Our Cultural Stagnation Explained – Baltimore Sun
In May, literary critic Christian Lorentzen published a Substack newsletter on boredom. “Hollywood movies are boring. Television is boring. Pop music is boring. The art world is boring. Broadway is boring. Big edition books are boring,” he wrote.
As I’m a bit bored too, I paid $5 to read the entire article, but was unconvinced by its conclusion, which blames artistic stasis over the primacy of marketing. . The risk aversion of cultural conglomerates can’t explain why more interesting indie stuff isn’t bubbling up. I had hoped that when the black hole of Donald Trump’s presidency ended, the redirected energy would allow for a cultural efflorescence. So far this has not happened.
An obvious caveat: I’m a middle-aged white parent, so anything really cool happens, by definition, outside of my jurisdiction. Yet when I go to cafes where young people hang out, the music is often either the same music I listened to when I was young, or music that sounds like it. One of the most popular singles of the year is a song by Kate Bush which was released in 1985. I can’t think of any recent novel or film that has caused heated debate. The public arguments people have about art — about appropriation and offense, usually — have become stale and repetitive, almost rote.
The best explanation I’ve read for our current cultural malaise is found at the end of W. David Marx’s forthcoming book, “Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change “, a book that is not at all boring and it subtly changed my way of seeing the world.
Mr. Marx posits cultural evolution as a kind of perpetual motion machine driven by people’s desire to rise in the social hierarchy. Artists innovate to gain status, and people subconsciously adjust their tastes to signal their status level or move on to a new one. As he wrote in the introduction, “status struggles fuel cultural creativity in three important areas: competition between socioeconomic classes, the formation of subcultures and countercultures, and turf battles. artists “.
One of his most prominent examples concerns the avant-garde composer John Cage. When Cage presented his discordant orchestral piece “Atlas Eclipticalis” at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1964, many patrons walked out. The orchestra members whistled at Cage when he bowed out; a few even smashed his electronic equipment. But Cage’s work inspired other artists, causing “historians and museum curators to embrace him as a crucial figure in the development of postmodern art”, which, in turn, led the public to pay respectful attention to his work. (Yoko Ono once divided music history into Before Cage and After Cage.)
“There was a virtuous circle for Cage: his originality, his mystery and his influence gave him the status of an artist; it encouraged serious institutions to explore his work; frequent engagement with his work imbued Cage with cachet with audiences, who then received a nudge for taking his work seriously,” Mr. Marx wrote. For him, it is not a question of pretension. Cachet, he writes, “opens minds to radical propositions about what art can be and how we should perceive it”.
The Internet, Mr. Marx wrote in the last section of his book, is changing this dynamic. With so much content available, the chances of others recognizing the meaning of any obscure cultural cue diminishes. Demanding art loses its prestige. Besides, in the age of the internet, taste says less about a person. You don’t have to wade through a social world to develop a familiarity with Cage — or, for that matter, underground hip-hop, weird performance art, or rare sneakers.
In some ways, it’s great. People can easily find things they like and waste less time pretending to like things they dislike. Using cultural capital to signal your place in the status hierarchy is posh and exclusive. (Avant-garde art can also be, as Susan Sontag has written, quite boring.)
But people are obviously no less obsessed with their own status today than they were in the era of fruitful cultural production. It’s just that the markers of high social rank have become more philistine. When the value of cultural capital is degraded, Mr. Marx wrote, it makes “popularity and economic capital even more central to marking status.” As a result, he wrote, there are “fewer incentives for individuals to create and celebrate a culture with great symbolic complexity.”
It makes more sense for an upstart to fake traveling on a private jet than to fake an interest in contemporary art. We live in a time of rapid and disorienting change in gender, religion and technology. Aesthetically, thanks to the internet, it’s quite dull.
Michelle Goldberg (Twitter: @michelleinbklyn) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.