized knowledge in order to appreciate art? Or is great art easily and immediately understood by anyone?

Will the Internet lead to more democratization, diversity, and experimentation in the arts? Or will it become the way that a homogenized, commercialized pop culture penetrates more deeply into our lives?

Can theater survive another millennium? The deep roots of human storytelling reach back to the earliest civilizations. Our closing millennium produced Shakespeare, arguably "the man of the millennium," along with a long list of other playwrights who laid bare the human condition. They made it a memorable era for live theater.

Now the video image in all its forms - on film, television, and increasingly on the Internet - has become the primary vehicle for telling our stories. The moving image, present only for about the last 1/10th of the old millennium, seems poised to make a huge impression on the new one.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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