Contemporary and Classic Poetry versus Contemporary and Classic Art

I came across this beautiful and moving English Renaissance morality play, entitled “Francesca’s Folly”, which happens to have been written only a couple of years ago, in Canada, by Tara Kathleen Murphy:

This led me to reflect on the contemporary use of classic artistic forms and content. Now, to my (admittedly inexpert) eyes there is very little to suggest that this verse drama was not in fact written in the English Renaissance. And if it had been, I feel its quite likely that the opening and closing stanzas in particular (delivered by God, no less!) would be considered amongst the high points of the genre. “From heavy wight to weightless light of heaven’s day.” If this line had been written in the sixteenth century, you can’t tell me scholars wouldn’t be citing it as an instance of the literary genius of the era.

But the really interesting thing to me is that my knowledge that the poem was instead composed in the present day does little to diminish its appeal. If I were to take an analogous case in painting, if I were to imagine, for instance, a present-day painter working in the style of Michelangelo, or Watteau, and depicting the same kind of subject matter, I think my response would be quite different. I would doubtless admire this painting as a technical tour-de-force, but I’m also fairly certain the images would fail to move me in the same way as the originals that inspired them (The same goes for comics). Exactly why this is is unclear to me however.

I seem to remember Milan Kundera pontificating in one of his books as to how, if someone were to create music today in the style of Beethoven, even if it were of the same calibre, it would hardly carry the same power; it would in fact be a form of kitsch. And yet, if the Ninth Symphony had never been written and some brilliant classical revivalist composer were to suddenly unleash it upon the world, I think we could not help but find it profoundly moving, almost at a physical level. Even Kundera would be swooning. Then again, the same thing could not be said of a contemporary rock band producing a song that sounds exactly like a lost Beatles hit, say. How are we to explain this? Is there something about poetry and classical music that is more elemental, that evokes a more visceral response, and is less bound up with the cultural context that produced it and that we associate with it? And where do other art forms fall in within this spectrum?

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