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Tags: art | classical

Classical: What Does it Mean in Art and Life?

an ornate music theater

Alexandra York By Tuesday, 05 September 2023 09:25 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

We start by identifying that the English term "classical" finds its etymological roots in the Latin adjective classicus which referred to the highest class of Ancient Roman citizens. “Classic” also denoted the Romans’ adoration of all things considered timeless by the Greeks like philosophy, architecture, drama, mythology, and the visual arts.

Later, these terms referred to distinguished literary figures as well. So, we see that from inception the word described the best, most excellent, most revered, and most refined.

As century after century ensued and Europe developed its cultural achievements in arts and letters, usage of the word expanded along with the progress, but it never deviated from its original reference to the most excellent and refined.

In today’s world, too, it retains that essence of meaning and has come to describe everything from formalized “classical” Western orchestral and operatic music to stylishly “classic” clothing that are appreciated by sophisticated and knowledgeable people as superbly accomplished, timeless, and harmonious expressions of beauty and elegance.

“Sophisticated and knowledgeable people” by no means indicates snobbery or perceived superiority over others, but it does acknowledge a high level of educated and experienced familiarity with the formulized aspects of the inventive imagination and disciplined executional skill of the different technical forms that go into the final, exquisite artistic creations.

“Classical” music and “classical” dance (ballet), for example, are terms that describe exacting complexity of both form and harmonious organization that can express a much wider range of feelings and ideas than, say, folk music or square-dancing. “Classical music” also refers to compositions (Oxford English Dictionary) "of or relating to formal European music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, characterized by harmony, balance, and adherence to established compositional forms."

European formal music, metamorphosized stylistically through the centuries from the Baroque period (1600-1750: J. S. Bach/Telemann) overlapping to the Classical period (1750-1820: Mozart/Haydn) and on to the Romantic period often thought to begin with Beethoven (1800-1910: Chopin/ Rachmaninov). It took an abrupt turn in the 20th-century to atonal compositions like Serialism (Schoenberg) that focused on mathematics and dissonance rather than on melody and harmony and which ended the previous long periods of traditional “classical” music in history.

[Sidebar: the use of the term “classical” referring to a particular period in the evolving “classical” music styles (as exemplified by above-mentioned Mozart and Haydn) sometimes confuses unversed people, but when understood as one chronical era within the long history of classical music it need not interfere with the broad definitions of the form itself. In addition, given the 20th-century’s inclination toward atonal “classical” music, many 20th-century Romantic “classical” composers turned to composing music for motion pictures, so some of the most beautiful and moving music from that century can be found in film scores]

Classics in literature refer to works of fiction, drama, and poetry (Dumas, Shakespeare, Frost) that are so universally meaningful in theme they have become timeless standards for their refined execution of form and beauty in written-word presentations. These literary “classics” can be found in other artistically sophisticated cultures such as India (Mahabharata) and Japan (Tale of Genji) as well as in those in the West.

Classics in architecture are almost always restrictive and generally refer to reproductions of Ancient Greek models — Greek Revival — with similar ornaments and harmonious proportion. In some sui generous cases, however, the term can be stretched to describe unique buildings that boast concinnity of stylization to the point of timeless appeal (like Frank Lloyd Wright designs), so excellence, refinement, proportion, and beauty are still a common denominator here.

“Classic” in painting and sculpture refers to realistic forms of true-to-life representations of people, animals, places, and objects originated in Ancient Greece and like music became modified by the temperament and taste of artists during the following centuries to those who carry on that legacy today.

Presently, we have three major forms of Realist visual art based on the Greek model: “Classical” realist artists work within the canons of form derived from Greco-Roman art in order to create the ideal through generalization, and “Realist” realist artists use the same procedural skills to represent real life through particularization; we might say that although technically similar, the main difference between Classicists and Realists is that the first seeks perfection and the second accuracy, the first projects universality and the second specificity.

Then we have (as in music) the “Romantic” Realist who seeks above all else individual expression; these artists are technically “classic” in the execution of their art because they adhere to established Western art forms, but they produce highly individualized creations articulated through their subjective — passionate — emotions which is, of course, the leitmotif of the romantic spirit in any guise.

As in 20th-century atonal music’s abandonment of traditional “classical” form, however, much 20th-century painting and sculpture dismissed the central tenets of “classic” and focused on non-realist and abstract art that denied and, in many cases, brutally bastardized the ideas of excellence, proportion, and ennobling beauty initiated by the Greeks.

Lastly, it’s interesting to note that the term “classic” has retained its original meaning even as it pertains to real-life rather than formal artistic expressions of “classicism” in, for example, classic cars or personal attire.

Taking attire — more familiar to most than cars — there are a few key factors that make something classic in style: Clothing is made from excellent high-quality materials, tends to be well-cut with graceful designs, exhibits versatility, and can harmoniously mix and match with one another.

Such selections create a strong foundational wardrobe with elegant silhouettes and clean lines. Tailored pieces with limited ornamentation and trims are always compatible with each other and display not only a perfect fit but a cultured overall aesthetic allure. Thus, in everyday life the “classic” still denotes excellence, refinement, timelessness, and beauty just like the highest of arts.

Ergo: Classic always means refined in technical creation-execution and harmonious in presentation: hence, the term “classy” in its most serious sense.

Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader's Digest" and The New York Times. She is the author of "Crosspoints A Novel of Choice." Her most recent book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York — Go Here Now.

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We start by identifying that the English term "classical" finds its etymological roots in the Latin adjective classicus which referred to the highest class of Ancient Roman citizens. "Classic" also denoted the Romans' adoration of all things considered timeless by the...
art, classical
Tuesday, 05 September 2023 09:25 AM
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