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The old fads return

One of the discoveries that comes from living a long life is that everything moves in cycles. The youth is prone to think that whatever he beholds is new, and that what has departed will never be seen again. Progress is for him an arrowlike line into the future, and the future is a place unlighted by past experiences, unwarmed by what is familiar and old fashioned. Let a few years accumulate, however, and in middle age he will find there are unexpected residues and recurrences. Add a decade or two and he will be surprised to find that almost nothing happens that he has not been part of before.

I never thought I would myself live to see the day when architecture would come full circle, making respectable the kind of houses that had been swept out by the so-called modern movement. Gone forever, I supposed, were the picturesque bays, the quaint porticoes, the false pillars, and the windows that peeped out from gabled roofs. Once and for all, it seemed, we had achieved a rational building style, bare and clean. I liked it, and yet was slightly puzzled that the bulk of my acquaintances were never really charmed by this cool aesthetic.

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Now the day of the ''post-modern'' architects has come, a successful group of practitioners who pillage the past and incorporate into their buildings every sort of ancient device. These designers are responding to something persistent in the human soul, a desire for memories made visible, myths translated into wood and stone. They will crown a skyscraper with a Chippendale pediment, or cultivate shingles as if they were the sea cultivating barnacles. Round windows and arched openings become a trademark, and pillars, often deformed and bulging, rise to support a structure not even faintly related to their thrust.

In the plastic arts, too, we have found a return to what had seemed permanently banished. The brave splashes of the abstract painters give way to objective representations - to landscapes, human figures, still lifes. The galleries most up to the minute give the impression of coming out of a past period. The most avant-garde artist is a devotee of realism.

All this, I suppose, is in part a reaction to the coldness and fearfulness of an age ruled by natural science. If people have to live in a computer-dominated world, they can at least live in houses that recall the past or hang up paintings related to the human condition. Yet in a deeper sense this return to past styles is characteristic of art in all periods. For art does not progress, as science does; it never discards its former achievements. It only waits for a propitious time to declare them once more in fashion.

In turning back, however, art does not exactly repeat itself. It is part of that great river of life into which, Heraclitus declared, no man steps twice. It always transforms what it recovers. These post-modern houses, if you look at them carefully, are very different from their progenitors. A sort of wit, a perversely innovative spirit, changes them into something new and strange. And the best of these realistic landscapes or portraits - are they not truly part of our own time? What the Abstract Expressionists won for art - their uninhibited freedom, their cosmic vision - reveals itself to the knowing eye, even in paintings that on first glance appear merely conventional.

One of the rewards of age, therefore, is a delightful sense of deja vu. To live in a world that is not entirely novel, to keep seeing things in it that one has seen before, and marveled at, and watched pass temporarily away, can be a pleasant and quite reassuring experience. It is well not to indicate to a younger generation that the latest fad is really an old fad revived; one does not wish to abate its amiable excitement. But quietly and to himself the person who has been a longtime observer of the world may chuckle now and then. He consoles himself with the thought that while the latest fad, too, must pass away , it will one day return in slightly altered form to startle or amuse the future.

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