Can we still create masterpieces? Culture is everywhere, but great artworks seem to be things of the past.

The reason is not that our artists or writers have become less proficient. Why should our current artists have less native talent than their historical predecessors? What they really lack is faith. To compose masterpieces, one must first believe in them. Today we no longer believe in masterpieces, because we have no desire to admire those who produce them. It is the growth of democracy, and concomitantly, of resentment, that eliminates the need for great art.

 Masterpieces are monuments, centers of desire and resentment that obstruct the flow of goods and signs. It is because our general esthetic level is so high that we can afford to do without masterpieces. Automobiles, magazines, furniture, storefronts – we live in a world of stylishness. If Los Angeles is a more stylish place than most, the accouterments of daily life in most places in the industrialized world are increasingly on a comparable level of quality. The societies that produced great art knew degrees of social distinction that exist today only in the most backward countries. It is the democratic esthetic of daily life that has replaced the esthetic focus on the unique masterpiece, just as the omnicentric world in which all are worthy of respect and love is supposed to replace the old social hierarchies.

We are entering an unpretentious age, in which the only pretense is not to have one. The only affirmation we are allowed to make–and I think we are tiring of it–is of our status as victims. The point of PC is to head off criticism by apologizing in advance for any self-affirmations one might inadvertently commit.

Does this mean that we must be pessimistic toward the future of art, that we are fated to mediocrity? Not necessarily.

Before about 1800, the arrogance of artists was limited to their professional setting. The creators who had flourished in the Italian Renaissance saw themselves as men of discovery and progress, more as scientists than as incarnations of genius. The romantic artist was the first to consider himself gifted with prophetic insight. In the sense in which we still use the term, his were the first masterpieces; he was the first to think of artworks, his own or those of his predecessors, as possessing a transcendent value beyond all worldly objects. The romantic artist thought himself the successor of the religious leaders of the past–MosesMohammed, even Jesus.

It is easy to mock the romantic’s naive arrogance. My favorite quote in this vein (as my students know all too well) is from Victor Hugo‘s preface to his greatest poetry collection, Les contemplations (known here mostly for Les misérablesHugo is best remembered in France as a poet, the uncontested leader of the romantic school):  “… quand je parle de moi, je parle de vous. Insensé qui crois que je ne suis pas toi!” — “When I speak of myself, I speak of you; senseless one who think I am not you!” The poet talks of himself, but he speaks for us all. He need not ask us for our permission. As the hyperbole shows, Hugo’s reader has begun to resist the artist’s genius–Les contemplations is romantic poetry published in the postromantic era. But Baudelaire, and his successor Mallarmé, had visions of the artist’s role yet more exalted than Hugo’s.  Mallarmé no longer spoke for the bourgeois reader; the artist had become, as for Heidegger, a guardian of being.

 It is easy to mock; but these artists had a point. With the decline of the old ritual society after the French Revolution, the nineteenth-century artist supplied not only insights into the human condition, but a vision of the social order that was not available elsewhere. It was Balzac who revealed the social atmosphere of early capitalism; it was Flaubert who uncovered the structures of desire that underlie what we call consumer societyEsthetic creation was the leading anthropological discovery procedure of the time. This is no longer true in the postmodern era; the horrors of the twentieth century have taught us to be wary of revelations of human truth in images.

Today, we no longer desire masterpieces. But we can still enjoy art. The popular arts are more vigorous than those of the waning “high culture,” but elements of the latter gain vigor from imitating the forms, and more fundamentally, the unpretentiousness of the former. The broad success of, for example, minimalist music–which has rejuvenated opera, a form not long ago considered a nineteenth-century relic–stems not from its imitation of specific themes or techniques of popular music but from its renunciation of avant-garde incomprehensibility.

Hence although we are truly at the “end of culture,” if the latter be understood in the romantic sense as the source of our ultimate revelations about ourselves, we are also entering an era extremely rich in culture, understood more modestly as entertainment that defers our resentments until we are ready to recycle them within our productive lives.

This more modest role for art does not mean that the art of the present need be of modest quality. When Bach was composing, he thought of himself as a top professional–closer to an engineer‘s self-image than that of an artist. Nor did Mozart see himself very differently. It was with Beethoven that the composer took on the figure of transcendent genius. Today’s composers have come full circle and returned to the modesty of Bach rather than the flamboyance of Beethoven. They could do a lot worse.  Bach never wrote masterpieces, no doubt, but he did produce the Saint Matthew’s Passion.