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No more heroes? Art, genius and tradition

Does looking back stop us looking forward? Where are today’s Schumanns – or do we even need any?

The German composer Robert Schumann praised the Polish composer Frederic Chopin’s early works, calling him a genius and lauding the music’s ‘intense nationalism’. But, Schumann wrote, ‘Art requires more. The minor interests of the soil on which he was born had to sacrifice themselves to the universal ones.’ And Chopin’s later works are indeed said to edge further and further towards this internationalist style. But can we think in terms of artistic universals today? Is greatness conceivable in local or national terms, or global ones? What are contemporary artists aiming to achieve, and is it for everyone?

It’s easy to look at the contemporary arts and bemoan a lack of greatness or ambition. How can we compare a light going on and off to a painting by Rembrandt? New classical music seems ghettoised and unappealing to the general public, and jazz is perhaps also shutting itself off from new audiences. But can we speak of a decline without endorsing a Schumannesque belief in universalism – if art has changed its scope, is this defeatism or progress? Furthermore, from where do artists themselves draw inspiration? Do the masterpieces of the canon inspire fresh work, or does their continual presence stifle creativity? Now that even avant-gardism seems to have run its course, are new works forever in a grim dialogue with the great remains of former, better artistic times?

In any case, Tate Modern audiences are growing ever higher, after all, and there is plenty of interest as well for ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions of past greats. But will the emerging artists today provoke the same level of reverence as their predecessors do today in coming centuries? And is it really the art of the past that we love so much, or the stories and mythology which surround them? Either way, there is no stopping efforts at broadening the artistic canon’s cultural reach, in music as much as visual art – from worldwide opera broadcasts from the Met, to Venezuela’s vaunted music programme El Sistema taking Western classical music as an agent for social change. Can we call efforts to bring the arts to all classes and cultures a noble sort of universalism – or is it just globalisation? Finally, what does it really mean to live in a world with such an obsession with the art of the past, in all its greatness? Does looking back stop us looking forward? Where are today’s Schumanns – or do we even need any?


Dr Shirley Dent | talks
Manick Govinda | talks
Fisun G√ľner | talks
Paul Kilbey | talks
Sara Radstone | talks
David Bowden | talks


Date and Time:

16 October 2012 at 6:30 pm


2 hours



113-119 Charing Cross Road
020 7269 9220
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Organised by:

Institute of Ideas
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£7.50 (£5.00)

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