When you come right down to it, what's happening in the arts these days is that nothing is happening.
This is not intended to mean, of course, that no good work is being produced. Music, choreography, plays and films of high quality are surfacing in a hjsteady stream, in some of these media at a more constant pace than ever before.
Public demand for the performing arts, in particular, has risen astronomically over the past couple of decades, and the number of people actively engaged in making and presenting artistic performances has swelled accordingly. By and large, this growth has not resulted in any diminution of standards.
But if you ask youself how long it has been since a work of obviously monumental importance - an epochmaking, revolutionary or just markedly original opus - has come along, you may be taken aback by your own answer. There are still a few giants among us, to be sure, but their esthetic courses were set long ago, and though Copland, say, or Balanchine or Beckett or Truffaut may continue to give us artistic experiences worthy of their names, they are not likely to surprise us in any fundamental way.
The vaunted avant-garde of the early '60s is all but invisible today. Some of the radical initiatives of those years have been absorbed into (or ripped off by, if you will) the mainstream. The rest have been dissipated by time and a jading of our capacity for shock.
As the '70s draw to a close, it is hard to find, much less define, an artistic frontier. There are no prevailing currents, but rather, a directionless eddying encompassing middle-of-the roadism, electicism, nostalgia, a resurgence of traditonal modes and forms, and a shunning of intellectual challenge in favor of intellectual challenge in favor of old-fashioned entertainment values."
All of which has left us high and dry when it comes to truly great or novel work. Perhaps the arts haven't really come to the end of the line, but they are surely becalmed for the time being, and the sheer duration of the current doldrums is disquieting, to say the least.
In the world of music, one has to go back to the late work of Stravinsky to find a score one could reasonably rank with the earlier masterpieces of this or previous centuries.
Nothing that has emerged in the way of electronic or aleatoric music has appraoached this rarefied domain. Nor have the composers who a decade agoe might have been looked to as potential saviors - Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Penderecki, Sessions, Babbitt or Elliott Carter, as a few exampled - led us to the promised land. A few who have gained the limelight since - George Crumb, for instance - show no sign of maturing into pathfinders of the first rank.
There is one fringe area, lying somewhere between dance, opera and imagist theater, where creative sparks have glimmered more brightly than elsewhere on the artistic horizon recently. So far, however, the impact on the general public has been slight. I'm thinking of the "pulse" music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the dance-theater pieces of Meredith Monk ("Quarry," for example) and Kei Takei (her "Light" cycle), and above all the stage works of Robert Wilson.
The Wilson-Glass "Eistein on the Beach" (1976), a summatory vision of contemporary experience, is probably the closest we've yet come in this period to a genuine milestone.
In other realms of dance, there is much ferment to be sure. But so far there has accrued no body of work camparable in stature to the choreography of Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Anna Sololow, Alwin Nikolais or Erick Hawkins - all active masters still, but hardly pioneers any longer. It is the same with ballet - the sovereigns remain Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor and Robbins, but with the conceivable exception of Eliot Feld, their successors are not in sight.
So it goes in theather, too. Who, since Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Albee and Williams, has appeared on the scene to rival their depth, craft or imaginative range? Sam Shepard, Ronald Ribman, David Rabe, Israel Horovitz, Leonard Melfi, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Terence McNally and others of their generation have brought forth exciting, innovative plays, but in sum they still appear minor, opening no new vein of dramaturgy. Some widely touted newcomers - Albert Innaurato and David Mamet, for instance - remain question marks at best.
It seems incredible that the entire history of the motion picture falls within this one century - that the past four score years have embraced so rich a lode of artistic genius as the major works of Griffith, Chaplin, Eisentein, keaton, Lang, Renoir, von Stroheim, Dryer, Ophuls, Murnau, Ford, Rossellini, Bergman, Hitchcock, Bunuel, Welles, Godard and Truffaut, to just scratch an astonishingly broad surface.
But when was the last time you saw a movie on this plane, a film that altered the face of the medium or had the timeless insights of a classic? Godard made "Weedend" in 1967 and Kubrick finished "2001: A Space Odyssey" the following year. Everything since then has been old wine in not-so-new bottles.
It isn't easy to pinpoint the causes of the present creative stalemate. It may be that we still undergoing a reaction to the hyperactive extremism of the '60s, and that an atmosphere of "normalcy," retrenchment and self-absorption isn't apt to prompt great esthetic breakthroughs.
It's also possible that the very scope and nature of "art" as we know it, under the impact of electronic technology, the gradual democratization of leisure, extraterrestrial exploration and other factors, could be on the verge of a drastic transformation - maybe "masters" and "masterworks" are moribund concepts.
It could also be that events of a global order, involving critical issues of population, food supply, energy, and third-world aspiration, will soon alter the who, where, what and how of artistic experience beyond prediction. For now, one thing seems certain - the arts are marking time.