Tuesday 14 May 2024

What will the future say about the arts of the 21st century?

As I talked about my favourite centuries, one person said his was the 20th century.

That’s a good answer. Just cinema and photography are good reasons to pick the 20th century. Explosive.

In music, plenty of things were happening—I myself like jazz—I love John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, etc. But most importantly, technology forever changed music listening. 

In literature, on this side of the Atlantic, the Modernists—especially Joyce, Proust, Woolf, T. S. Eliot—changed fiction and poetry. American literature peaked in the 20th century: Henry James, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, J. D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, etc. Russian literature was no longer the Golden Age but still had great writers—I love Life and Fate. The 20th century was glorious for many countries around the world: France had Proust and many others; Japan had Soseki, Kawabata, and Akutagawa; Bohemia had Kafka; Czech literature had Milan Kundera; Austria had Robert Musil; Norway had Knut Hamsun; Colombia had Gabriel García Márquez; Argentina had Jorge Luis Borges; Yiddish literature had Isaac Bashevis Singer; Canada got Alice Munro (rest in peace); etc.  

South Vietnam also had a great burst of creativity in a very short span of time, sadly not much known internationally. My mum mentions Nhã Ca, Túy Hồng, Nguyễn Thị Ng.H, Nguyễn Thị Hoàng, Nguyễn Thị Thụy Vũ, Dương Nghiễm Mậu, Nguyễn Hương, etc. in prose fiction; Du Tử Lê, Vũ Hoàng Chương, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Trần Dạ Từ, Nguyễn Tất Nhiên, Đinh Hùng, Trầm Tử Thiêng, etc. in poetry. I would add Bùi Giáng, one of my favourite poets. 

20th century literature was so rich. It just so happens that I feel more at home in the 19th century, that writers such as Tolstoy and Chekhov mean a lot more to me personally.

It’s the same with the visual arts. The 20th century had lots of art movements: Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Postmodernism, Photorealism, and so on—there are also performance art, installation art, butoh, etc. but I only like a couple of artists, like Egon Schiele and Picasso. 20th century art generally doesn’t speak to me, especially since Postmodernism, conceptual art, and performance art. Also not a fan of camp and kitsch. 


(A piece by Jeff Koons) 

So what will the arts in the 21st century be like? What will people in the future say about this century? 

It is impossible to say what will happen in the arts, with the emergence of AI. Will it be an explosion like the Industrial Revolution? Will it change everything like the invention of cameras and music recordings? 

Or will it swallow us all, and destroy everything? 

If we talk about the arts of 2000-2024, I don’t read much contemporary fiction and can’t comment on it—some of it is safe and ideology-driven and there are harmful trends such as sensitivity readers, but I think there are plenty of great talents around. I like Alice Munro, for instance. 

The field I know the best is cinema, and generally I prefer films of the 50s-70s to contemporary films, at least when it comes to American cinema. I do like some recent films: Ballad of a White Cow (Iran), Anatomy of a Fall (France), Shoplifters (Japan), The Zone of Interest (English director), The Taste of Things (France), The Father (French director), etc. Hollywood, on the other hand, is dominated by superhero movies, franchises, and remakes, and I often dislike recent highly acclaimed American films.

I expect people in the future will say that 21st century cinema was brilliant and full of wonderful things in other countries—Japan, France, a few places in Europe, perhaps South Korea, perhaps Iran—but not in the US.

In theatre, nothing seems to be happening. The 20th century had Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett doing crazy things, and there were plenty of great playwrights—the current scene pales in comparison. I’m ignorant, but I guess people who know more than me would probably say that there’s a decline in theatre—London theatres, apart from Shakespeare productions, are dominated by musical adaptations of popular films and rewritten versions of Chekhov. 

The art scene is even bleaker and more depressing. I had followed art pages and gone to contemporary art exhibitions for years, in different countries in Europe, before deciding, after a visit to Wellcome Collection last year, that I would no longer bother to keep up with it. And having decided so, I still went to Saatchi Gallery and a few months ago saw the contemporary section at Tate Britain, so I can say I do have a good idea of what’s going on in the art scene, and it’s largely rubbish. Look at the glorious 17th century! Look at the great artists of the late 19th, early 20th century! Then look at contemporary art—it’s embarrassing. 

What’s going on in music? I have no idea. I’ve got the impression that there are lots of different things, different genres, different styles, but pop music also dominates everything? 

The 21st century however will be very, very different because of AI.

What do you think? 


  1. I believe that there is still a lot of quality being produced in the 21st century, but it is buried under a mass of content and confusing distribution channels. It doesnt help that people have shortened selective attention spans either.
    Contemporary art for me can be quite frustrating, so I tend to just latch on to a few artists and follow their work (Peter Doig, David Hockney (?), Kehinde Wiley, etc). I dont mind the influx of art tutorials on youtube or instagram, which is still art, though not particularly commercially viable.
    As for cinema, i blame it all on capitalism and studios feeding the plebs what they have liked before over and over again to often diminishing returns. I just follow specific directors, and watch all of their films (Coen Brothers, Cronenberg, David Lynch, Kelly Reichardt, etc).
    Music is there, its alive and vibrant. There have been big jumps in scenes like British Jazz (Sons of Kemet), underground(ish) hip hop (Madlib, J-Dilla) and Aussie Rock (Tame Impala, King Gizzard, etc).
    In summary, there are good things out there, but its hard to concentrate with so much abundance of content (lets call it content because its not art always)...
    Of course one can look at the glory days of the past, but the descendants of those greats are somewhere out there amongst us.

