Obsolete Art?

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Among gourmets, vintage defines taste. But it is about much more than taste. It is about tradition – some particular tradition of some particular vintner. Often, a particular legend goes with that tradition going back the ages. Wine-tasting is an art form – high art, maybe. This makes you wonder about the other art forms and the fate of their vintage equivalents. Music, literature, film – what happens to the releases that belong in the past, the classics but also the cheesy? Does generation next not deserve these hits released in the 1960s and ‘70s and books that go even more way back? Literature is luckier – luckier than music and film. Its preservation and retrieval are not affected by technology as much as music and film even when we allow for the nascent e-book revolution. The book’s major debilitation is wear and tear often in literal terms. You may have inherited a Shakespeare or Dickens from your father who himself had it passed down from his own father. If you are lucky to have a finicky ancestry, you would enjoy reading your Dickens with your own spores waiting in the wings. In addition, these classics are periodically re-issued by publishers enabling aficionados to replace their worn or lost copies but, in a more utilitarian way, benefitting a generation who would otherwise question what it was you liked when they heard As You Like It. Publishers may have been tardy in cutting over the classics to electronic versions, but we can still mercifully access them in printed forms. Not so with music. If you’ve had your Simon and Garfunkels’ elpee well preserved, you’d probably be only decorating your shelf with the album sleeve. Philips makes them turntables no more. To be fair, publishers and record companies have been re-issuing many aged music in CDs. But commercial viability forces them to cherry-pick. In doing that, only the classics get picked for migration to contemporary platforms. And then, like in every other thing in life, the tastes of the strong get attended to while the weak cater for themselves. While the Beatles and ABBA could still be listened to by a teenager in 2020, Ezigbo Obiligbo and Nelly Uchendu, two minstrels who purveyed the primal sound of the Igbo may have died with their legacies. Where private collecting has fared better, public playing has suffered. Air play for music that is not contemporary is so scarce and the miserly bit on play so branded as to sound pejorative – Old School. One radio station in my city has Old School Wednesday during which artistes ranging from Michael Jackson to the Commodores are played. Apart from issues about having vintage music quarantined in a golden cage, there is the matter of the criteria for that classification. Is it the year of release, age of the artiste or genre? There is a certain over-readiness to regard country music, for example, as Old School even if it was released three years ago. Rap and Dancehall of older dates do not enjoy this relegation. What stations have done with Old School music may unwittingly be happening to books as well. When we dub Dickens and Shakespeare classics, it is usually in veneration. But veneration after sometime takes an archival quality – like the witness who a judge rebukes for venerating the truth so much as to avoid telling it. In going on about classic literature and Old School music, one may appear to be battling a bout of retrophilia. However, beyond craving the blast from the past for its own sake, is the greater need for aesthetic inclusiveness and the question of whether any piece of art can be considered obsolete. Moreover, cultural productions from the past bear the languid serenity, ambience and pace of their eras in ways that nothing else does – not history and not archaeology. Favourite old music not only reminds us but recreates in vivid Technicolor the period ambience in which we experienced it initially. I used to play Yanni for my son as a baby and watch him get becalmed. Now, any time I play Yanni, he abandons his homework or cartoon and barges into my bedroom starry-eyed: “Daddy!”. It would be the equivalent of a cultural crime to deny him and his generation the blessedness of listening to Mozart or Handel. These classics have mercifully played catch-up with technology as to be available to this generation. But there must be contemporaries of Mozart who, not achieving the success of the master, would have been confined and lost. Is society not guilty of censorship in unconsciously sieving out these lesser works be they in music, literature or film? What to do – should governments subsidize the migration of every cultural production and ensure every member of every generation has a copy? That may be asking for too much. But the minimum should be the duty to ensure that the cultural patrimony of the society is preserved to keep pace with technology and be available to be accessed by anyone who so wishes. After these works of art have been made accessible, it becomes the duty of gatekeepers in the media and culture industries to make sure that members of generation next at least get the chance to decide if they love the work or not. So librarians, radio producers and on-air personalities, cinema schedulers and bookshop hands all have a duty to ensure that older works are not confined to niches where you need to scale a high mental wall before you access them. For there can be no obsolete art. There are only obsolete technologies and thinking.

  • Mike evinces a compelling social conscience in his creative pieces which have appeared in over two-dozen journals. He is an author of Cowboy Lamido, a children's book and a massive fan of the defunct ABBA.

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