Not many people in the West understand the details of Chinese cultural history, but we think we understand that many traditions were sustained for long periods by the imitation of teachers. Excellence was prized, and the hand of the new artist was revealed there, that is where originality was found, but mere innovation was less prized and less in evidence. So the account goes.
Europeans had schools and traditions, but they did not imitate so deliberately.
European art reached an especially high level of differentiation between, say, 1850 and 1940, where there are many works, never mind schools, which are so “original” and such a “universe-in-themselves” – Toynbee’s phrase (or something like it) for what nations were, disastrously, claiming to be during that period – that any one of them could have sustained an imitative tradition à la chinoise for decades.
Take music. Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony makes a Klangwelt all of its own. It bears little resemblance to his style of 1899 and little to his style of 1910. But it wasn’t imitated even by Schoenberg. That was it.
You can say something similar about Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, which I happen to be listening to now, in Boulez’s recent recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. A whole sonic universe was invented and thrown away in one work.
Puccini was the last genius in an Italian operatic tradition. Does his music therefore sound decadent and like the end of something? I don’t think it does. It is fresh and vital. It doesn’t hint at the end of anything at all. Even his survivors in verismo sound not so much decadent as simply less talented. But it was the end. Post-war Italian music has been something else again.
Not only could many works have launched a “style” lasting for decades or centuries in the “Chinese” sense, but single phrases, inflections and intervals in them, sonic cross-sections, could have suggested such permanent styles and manners.
Formal traditions were important, of course. The most colossal exercise in absolutely strict sonata form ever conceived is the finale of Mahler’s sixth symphony. But there is nothing imitative in it.
This repeated renewal and burning-out happened across all artistic disciplines – and strikingly in the century I am talking about.
What was a tune? A Western invention as particular as clockwork. A tune also burns out quickly. As quickly as the bodies whose leap, at its apotheosis, it inspired fall back to earth.
European art remained very “high” for at least two centuries after religion began to decline.
The relationship between high secular culture and religion is examined by Roger Scruton in a book I am reading, his Modern Culture.