It’s not true that today is crap, or that yesterday had nothing but great art in it.
First, great works of art (or entertainment, or most categories you might be interested in) are sparse. You need to integrate over time as well as place to catch as many as you can; today alone is just a small sampling. It’s the sampling with the most modern sensibility in it, the sampling that is the easiest to relate to, and the most heavily publicized one… but there are deeper wells for most subjects you might be interested in.
Second, the past had just as much schlock, slavish imitation and shameless pandering as today has. Indeed, the world was ruled by it… as much as today is. We’ve just forgotten that, because the failures are easy to forget.
As I understand it, Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a pre-eminent bestselling author of the Victorian times. Most probably you’ve never heard of him, unless as the inventor of the line, “it was a dark and stormy night”. So, maybe, one day with J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. (I know J. K. Rowling has been said to be an insta-classic, Harry Potter a work that will last for all time — no doubt the same was said of Bulwer-Lytton. Then again, the enduringly famous Charles Dickens was an immensely popular Victorian novelist, too…)
The future will not remember Justin Bieber; it will remember… well, I have no idea who will be the lasting musical talent of our time. When I try to think of one, I come up with ones already active in the Eighties, already by now shown well resistant to time. I don’t know how to tell the difference between lasting acclaim and froth, if the target is still alive. If you look at lists of Hugo Awards or the Oscars, they are filled with works you’ve never heard of; only occasionally a classic intrudes. Might be that lasting talent of our time is not particularly famous right now; might be she or he is, or them are. What is certain is in fifty years people will look back at 2011 and sigh, dreaming a decline, hallucinating of the lofty, gifted, talent-filled, greed-free artistic scene of 2011.
And all those artists of older time, Renaissance and Medieval times and the like; I’m pretty sure the vast majority were talentless hacks that had a stroke of luck, or just knew how to suck up to their gullible audience. The audience may have been a few rich noble patrons instead of the mass market paperback crowd, but I believe the same dynamic applies: people cranking out portraits in raw imitation of that hot new guy Da Vinci; or laughing at that dabbler Bach when clearly the money, fame and legacy were in drinking songs for the royalty. (Then again, Gaudeamus Igitur.)
Exercise for the reader: take your favorite peeve about modern art/entertainment, and see where it fits into a Renaissance patron-based art/entertainment system. Then cry something about different days and same excrements.