Putting the Genie Back into the Bottle
Thoughts on Time and Transcendence in Art
It has been said by various artistic pundits that the genies of musical and artistic modernism and postmodernism are “out of the bottle,” and so they cannot be put back into it. That is to say, there’s no going “back” to earlier styles. They argue that it is naïve to write music and paint paintings in a traditional style, as if pretending these contemporary movements never happened and that we have not already been fundamentally changed by them. They argue that even if we could go back and reproduce earlier styles, they would be disingenuous and self-conscious affectations, something like a mere forgery of a great painting. Imagine Wagner trying to go back and write music in the earlier style of Mozart. Or, it would be like someone building a house today without electricity or plumbing and living there in order to get back to a simpler time. That can be done, but it would feel to most people like a futile exercise in romanticized nostalgia. Such people are supposedly like ostriches who want to keep their heads in the sand and refuse to accept progress and today’s reality, whether in art or science.
This all sounds convincing in the terms in which it is stated, perhaps, but as with so many arguments, the person who controls the language and terminology of the argument controls the argument. I want to take the argument and terminology back and will counter, first, that the whole metaphor of the genie out of the bottle is fundamentally flawed. It presumes that the measure of art is its chronological “progress” through time, with each generation, standing on the shoulders of the previous one, bringing the cultural discourse “forward” to a more sophisticated place. Yes, a house with electricity and plumbing is more advanced and arguably “better” than one without them. But let me show that art does not advance like science or technology. Maybe electricity and plumbing can be likened to genies that are now out of their bottles, but art may not accurately be likened to genies.
The terms of art are not chronological and are not subject to “progress” simply by virtue of being newer. Rather, they improve and advance in substance, in technique, in the good, the true, and the beautiful on the basis of their inherent worth alone and regardless of when they were created. In these terms, a newer work may even regress rather than progress. A work of art may make a timely, contemporary statement or advance a cultural argument to a certain generation, yes, but that would not be enough by itself to justify its worth later on. To live on, it must also transcend that particular time and generation. For example, in literature, The Great Gatsby may have had, for the people of 1925, a strong message about the decadence of their Jazz Age, and it is thus of its time. But that novel has endured on the basis of its artful writing and human story. Had it lacked inherent quality of craft, it would have made its comment to its generation and then been forgotten, like Erich Segal’s 1970 book Love Story. (It turned out that indeed, love does mean having to say “I’m sorry,” and fairly often.) Like the Eucharist or like virtue or even human emotions, great art transcends time and lives outside of time. It is based upon universals and is timeless. There are no bottles and no genies. Art either conforms to universal, timeless principles, or it strays from them. While it may also contain a specific generational relevance, it is not required to do so to be great.
A train might make a better illustration than a genie. Consider that as long as it stays upon the “track” of universal, timeless principles, its passengers may well view different scenery, just as great art may widely vary. There can be various manifestations of the universal, for example, some great works are more Apollonian (classical) and others more Dionysian (romantic). But if the train hits a snag and becomes derailed altogether, that is not progress or evolution forward; it is regress and devolution. Thus, in terminology, it becomes a much more desirable and positive thing for an artist to say he wishes to put back on track a train that jumped the tracks somewhere along the way, than to say he wishes to put a genie back into a bottle. So often it seems we cede the argument on the grounds of someone else’s flawed and intimidating terminology.
Another reductive and misleading presumption of the above argument against tradition is that adopting an earlier style means simply cloning in a derivative way what a previous artist did, in order to “return” to it. In reality, art is fundamentally personal, and each artist will synthesize many unique influences to create a work of art with his own unique voice. Just because I use tonality does not mean my music will sound like some composer of the past. It will sound as different from Rachmaninov as Rachmaninov sounds from his contemporary, Sibelius, even though all three of us used tonality. Likewise, just because my painting is representational rather than abstract does not mean it will necessarily look derivative of any other representational painter, if I have a personal voice as an artist. If my work does sound or look derivative, then universal principals, goodness, truth, and beauty are not to blame, but rather the fact that I am a poor artist with no individual or uniquely personal voice or imagination.
Finally, this topic leads me to wonder what other genies have escaped from their bottles in our culture, about which it is maintained that they cannot be put back – sexual promiscuity and the obsession with all things sexual in the media, for example. It is assumed that the culture as a whole cannot be brought back on course in this regard, and it certainly feels hopeless to many of us that it will be, anytime soon. Yet history tells us more broadly of ages and cultures of decadence that were reformed by great religious revivals, which spread not through imposed laws but through multitudes of changed hearts. Perhaps in fifty years that could happen again, if we are not already nearing the end of the age now. Meanwhile, back to the subject of art, I refuse to accept the fatalistic notion of genies and bottles. It is never too late to create a new piece of art using beautiful, timeless principles. In so doing, the genies may not be put back into their bottles, it is true, but they may simply be forgotten and replaced by something better.