High Art, The Horse, And Photography
Reading Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm I find him putting into words something that has often smoked around my brain. This is the idea that the traditional methods of judging art simply cannot be applied to modern cultural output. He makes a characteristically striking comparison between traditional bourgeois High Art and the horse. Once that animal had a very central and useful role in society but that has been displaced by the internal combustion engine. The horse lives on now only as a luxury for the rich. Similarly the traditional handmade arts have been made redundant by technological change. The defining characteristics of creativity now are mass production and mass demand. What distinguishes this modern creation is its multiplicity – the endless stream of sound, image and text. Where once the single work would be the unit of attention or critique, what developed in the twentieth century and on was simply endless commentary on that endless production. It is possible to talk about a photograph in the same way as a painting say, but to what end? The single work is a thing of the past. EH does not suggest for a moment that popular culture has no value. He simply says that it is to Art what the motor car is to the horse. It creates what he calls an entirely new landscape of the mind. (This seems to be a remarkably accurate description of the effect of photography.) In a wonderful phrase EH says that cultural commentators are unwilling to admit this general truth “because no class of people is enthusiastic about writing its own obituary”. Cracking!