Stirring some ashes
Two words used in discussing the arts of the present day tend to bother me, for they are too often confused and interchanged with little or no attention paid to the subtle differences between them. I am referring to modernm and contemporary.m
Modern. From the Latin, modus,m meaning "measure," "to justify," thence to modo,m meaning "just now." Giving a just measurement of other things is one matter, but "just now" can, and does, carry us into the realm of the momentary, the sense of modusm which gives us "manner," "style" and -- fashion, although, of course, that which is "just now" does not need to partake of manner or fashion.
Con tempom is easy: with the times, of course. But when we say "with" do we mean it in the same way as in "modish/modern"? I think not.
Most commonly, "with the times" is used in conjunction with someone else's time(s). But this too fails to convey what we often have in mind; it can signify simply that Paul Klee was active during the same period as Norman Rockwell. We must translate futher, until the heart of the matter is revealed and we see that what we mean is "of the times." A thing which is "of the times" satisfies the need for a category in which the facets of the era are seen but do not grow out of a sense of fashion or modishness.
The same is, of course, true of persons, "A man of his time" (Henry James). "Man/woman of the hour." "He was truly a child of his time." And so on. We know we must pause for a moment when calling someone a contemporary writer or sculptor. But what does this imply? One of the most complex and thought-provoking usages of contemporarym comes from one of Aaron Copland's Norton Lectures of 1952. He referred to Mexican composer Carlos Chavez as "the most truly contemporary" North American composer, in the sense that he came "closest to expressing the fundamental reality of modern man after he has been stripped of the accumulation of centuries of aesthetic experiences." Originality , then, has the sense of exposing something brand new. To be contemporary is to strip away trappings, whereas to be modish is, in a way, to seek them. And being "just now," in this context, barely describes anything at all.
All the semantic rules have been obeyed here, yet contemporarym seems to have been suddenly burdened with an additional weight. Are we presented with an original, contemporary artist who must perforce undo, strip away, all that has come before? Must we, in being "of the times," be orphaned by iconoclasm? I hesitate to admit that.
Here is a case where surface impression acts to deceive. Such a throwing out of the old for the utterly new was not exactly the case with a composer like Chavez, in any event. In his case, as with so many open- minded, creative artists of these times, it was a case of selectivity: his eschewal of European models and trappings in favor of the richness of native (and ancient) Mexican Indian music. And in so doing, he was fraternizing with many other composers, writers and painters throughout. North and South America who were awakening to what was around. In being true to the spirit of where they had arrived, they made use of indigenous and fecund material for the creation of something very much of "of the times," exceedingly original and, by the same token, connected to a venerable heritage.
Perhaps it is just such a contemporary, innovative figure who feels most capable of stirring, as French composer Claude Debussy wrote, the ashes of the past in search of that "unquenchable flame to which the present will always owe something of its radiance."
What has all this wordplay accomplished? one asks. How are we better off because of it? In this respect, I feel: it can bring us closer to a realization that, ultimately, the strongest in new art has its taproots in that which is ages old. Originality as novelty is a vain dream. But we can never fail to recognize originally that exposes us to universalities, clears our heads and sets us right again, for that is the genuine item.