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December 11, 2004

The Tenth Day of Christmas: Tennessee Ernie Ford, Yelena Polyanskaya, and Art in Our Time

Every year I send out with my Christmas cards a list of good things I have come across during the year. I'll post these one by one here.

10. Tennessee Ernie Ford's wonderfully rich voice, especially in his gospel songs. We have a CD of those that are good for our children to listen to as they go to sleep. His rich, deep voice is quite soothing. My two-year-old boy will ask for "the man singing" music when he goes to bed.

A couple of times recently the question has come up of whether art is flourishing now or not. Only a few days ago I recommended Charles Murray's excellent 2003 book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. He tries to get numerical measures of how well different times and places have done in artistic and scientific creation. He stops in 1950 since it is hard to evaluate recent work. Ordinarily the problem is that we overestimate recent work, but in music and painting, many people think that recent work is worse than work from earlier periods. Does that mean it is even worse than it looks?

This would be perverse. Murray finds a downward trend in artistic creation per capita, especially adjusting for increased wealth, but the 1900-1950 era has so much greater population and wealth that the picture in absolute productivity is not so bad. Beyond 1950, the amount of art has exploded. Could it be that in painting and other graphic arts, at least, the amount of good work is great, but it is lost in the mass of mediocrity? Today I visited an exhibit of the very good paintings of Yelena Polyanskaya. I can't find a painting website for her, but she also does photography and piano performance and composition (she has a doctorate in piano). They looked good enough to me to be in a museum. But she is completely unknown, and likely will stay that way. Similarly, the stores are filled with wonderful vases, furniture, and crockery, but it is for a mass market (even if luxurious) and so we do not think to compare it with museum pieces.

Posted by erasmuse at December 11, 2004 09:23 PM

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