In search of originality: navigating the artistic canon

Saturday 20 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Fountain Room

The Prado and the Louvre, the Barbican Centre and the Lincoln Center, the Concertgebouw and the LA Philharmonic: all champion the greats, the established and traditional. But how does this significant artistic heritage, much of it European, relate to wider society today? Is there a genuine enthusiasm for the likes of Wagner and Leonardo, Picasso and Puccini, keeping the culture of the past fresh and alive? Or are today’s passive consumers simply lapping up the repackaged greatest hits of yesterday?

Of course the great global arts centres also showcase the new: operas by Philip Glass and Thomas Adès, art by Grayson Perry or Tracey Emin, to name a few. How do these works of art relate to the recognised and traditional canon? Do contemporary artists find inspiration within it or in their distance from it? Or do they draw on their own experience and particularity? And is society’s ability to distinguish and comprehend an art form becoming less straightforward? Take popular music: once there were recognisable subcultures like Mods, Rockers, Punks, Indie and so on. In the 1990s, some argue, these subcultures decomposed, leaving us with the isolation of the DIY Spotify generation today. There can appear to have been a process of fragmentation of forms with its logical end point in the mashup. And equally, pop phenomena like Adele, Lana Del Rey or Justin Bieber seem to have been created from scratch by record labels, stage schools and talent shows. What space does this leave for original, coherent artistic work to be achieved in an increasingly saturated, as well as short-termist, environment? Is there a danger that the arts might be becoming something like World Music? Apparently for us all, but really an entirely new invention lacking roots. Fine artists appear almost overnight as global superstars – aptly parodied in Exit Through the Gift Shop – and are self-defined rather than identified in terms of any particular artistic tradition or movement.

Or is this all just nostalgia for a certain generation’s lost youth? Creativity, originality and strong cultural identity require time and tradition but also a willingness to embrace the unknown, the uncharted, the new. The arts can help to unearth this within any field, but is society thirsty for this? Is this pioneering spirit prevalent and nurtured? What needs to be done to aid this search?

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Joe Friggieri
professor of philosophy and former head of department, University of Malta; poet; playwright; theatre director; three-times winner, National Literary Prize

Piers Hellawell
composer; professor of composition, Queen's University Belfast

Jane McAdam Freud
sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist; teacher in sculpture, Central St Martins, University of the Arts London and Morley College, London

Igor Toronyi-Lalic
arts editor, the Spectator; co-director, the London Contemporary Music Festival

Karl Sharro
architect; writer; Middle East commentator; co-author, Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Tom Hutchinson clarinettist; teacher; arts project manager, Royal Philharmonic Society
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Session partners