The gift of 2020
Jan 6, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As we enter into a new year, it’s a time of hope for the new season ahead. A season of healing, positivity and joy. As we get ready to flip the page, it’s also a natural time to reflect and give thanksgiving. But after the ball drops and the confetti disappears, another celebration is just getting under way…
January 1st is also known as Public Domain Day, the special moment each year when a fresh collection of 95-year-old material enters the public domain. Despite the challenges that defined last year, it also signaled the expiration of many copyrights. I like to think of this as the final gift of 2020. All of the works that have flowed into public domain can now be used freely or built upon without restriction. On January 1, 2021 we inherited a multitude. Perhaps the most eye-catching title is The Great Gatsby by the incomparable F. Scott Fitzgerald.
You might not expect to see films on the list, given that the year was 1925, but there are a handful of silent cinematic achievements (including one from Buster Keaton). One title immediately caught my eye: Lovers in Quarantine. A romantic comedy of mistaken identities, it’s a tale of the rocky road to love and the mishaps that happen along the way. Toward the end of the film, the two pretend lovebirds end up quarantined for a week which is when they discover their affection is more substance than show. I feel like someone should take this opportunity to adapt it for modern audiences. After all, we’re now conditioned to talking about quarantines. It would be refreshing to see this word, so often associated with negativity, in a different light.
I continued to scroll through the list of graduates, impressed with the length. Why was this year in particular so prolific for the artistic community? Ask any artist and they usually credit a dark period as being the predecessor of a bold, new idea. And if we travel back in time, we see that the “roaring twenties” came on the heels of several arduous years. World War I (known as the Great War) decimated the world from 1914 to 1918. Just as the conflict was ending, the globe was thrust into a two-year battle against its tiniest foe: the flu. By 1920 the pandemic had killed a third of the remaining population on this planet. Out of these bleak conditions, the artistic community responded. Jazz exploded onto the scene, people were dancing the Charleston, flappers were out in full-force wielding fashion as social commentary and Art Deco infiltrated both skyscraper and parlor.
It was as if society was striving to push all the sadness of the last few years out of the frame. Every aspect of daily life seemed to move at rapid-pace. Sleek, fast automobiles were driven by sleek, fashionable starlets. Media and consumerism grew to a fever pitch, fueling a craze that ultimately couldn’t sustain itself. The pendulum swings back and forth – every high is inevitably complemented by a low. By 1929 it all came crashing down. But during those in-between moments something special happens. The business world sees a rush of innovation and invention. Great minds put pen to paper, channeling the voice of a generation: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alain Locke, Virginia Woolf (to name but a few). Musicians translate kinetic energy into sound, giving life to emotional expression: Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Duke Ellington, “Jelly Roll” Morton (as well as many others). Entertainers like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd start to branch out into new modes of communication (film in this case). Reading through this list of decades-old material is life-affirming. Seeing the beauty that came out of the absolute chaos of the early 1900s gives me hope for the years ahead. I wonder what classics will be minted in the aftermath of 2020. They say history repeats itself and there are some eerie parallels between our current age and the jazz age. How do you think our modern artists, with all the advancements in technology, will respond to the devastation of 2020? What will be the legacy we give to the world in 2115? Tell me your thoughts in the comments…