Welcome to the Golden Age

by Richard Frankel

If you read the papers or watch the news on TV, the world appears to be a deeply troubled place. Problems everywhere. War, intolerance, politics over policy, cruelty, greed. Americans are depressed, and they have no faith in government, or anything else.

Yet when I look around I see something different. Yes, our world and times have problems. That is nothing new -- a trouble-free world exists only in dreams and the occasional Disney moment. But, just for a second or two, look past the traumas of disaster media. You will find that the late 20th century, at least in the "west," is in the midst of a Golden Age -- a time of unprecedented creativity, of peace, wealth and stability that permits the human mind room for creativity; a period of defining artistic endeavors, an era that will be remembered for its sheer quantity of cultural experimentation, if nothing else.

A Golden Age, to rival the glories of Classical Greece, ancient Rome, or the Renaissance. Go to the museums, the art schools, the music stores, the theaters; wander the Internet, book stores, restaurants; explore the architectural spaces, the wilderness, the universities; think of all the ways you communicate, relax, learn, find entertainment. There are so many people doing so many interesting things that it is impossible to keep up with them all.

Much of what people produce is junk, yes. The marketplace is dominated by corporations obsessed by bottom-line-itis and the lowest common denominator. There are many artistic poseurs. But there are also many more artists of every stamp devoted to their work and devoted to the creation of beauty -- whatever that might mean to them.

Here in the U.S. I believe that we have the baby-boomers to thank for this little Golden Age. They have done much to lay the groundwork for this cultural experiment. Certainly this period of unprecedented artistic work can be traced back to the fifties. But it is not the boomers themselves who are doing everything interesting. They have been remarkably dedicated to producing money, buying houses, creating families, and educating their children. And it is those children who are at the center of this Golden Age. Taught to love thought but not jobs, the children of the boomers are a generation devoted to fulfillment beyond work even more than their parents. Their parents created homes and communities in which these children could assume not just subsistence but comfort. Yes, the "American family" has many problems, but these are the problems of the wealthy. You just don't have time to worry about being "dysfunctional" if your survival is in question.

And so the generations after World War II, assured of the basic comforts of life, have turned to art, in all its forms. That is the explosion I see.

So how does our little Golden Age compare to others? Rome's Golden Age began during the second half of the rule of Augustus -- essentially the last part of the century before the birth of Christ. As Golden Ages go, this was a pretty good one. The dominant artistic explosion was in literature, but nearly the entire Mediterranean experienced tremendous cultural change, created by a single central government, peace, and invigorated trade. But was this truly a period of defining artistic endeavor?

Rome (and much of the Mediterranean) had just experienced a terrible and devastating civil war in which Augustus consolidated his power and invented his Empire at the cost of tremendous bloodshed. By comparison, the time after this war was glorious, as peace always is. His coffers stuffed with the money of the conquered, Augustus splurged on construction projects in urban centers around the Empire. Does this sound familiar?

The visual arts -- sculpture, painting, and architecture -- of this Golden Age, while glorious in many ways, was heavily derivative of the Greek artistic tradition. The literary arts -- poetry, history, oratory -- though also derived from Greek forms, did indeed create a unique new culturally specific art. The works of Virgil, Horace, Livy, Lucretius, Ovid and Cicero defined the age, and inspired scholars and artists for millennia.

But if this was a Golden Age, it was not one for the masses. By modern standards, a small percentage of the population was well enough educated to read the works of the great writers. And though the Mediterranean experienced a general peace that was unprecedented, it did so under a government that we would find intolerable. The building programs were surely designed to please the masses and pay off supporters. Was this a Golden Age or a propaganda campaign?

But it is unfair to judge the past by our own standards. Rome's Golden Age was truly a period in which the benefits of civilization -- in the arts as well as in material comfort, in the benefits of the rule of law, in trade and in business -- were spread to a greater mass of the world than ever before. This too sounds familiar.

Modern western civilization, despite all of its problems, is a remarkably well-educated and peaceful place. And its citizens have an unprecedented amount of time to do what they want. Many stare at the television, but many also create -- so much so that it is terribly difficult to even explain the trends in any one field. To say "grunge music" or "minimalist fiction" defines a kind of modern art is to insult the incredible variety in every area of artistic endeavor. What is the modern trend in fiction? Is it post-modernism, minimalism, realism, multi-culturalism, apocalypsism, magical realism? All of these, yes, and more. It will be up to future scholars to reduce and define our times; for us, why even bother trying?

I have not even mentioned technology as a liberator of artistic endeavor. Since you are reading Enterzone you know about the power of modern technology to make it easier for artists and writers and readers and thinkers -- i.e. everyone -- to communicate their ideas to each other. This new freedom does not define our Golden Age; it got off the ground before the Internet showed up. But perhaps electronic media will help extend and expand our Golden Age.

So look around, marvel at all the amazing things that your fellows are doing. Remember that there is more to our existence than troubles problems and difficulties. And who knows -- maybe the arms merchants, the fanatically greedy, and the power-starved will be frustrated, and our Golden Age will grow and spread to encompass the world. Maybe. But I am not waiting. I am going to enjoy it while I can.

Copyright © 1996
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