Out with the old
“Black and white movies are boring,” I heard classmates say.
“Shakespeare is boring,” it goes on.
“Poetry is boring,” and on and on.
Oftentimes it isn’t the thing itself that’s boring, it’s the idea that the things that are unfamiliar and old.
Old. Dated. Not trending.
Out with the new?
On one side we have those who will tell us, “In my days, we respected our elders” or “We knew how to talk to people” or “We didn’t have all this trash in the movies” and so on.
The default for some is that the tried and true is the way to go, and it’s all been downhill since the 1960s.
What media do you consume?
Records, radio, CDs, or Spotify? DVDs, cable television or Netflix? Books, magazines, blogs, Audible?
What visual communications do you see?
Oil paintings in museums, oil paintings in galleries, watercolors in antique shops, or calligraphy in pop-up shops? Advertisements on billboards, in newspapers, or on Instagram?
You’re reading this, I venture to guess you lead towards the older media, good ol’ tactile, stain your fingers with freshly printed ink newsprint, or you appreciate the sentiment, so the value of the classics is probably not one that needs arguing for you. Perhaps if I made a case for modern works that will take a bit longer.
I will not say either/or.
Our lives are better with art, music, and reading. But which art? Which music? What type of reading or what genres?
The list of books I want to read is so long, I tend to stick to the ones that earned their good reputation over the decades. But I would miss out if I left it at that.
At the Benedict XVI Institute Lenten Prayer Service, composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca said that modern compositions can complement Renaissance music. I do not know music theory, so I scheduled a phone call with La Rocca to ask him more about what he meant.
He explained that in the evolution of tonality, we moved from one singer to two singers producing different notes, eventually to the Renaissance with polyphony, a multitude of voices. That multitude can sing in harmony, but with the multitude, the composer carefully introduced a little dissonance. That dissonance is, in shorthand, sometimes painted as a bit of darkness, a bit of bad, with the good.
Time went on and there were strict aesthetic standards about how much dissonance was allowed and in what way.
Imagine mapping this idea onto emotion.
A simple life holds simpler emotions. As time goes on, so grows the complexity and our understanding of what we feel. Society allows some emotions like grief, but whether or not the blues are seen as normal is somewhat cultural.
Come the 20th century and La Rocca explained the field broke wide open as to what was musically acceptable. While that led to all kinds of John Cage experimentation, it also meant that those composers looking to the past could bring those ideas of Renaissance music to the present, with the wide open field of dissonance.
Is it better? Were they just blind back then?
No, La Rocca explains.
What we heard as engaging or not particularly startling might have jarred the ears of those Renaissance composers to distraction. But, perhaps, La Rocca proposes, because of what we as a world have experienced, the world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so much more, we moderns may have a different capacity or appetite for the dissonance.
Maybe we’re already carrying the dark emotions of sorrow, grief, or anxiety, and maybe they need an expression. They can do this still within a framework of beauty.
I think back to the artwork by Louisa Benhissen.
Her paintings displayed great technical skill and beauty. The subject, as a social portrait, sought to bring expression to something that might be seen as less beautiful than a Renaissance masterpiece, but then again, part of what she portrays comes from a willingness to see the whole picture, to paint on site, capturing the color, the attitude, and the nuances of what she sees. Maybe this was distasteful at certain times, but maybe it’s what we need to see now.
Something old and something new
There is value in visiting museums to see the old masters or to look at books of classic artwork. And there is value in going to new galleries, meeting the artists, and hearing them speak about their work. The same with the music. The same with books.
It is harder to sort through, undoubtedly, as it would have been in those Renaissance days, but like curating a home, we curate the mind, old with the new, traditional with innovation, for a worldview that is fuller and more complete, and therefore more whole and more beautiful.