  2. In recent decades, there has been a growing movement of representational art. It is largely ignored by the contemporary art establishment and mainstream media, but has produced a lot of impressive art in diverse styles. See, e.g., The Art Renewal Center I also highlight selected works on my website, The Easy Chair

  3. I am generally more worried not that great art will dry up - I do not really care if it comes from Hollywood or Random House Penguin - I assume it mostly will not - but that the audience for many kinds of great art will vanish or be reduced to a handful of hobbyists. There is so much good jazz, for example, being played now, kept alive by American universities and European audiences. Maybe things can just go on like that. I hope so.

  4. Diego,
    Thanks for that. For visual arts, you probably know that the art world is now mostly a scam for rich people to claim tax credit, right? So I think there are still good artists, but their artworks are not in galleries.

    Thanks for the links, I will have a look. When you say representative art, do you include the hyperrealism movement? I personally am not a fan of that one.

    But wouldn't that reduce space and opportunities for good artists?

  5. I interpret representational broadly, art depicting recognizable objects, which would include hyperrealism although it's not my favorite genre. I would agree regarding the scam aspect if limiting it to high-end contemporary art. However, there are numerous galleries that feature excellent contemporary art, including Arcadia Contemporary, Principle Gallery, Gallery 1261, Robert Lange Studios, Collins Galleries, and others.

    1. Yeah I live in London so those names mean nothing to me lol.

  6. "reduce space and opportunities"

    Yes, although I think the causality is the other way. The audience shrivels and then new and surviving artists scramble for a place.

    What if their new place alienates and further reduces the audience? Catastrophe.

    1. Right.
      I don't know anything about the current jazz scene, at all.

    2. More great jazz than anyone will be able to hear now. Not that it is 1960. It will never be like 1960 again.

  7. It's so comforting to read your blog, it let's me know that there are still intelligent young people, and by intelligent I mean "think like me"! Anyway, I can't disagree with anything you write. Technology appears to have been somewhat of a disaster for art, it appears to have accelerated the post Duchamp notion of anything being art to beyond escape velocity. As another comment noted, there are still things of value being made, but I think we've seen the cultural apex of most art in the early 20th century. It seems a period of stagnation beckons until we learn to value quality over ease of consumption.

    1. Hahahhaha.
      Yeah, I despair of the visual arts.
      Literature might be doing fine though, I just don't read it so I don't know. The field I know best at the moment would be cinema, and there are still very good films being made, just not in Hollywood.

    2. Oh totally. 'Tar' was pretty good. But in general I find myself re-reading Nabokov and listening to Davis & Coltrane, classical music and some 70s rock. In terms of literature (and I know book recommendations are fraught with danger), I thought the "My Struggle" books were somewhat of a triumph. Maybe try the first chapters, if it doesn't resonate, then your not going to dig the rest of it. I resisted it for years figuring it'd be some modern blah...but I was wrong.

    3. I will not read Knausgård till I have read all of Proust. Can't start another series when I've only read 2 volumes of Proust.

    4. Having read both, the comparison is very superficial. Sometimes I think the year I spent reading Proust might have been better used sorting the garden out.

    5. I don't mean that they are similar. I just mean that they are both long projects and I don't want to start on another one when I've only read 2 volumes of Proust.

  8. To my mind, the great art form of the 21st Century has been television. Not all television, obviously, but the great "box sets" - The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Succession, along with shorter series such as Chernobyl and The People Versus O.J. Simpson. These have brought to the medium of film something of the depth of exploration of character and narrative sweep you had in the novel in the 18th-20th Centuries, while retaining the "negative capability" of the drama.

    Of course, the Owl of Minerva flies abroad only when the shades of night are gathering (is that the one poetic thing Hegel ever said?), and I rather feel as though the high-water mark of the box set has already passed, but it was glorious while it lasted.

    1. I haven't seen those.
      But I binge-watched The Mentalist and Inside No.9. Excellent stuff.

  9. Sometimes I think if I was alive in 1824, I might think nothing goods come out in a while, haha. I think we idolize the past in a lot of ways that, rationally speaking, are obvious to us, but nonetheless hard to suppress that feeling when it comes to judging contemporary art—especially when we don't engage with much of it.

    The internet has significantly contributed to breaking up any chance of a general culture of sensibility (for better or for worse, who knows?) so it's hard to involve yourself in things that aren't directed at you without putting in a lot of time and effort.

    I also think people believe the world to be a lot more homogenized than it is because of the predominance of anglo-american culture. The "internet" in Spanish is a whole different world than it is in "English." Hell, the internet in México, haha. I can only imagine this isn't unique to these two. It's a sharp irony that this tool that allows instant communication with the world, has instead shown us just how large and irreconcilable the world is. Ideology is nothing new in literature, the morals just change.

    Anyway, my point is that we have a lot of things working against our appreciation of contemporary art today that it would be unfair to not consider: a plethora of rich work chaffed from the past to engage with first; so much more easily accessible avenues of entertainment; social media and the prevalence of "nicheness." When great poets can simply start a blog to post their work and fulfill that often resented need for a public audience, without the marketing of a publisher or the support of a literary community, I deeply pity whoever dares to write a "History of 21st Century Literature" in whatever language.

    1. I know what you're saying and you make some good points, but I don't agree with everything.
      There's a reason that I don't talk about contemporary literature at all, as I don't know it, and I also hesitate to talk much about contemporary cinema (though I think I'm not mistaken to talk about the decline of American cinema, comparing not American films as a whole, but comparing the films judged to be the best now against classic films).
      But I think I can say something about contemporary art, because I have gone to such exhibitions for years, in different countries in Europe, and followed different art sites. Great art may be hidden elsewhere, and art may include things on the internet, but if we're talking about the stuff in the mainstream - artworks at galleries and artists that are recognised - I do have a good idea of what is going on today, and would say that most of it is rubbish.
      As for music, I know it's very broad, with so much going on, that's why I also don't talk about it.


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