I’m of two minds about it: On the one hand, there’s a self-flattering conventional wisdom about the emptiness or unoriginality of contemporary culture crudescing among my peers that seems worth resisting, or at least attending to. Why would or should yuppie parents like us be aware of the “scintillating and new”? (Surely the most damning thing you can say about Dimes Square is that people like me are aware of it?) What are we doing ourselves to seek out challenging or even just adult culture, rather than just assume it should be served up to us or dominate whatever passes for “the conversation”? And boy doesn’t it seem like a convenient coincidence that culture was more dynamic at a time when we didn’t get tired at 8 p.m.?
Hidden in un-site-post-ified Hypothes.is annotations are about a thousand iterations of me whining about this. The Kids These Days.
Also, I suspect there’s something to the idea that “the conversation” no longer takes place in as public of venues as it did during the gatekept era or the very beginning of the un-gatekept Internet era. There is a warhead’s worth of Discourse constituting “debate” about cultural works but it’s happening on Discord servers. Still not really gatekept: the investment needed to participate is no higher than the investment needed to be aware of it, but that investment is a time-and-social-engagement investment.
“Boredom,” I don’t know, but the music writer Ted Gioia, in a newsletter from January, pointed out that “the new music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.”
And the film writer Farran Smith Nehme took a tour through the last 100 years of box-office hits and found that well-reviewed, popular movies aimed at adults have all but vanished from view:Of the 120 top-10 box office hits for 2008–2019, 42.5% were aimed at children/youths; 25% were superhero movies; 11.7% were Star Wars/science fiction; 13.3% were thrill rides; 2.5% were whatever the Hobbit was supposed to be; 1.7% were poorly reviewed movies for adults; and 3.3% were well-reviewed movies for adults. This is not necessarily evidence…
I’m immediately suspicious of percentages, but happy to go sniff through this.
For example: I haven’t been through the source there yet, but if you saw a static quantity of quality movies for adults and an unrelated increase in children’s entertainment, you might expect a move toward this kind of pie chart break down. Or if quality movies for adults now involve more sci-fi or “thrill rides” than they used to, you might be at a loss.
Still, I am being an iamverysmart critic here, so don’t put weight on this.
But it does suggest that most of what we get these days, in terms of what’s most widely consumed and covered, is pap. Ross Douthat has described these trends as a symptom of cultural decadence.
A. When has this not been true? Haven’t there always been people bemoaning that the lowest-common-denominator that gets biggest play is valueless?
B. You’re telling me to pay attention to Ross Douthat?
C. “The things that are most consumed” and “most of what we consume” do not exist in static relation.
D. Neither do “what’s most widely consumed” and “what’s most widely covered”.
I think what gives me trouble here, actually, is that the account seems incomplete. It tells us about the demand side of cultural production over the last several decades: There is less demand for intellectually challenging culture (the argument goes) because it is less valuable to consumers as a means of rising in a social hierarchy. But what about the supply side? What about the companies and institutions that create culture? It would be unsophisticated to think that they’re merely responding to some natural market signal, wouldn’t it? The word “money” doesn’t appear in either Goldberg or Marx’s posts, which seems odd to me for posts putting forward an argument about class. As big a story as the expansion of the internet over the last few decades has been the rise of a finance-led asset economy, in which rising asset prices (in stocks as in homes) are prioritized over wages, productivity, semiconductor chips, halfway decent 90-minute movies, etc. What role does all the investment-seeking money play in supposed cultural boredom? Major labels and movie studios tend to belong these days to public, integrated multinational conglomerates, which prize consistent returns – whether from multi-season television shows, or established and wholly owned I.P. – over any particular kind of innovation, creativity, or daring.
awww SHIT tell ‘em
Seriously, though, this is it. To me it seems like there is tons of super vibrant work in every field I happen to go near and it’s being done by students and struggling creators. Then you look at the jobs they’re supposed to be getting, and the money machines seem to prefer to fund spiritual deadness.
We might go a step more meta and observe that capitalism-brain encourages us to endlessly analyze our consumer choices, leading to Demand Discourse across topics, but does not encourage structural analyses of power, leading to gaps in Supply Discourse1.
Would that we only had gaps in Discourse Supply! ↩