I find the lack of survival of literature in various eras fascinating. I was recently commenting on another thread that basically no American drama is recognized as “great” until the 20th century. Even then, I think it’s debatable whether Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, et al. will really be held up as classics 100 years from now, but no one claims that any American playwright wrote anything good at all until the 20th century. In fact, in the 19th century, only three dramatists get any cred at all: Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. Before them, at least with respect to English, you have to go back to Richard Sheridan and just a few others in the 18th century, and before that you are looking at Reformation Drama in the 1600s to find anything of worth.
The same thing holds pretty true in poetry. I am a big fan of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and I have a soft spot for Thomas Bailey Aldrich, but I would not claim that there are many undervalued 19th century American poets. Who gets respect from critics now? Whitman, definitely, and Poe to some extent. Longfellow, no. On other other hand, many British poets are highly valued from that time period.
I do have a point with this intro. I think there is an unspoken and false assumption that great art is always and consistently being made over time. That something from every time period will “stand the test of time.” I think this assumption is made not really because the historical record backs it up–as per my intro, it doesn’t; nor have I heard anyone claim otherwise–but because current creative types want to believe they have a shot at a legacy. The other “stakeholders” who have an interest in believing this are professors of contemporary literature. I doubt many claim that everything they teach is soon to be forgotten.
So let’s pretend that it’s 2114. What art from 1945-2014 holds up? I would suggest that we leave out pop music for one reason: I think a lot from this era will hold up and it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. So it would not be fruitful to include it in the debate. If you think otherwise, however, feel free to say so. (E.g., if you think the Beatles will be totally forgotten in 2114.) I think it’s also best to leave off movies and TV shows, pretty much for the same reason, but you can talk about them if you feel like it. (To me, music and movies are fundamentally easy to consume, and I think people will continue to consume a bunch of stuff in these categories from the past even if it’s not that good–I think that’s the difference that makes it prudent to exclude these from the discussion. Tell me if you disagree.)
There is a hypothesis I have that informs the following opinions: That which is not popular among the “people” will not retain its popularity in the future. That is, academics revering something will not cause ordinary people or even academics in the future to cherish it.
Without further ado:
This genre of music essentially died in this period. The composers who were already established and still writing in this period (e.g., Arnold Schoenberg, Elliott Carter) will still be remembered. But no one born during this period will be remembered at all. The mechanism whereby classical music was determined to be good or bad itself withered away, thereby making it impossible for new “famous people” to be created in this category.
All the greats from 1945 to approximately 1975 will be remembered, but no one after that. Jazz became backward-looking at some point in the 70s.
I have heard “Howl” by Ginsberg (1956) described as the last time a poem was a cultural event. I think that’s true. I’m a big fan of Kenneth Koch, but I pretty much think post-War poetry is a big zero. Here again, the cultural mechanism by which poetry and poets could become famous withered away. Nothing will be famous. Rod McKuen, who oddly enough is the best-selling poet in the history of planet Earth, is already forgotten (not entirely deservedly–he has a handful of good poems). I don’t think the beat poets will be remembered either, basically.
Outside a handful of books, big zero. The time period has created no giants like Dickens or Austin, not really even many credible candidates. I’ve heard V.S. Naipaul held up as one–I don’t think so. There are people who pick up a George Elliot book for pleasure reading–will someone really be digging into a Naipaul book in 2114? I’m not sure he will even be taught in an English lit class, unless it is specifically about his particular time period.
What could survive in the handful of books is Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies… I don’t know, it could be a bunch of things, but I don’t see any authors really being held up for particular veneration. This isn’t my particular area of expertise, so tell me I’m wrong; my feelings won’t be hurt.
For example, will the following be read or even remembered in 2114?
Harry Potter: Will be remembered for being huge but won’t be read any more. Many other book crazes will have come and gone by then.
Stephen King’s works: Up for grabs. Not many new and big horror writers have come along, so he may still be filling a need at that time.
Hunger Games: I doubt it.
Twilight: Hahahaha fuck no.
I’m not sure how well a lot of sci-fi will hold up either. I’m a huge Robert Sheckley fan, but he was mostly forgotten during his own lifetime. Will people still take, say, Dune seriously 100 years from now? I have my doubts. Heinlein is an idiot and I hope he will be forgotten. Certain authors will be remembered for their contribution to the genre, but I doubt they will be read much: Asimov, Clarke, etc.
Drama (plays and musicals)
I think several musicals (Guys and Dolls and Phantom of the Opera comes to mind–yes, I know the latter is extremely corny and of debatable taste–no matter) will survive because the music is good, and music is easy to consume. I think virtually no stage plays will “stand the test of time.” Already things like Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? are badly dated, and straight stage plays have mostly gone out of fashion anyway. And most stuff that we remember anyway is by playwrights who got their start before WWII. Will Joe Orton’s and David Mamet’s stuff be revered and performed in 2114? No fucking way.
Visual arts (paintings, sculpture, etc.)
This category is a different for several reasons: the pieces are unique (or limited in number, and so long as there are rich people, there will be a demand for pieces to go on the walls of their homes and offices.
That said, as in other categories, the mechanism by which famous artists are created has withered and died. There are several really rich artists (like that idiot Brit who did the platinum skull, I won’t dignify him with a google) who are nevertheless not household names like a Picasso or a Dali. I think Tara Donovan is brilliant, I think her works will be highly valuable in 2114, I think they will be displayed in museums as “contemporary art”–but I don’t know if she will be “famous” at that time. I don’t know if she can be described as “famous” right now.
Those are some opinions for you. I look forward to reading yours!