In Defence of Fine Arts Classics

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The classics get such a bad rap these days. Most fine arts organizations currently seem quite eager to program new works, as well as newly discovered old works, and there SO MANY good and important reasons for this (the most important of which is the slow dismantling of the patriarchy and colonialism). Amen to all the artistic directors out there who are making room for historically underrepresented artists. I will literally NEVER argue with that.

What I will argue FOR is continuing to celebrate the classics right alongside these fantastic, previously uncelebrated, new works. And if you’re not a musician or actor or artist yourself, perhaps you’re like, “well, of course!” But, that’s not how everyone feels. You see, a lot of classic works of art (of all kinds – from visual art to dance to music and everything in between) are, as my millennial generation say, “problematic.” Take classical music. Loads of the greatest works of classical music are tied to colonialism – some include appropriations of other cultures’ melodies and forms, others were written to celebrate superpowers’ conquests. All in all, there’s some troubling subject matter and backstories… 

Not to mention the actual stories in a lot of art, which make contemporary (especially younger) audiences go, “was that okay when this was written?” Like many, many opera and ballet plots, which centre around (and often romanticize, and definitely sexualize) violence against women. Or plays that include racist, homophobic, or other demeaning and completely unacceptable language not used to highlight that character attribute (i.e., thrown in casually). What the ever-loving heck do we do about all this? 

Lots of people say, to hell with the classics – they were created through privilege, they’re problematic, and we’d do better to burn this whole “Western canon” of work down and start all over again.

To that I say, please, please don’t throw away the classics.

Great art is problematic – because human beings are problematic! Just because something makes you uncomfortable is no reason to get rid of it (especially when we’re talking about art), particularly when the “thing” we’re talking about is one of the great achievements of the human race. The classics are classics for a reason: they’re great works of art. Mediocre art falls away, and exceptional art remains (which is why you haven’t heard most of the pieces by even the most famous composers, or seen even a sliver of the plays by the great playwrights).

Let the classics stand beside previously unprogrammed works by women and people of colour and LGBTQ people. Let’s get more creations from outside North America and Europe mixed into what we get to see in our institutions and on our stages. Then, let’s elevate the greatest of those works as our generation’s contributions to the canon. Let’s let our era of art speak for itself, but let’s not miss out on our one precious opportunity while we’re here to take in art that is so good it really is classic.