Are we ever aware of a “golden age” when we are living in the midst of one? Did the Greek citizens who attended plays by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles say to themselves and each other, “Oh, goodness, aren’t we fortunate to be living in the first real golden age of literature as represented by the three playwrights whose work we are blessed to see during our lifetime?” I rather doubt it. Or did the citizens of Venice, while viewing paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese in 16th century Italy realize that they, too, were living in a golden age of painting that would later be designated as the High Renaissance? Again, it is unlikely that these viewers fully comprehended the geniuses they were fortunate enough to have as contemporaries.
Of course, by definition, it is rare for anyone to be fortunate enough to live in a “golden age” of any kind. Between the flowering of Greece and 15th – 16th Century Italy was a long period, not necessarily a “dark age,” but not a period in which a group of artists emerged to define a brief era as the Greek tragedians and Renaissance painters so accomplished.
No, “golden ages” are few and far between, and are, it would seem, often the result of blind chance, serendipity, or random fate, however one sees it. Thus, for another example, the convergence in Paris of the profusion of talented artists in the first two decades of the 20th century was extraordinary, truly a mysterious and glorious mutual attraction of astonishing and innovative talents perhaps unique in history. The Renaissance parties were magnificent and stylistically different but they were perhaps not as wildly divergent as the set of painters represented by Picasso, Ernst, Chagall, Manet, Modigliani, Miro, Marcel Cuchamp, Brancusi, Gris, Giacometti, and Pascin.
And in this early 20th century milieu, I think many people, including the artists themselves, were aware of being part of a revolutionary once-in-a-century or even millennium movement. This was so in 1900-1930 because it was not just a movement of painters; it involved all the arts: writers such as Joyce, Yeats, Pound, and Eliot; dancers such as Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karalli; composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Hindemith.
And what of the United States? Well, I believe we have had several golden, or perhaps, “silver ages” (eras perhaps not quite as dramatic or comprehensive as, say, a classical Greece or Renaissance Italy). Our eras would certainly include: a) the “literary flowering of New England,” as Van Wyck Brooks labeled it: the era in writing of Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, James, b) the spontaneous birth of New Orleans Jazz in the early 1900s: The age of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Johnnie Dodds, George Lewis, Kid Ory, et al.
c) The Broadway musicals ranging from progenitors such as Rudolph Friml, Victor Herbert, and Sigmund Romberg in the 1920s and ‘30s to the full and mature and brilliant expressions of Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Lerner and Lowe, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein, in the 1940s and ‘50s.
So what of the past 50 years? Are we too close to see? Were the Beatles the beginning of such an era? The Beat poets or the Black Mountain poets?
Somehow, I don’t think so, but that may well be what one would expect from a history major who is tempted to think that things aren’t as wonderful today as in the “good old days,” or as this or that “golden age.”