Was the past a simpler time and does the vision of it inform our art? Or am I full of it?

Is it just because it’s past, and much of it distant past, that the earlier decades of my life seem to have had so much more space to move around in, and even an occasional emptiness, while today seems frenetic, full to overflowing with information, hip-deep in words and images?


I don’t think so. When I was a child we spent hours, especially in the summer, with nothing to do. There were chores but they were quickly done. We didn’t have hours of soccer, day camps (at least as many). and after-school teams and clubs. We didn’t have hours and hours of homework. We weren’t all booked up the way most kids are now. We were often bored. But at the same time we had more space to stretch and to daydream.


When my grandparents were young, their world was pretty much circumscribed by their neighborhood, and their town, if they lived in one that was reasonably small. By the time I came along, the world was at least as large as the country and to some extent, the world. WWII must have vastly expanded my parents’ world. Today, the whole globe is with us.

Child's globe. Photo by atomicShed. Islington, London, 2006. Creative Commons.

Within minutes, the Chilean earthquake was our problem too. People waited on computers and by television sets, side by side with Hawaiians, so to speak, to see if there would be a tsunami. The information at our command today is astounding. We can know a lot about a lot in moments. And the author of Delete (in my last post) is right. The digital world remembers for us; we don’t need to consult our own memories, almost everything seems to be on-line.

But of course he’s wrong too. The kind of memory that’s most important to us is personal, sensual, emotional. If we’re artists, especially, that’s the kind of memory we deal in, not the one that’s encapsulated in data of one kind and another. The world that’s remembered digitally only lives for us if it’s enlivened by our own personal memories.

Still, the difference in memory is among the most important differences between this generation of old artists and younger ones. It’s not just the weeding out that happens as we grow older, we old ones really did live in a simpler, less cluttered and less frenetic time, when our focus was closer to home and our memory banks not over-flowing. If people were as rude and crude then, at least they weren’t in each other’s faces because of a media that repeats and amplifies every story of every nasty conflict.

It’s possible, I think, that it’s not just that our years may help us clear away what’s obscuring the world’s vision. Our comparative directness and simplicity, if it exists at all, may come about because that’s where we began. It’s a gift we can bring to a world that’s more and more complicated, constricting, crazy.

I do not mean that we should be sentimentalizing the past. I don’t believe it’s ever been “the good old days.” But there was a time when there was enough space between us and everything else to see the forest for the trees and vice versa.

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