Among the stories I heard, during my Fenland visits last month, were several concerned with artistic life in rural Norfolk before, during and after the Second World War. One person had attended a village school where the progressive vicar introduced the pupils to leading artists of the time, who happened to be friends of his. Another remembered listening to the big bands in Kings Lynn dancehalls so packed that no one could actually dance.
The images their tellers conjured up have stayed in my mind because they were describing experiences that were still both vivid and important to them after 60 or 70 years. Today, the artists of the 1930s and 1940s are mostly forgotten, except by those whose imaginations were fired by them in their impressionable youth. But in them—the generation academics variously term Veteran, Great or simply Silent—names like Billy Cotton and Al Bowlly have lost none of the resonance.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to see that most of my artistic heroes do not have the power over younger generations that they have had over me. It’s most obvious in what is often called ‘popular culture’ but might equally well be seen as the avant-garde. In the 20th century the arts most people paid to enjoy—music, film, books and then computer games—transformed both the media of art and the messages it carried. If, like all experiments, this culture had a high failure rate (allowing for different concepts of failure) that should not diminish a culture whose innovations have been lasting and profound.
Along the way, many popular artists who were icons for one generation found themselves little more than religious kitsch to the next. But such diminution also erodes the acknowledged giants of contemporary culture. Figures such as Albert Camus or Robert Lowell, absolute reference points in my youth, are now just names, among others, on university courses (if they’re lucky). Other reputations have grown astonishingly in comparison.
The best of each generation’s artists become lasting aspects of a culture, though their meaning changes with time. My Generation Y sons have found their own ways of valuing some Baby Boomer artists, like Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. But they hear them differently. We have a unique relationship with the artists whose time we share. We’ve seen their stories unfold alongside our own, in each successive record, book or film. Those artistic works have been the distorting mirrors in which we have found our own ideal reflections.
That being so, we had better be careful about how confidently we estimate the art we most believe in. It is hard to be objective about what got to us at an impressionable age: and, by extension, it may also be harder than we believe to be objective about what didn’t touch us then.