August 15, 2015

ANOTHER OP’NIN, ANOTHER SHOW — BUT IS ANYONE NOTICING? At the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz explores the latest in Broadway openings, novels, and the art world, and wearily concludes, “It’s the fact that so little of what’s made these days, or written these days, or filmed these days, or performed these days, seems to provoke the kind of anticipatory thrill that once went hand-in-hand with being a serious customer, consumer, and enthusiast of culture:”

Is there a recording artist at present whose new album might elicit the sort of tingling expectancy that a new Paul Simon or Talking Heads record would have in its day? For those with more highbrow tastes, is there a classical artist whose participation in a new recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or a new interpretation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, might be the talk of the town?

I remember when, in the early 1980s, Americans for whom the visual arts were profoundly important could talk of little else than the German monumentalist painter Anselm Kiefer—and this at a time when it was simply taken for granted that a cultured person was familiar with the works of the Abstract Expressionists and the post-modernists that followed them. To put it most plainly: How many living painters are household names the way Jackson Pollock was? The answer, of course, is that there isn’t a one.

This summer, everyone in New York has been lining up to see the insides of the new, $400 million building housing the Whitney Museum of American Art, but it’s doubtful that more than a handful could have identified the painters or sculptors whose work they strolled by. As Michael J. Lewis wrote in “How Art Became Irrelevant,” his magnificent essay in the current issue of Commentary: “For a generation or more, the American public has been thoroughly alienated from the life of the fine arts while, paradoxically, continuing to enjoy museums for the sake of sensation and spectacle, much as it enjoyed circuses a century ago.”

There are several elements going on here, and we’ll get deep into the tall grass right after the “continue reading” break.

Still here? OK, here we go.

First, while it had an enormous influence, mass culture had a surprisingly brief life. The first nationwide radio networks, the predecessors to the big three commercial networks, were born in America in the 1920s, right around the same time that Hollywood had completed building its nationwide movie chains. But mass culture has been dying since the mid-to-late 1970s, when cable TV, the VCR, and videogames first began to break the monolithic stranglehold that the three commercial TV networks had on viewers. It was around that time that the personal computer first took off, allowing early adopters to dial into the first information services such as CompuServe and early homebrew bulletin board systems.

Alvin Toffler was writing about “demassified media” in 1980’s The Third Wave, when all of these technologies were still new and shiny, but some authors never got the message.  A few weeks ago on Twitter, this cover made the rounds; it’s to a book titled The Future of the Mass Audience written in 1991, when the concept of a “mass audience” was already extinct, and the World Wide Web was just clearing the runway:


But then there’s the product itself — Podhoretz asked is there’s a musician today “whose new album might elicit the sort of tingling expectancy that a new Paul Simon or Talking Heads record would have in its day?” But those artists came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the Beatles’ dominance of pop and rock was massive, even years after the group broke up.

While the Beatles were obviously influenced by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and other early rockers, we were lucky that the Fab Four came of age during a period when there was still a traditional music culture they could ransack ideas from, including Tin Pan Alley, big band swing music and crooners, and classical music (thanks to their brilliant producer/arranger, George Martin). And as Charles Paul Freund perceptively noted at Reason in 2001, by the time of Sgt. Pepper, while the Beatles “continued to use rock elements to make their music, there is almost as much British Music Hall in their later work as there is rock.”

While the Beatles leaned heavily on the music traditions of the mid-20th century, concurrently, Berry Gordy borrowed a very different show business tradition to build his musical empire at Motown. Even as it was beginning to fade as a production technique in Hollywood, Gordy used the Hollywood studio system as a model to run Motown as a business. In the studio system, the film studios signed actors to long-term contracts, gave them allocution and dance lessons, and generally groomed them for stardom. Gordy did the same thing for his artists, and supplied them with songwriters and a crack house band called “the Funk Brothers” who played on virtually every great Motown hit.

Arguably, the Beatles’ role as a benchmark for what was possible in rock music didn’t wane until the end of the 1980s, when genres such as punk rock-influenced grunge and death metal removed much of the melodic impulse from rock. Motown’s influence on the soul and disco music of the 1970s would start to end in the early 1980s, as record labels and MTV pushed rap, which eschewed melody and traditional pop craftsmanship entirely.

In his art school salad days, Pete Townshend loved to say that rock music is art, and the collapse of rock and pop tracks with the same formula that has hollowed out modern art as well. Why do the impressionists and the pre-WWII modern artists continue to intrigue us? Because they had a dominant culture to both rebel against, and to learn from. Mondrian was a talented impressionist painter before joining De Stijl and embracing neo-plasticism.  Mies van der Rohe took his sense of architectural proportion from Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

For today’s modern artists, the past begins at the dawn of the 20th century and their fellow modernists; for today’s musicians, the past begins with the birth of MTV.  For too many in Hollywood, the past begins with Star Wars — perhaps for really old school obsessives, The Godfather. Or as Mark Steyn once wrote, “‘Popular culture’ is more accurately a ‘present-tense culture’: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s.”In a perceptive 2008 career review of the late film critic Pauline Kael, who began her career at the New Yorker by championing early violent “New Hollywood” films such as Bonnie & Clyde over the last product of the Hollywood studio system, Robert Fulford of Canada’s National Post quoted Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, who said “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.” Fulford added:

Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”

Increasingly, we don’t — which brings us back to John Podhoretz’s new article.

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