What if culture froze and had to be recycled?

by on August 18, 2009 at 4:38 am in The Arts | Permalink

Robert Wiblin, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Thought experiment for MR: what if the law said we couldn't make any new art (movies, novels, music etc). And perhaps said we ought to rerelease each year the art that first appeared 50 or 30 years ago. How would people's leisure activity and society's cultural evolution change?

I pose a similar question in my book Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding. After the adjustment process, I believe that matters would settle in an orderly fashion, although whether we pick the art from 30 or 50 years ago would make a big difference in terms of the required rejiggling of our aesthetic sensibilities.  We would pick out bestsellers from 30 or 50 years ago and some of them would be in demand, if only because people wish to share common cultural experiences.  Overall it is the more obscure books from that era that would likely rise to be the bestsellers today.

1979 is barely an aesthetic leap; could not The Clash be a hit today?  How about Madonna?  Is it so ridiculous to think that people still might go hear The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney in concert?  How about buying a Stephen King book?  Here are the top songs from 1959 (yikes!), but recall that same year brought many excellent jazz albums.

The entire process would work better if the material from the past were temporarily unavailable prior to its rerelease.

It's an interesting idea to relive the release of the culture of the past but with today's sensibilities.  What we would like to think we would like is probably not what we would like at all.  And maybe some works we like only because they are in our past.

Finally, everyone is so ga-ga over arts subsidies, but it is remarkable how many models with microfoundations instead imply that we should tax the arts.

1 IWantCookieNow August 18, 2009 at 5:38 am

Which models imply that the arts should be taxed?

2 IWantCookieNow August 18, 2009 at 6:31 am

Thanks gwern, that makes sense to me. Though I guess the crazy people who go into arts wouldn’t really be discouraged by a tax.

More people should learn Haskell, and less people should learn painting. 😉

3 jjj911 August 18, 2009 at 7:42 am

Ben,

Remember that the late 50s saw the beginnings of the spread of stereo and that recordings for the masses were just beginning to really take off. In my view, pop music of the recorded variety was feeling around for a stable equilibrium as it evolved from a higher end medium, mostly the province of an upper middle class with high middlebrow tastes.

4 babar August 18, 2009 at 7:57 am

another thought experiment. say that people were born as adults and lived only 1 day. how could you preserve and propagate culture?

5 Bill Harshaw August 18, 2009 at 8:28 am

Used to be (50’s, 60’s) movies (mainly Disney, Gone with the Wind, etc.) were rereleased every few years. And that was a big, money-making deal.

6 David August 18, 2009 at 8:52 am

What do you mean, “yikes.”

7 TomB August 18, 2009 at 9:17 am

Following up on Bill’s comment, if I remember correctly, Disney used to re-release movies every 7 years. About six years after releasing Snow White, the company was in financial trouble. The next year, it re-released Snow White, made a ton of money, and was saved. It then adopted a policy of re-releasing movies every 7 years. Disney seems to have done well.

Also, I wonder what percentage of modern movies, tv shows, and other culture are just remakes of old stuff.

8 Highgamma August 18, 2009 at 9:47 am

My 17-year old son listens to Led Zeppelin, has gone to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, and rides a Schwinn. I feel like I’m looking in a mirror.

9 Ryan August 18, 2009 at 10:11 am

I would love it if we were forced to listen to the top 100 from 1959. Johnny Horton and Bobby Darin, classics. Some Like it Hot, Suddenly Last Summer, the films would be better. I say lets do a culture freeze.

10 Gabe August 18, 2009 at 10:42 am

Am I the only person who hears a thought experiment like this:

“what if the law said we couldn’t make any new art (movies, novels, music etc). ”

and thinks: what would enforcement of the law look like?

Mao, Pol Pot spring to mind and then I think of what method of assasination and local militia development would best fight off such power evil tyrants?

I am physically incapable of “following along” with the thought experiment to the point where I can accept that everyone will think it is ok to make such a ridiculous law without at least a million or so people being killed first.

11 Martin Brock August 18, 2009 at 10:59 am

Are we banning unprecedented art forms, like 3D, virtual reality, video games?

May I write a love story about the woman I meet in an online, multi-player, 3D, virtual reality video game? May someone make a movie based on this story?

What if I can only read/write this book and make/watch this movie in the online, 3D, virtual reality world, so the book and movie are virtual too.

And what if she isn’t really a woman? …

Maybe in this art-limited world, many people would stop reading conventional novels and watching conventional movies altogether.

12 Brian August 18, 2009 at 11:32 am

My collection of Jazz from 1959 has already started. Bill Evans Trio is the best.

13 Allen August 18, 2009 at 11:39 am

Some “gedankenexperimenten” are too ridiculous as posed. “What if a LAW said … what would your leisure activities change?” I would join whatever underground group(s) immediately sprung up, and start plotting the overthrow of either the LAW, or the government that thought it should even ENVISION such stupidity, let alone attempt to enforce it.

14 Ed August 18, 2009 at 11:54 am

This post has come very close to the concept of diminishing returns.

It was easier for the Beattles to produce “Sergeant Pepper” than it is for a modern band, for the simple reason is that the album has already been produced. OK, the modern band could come up with something as good as “Sergeant Pepper”. But they have to stay away from being too derivative of the Beatles album, and I might as a listener decide I would prefer to listen to the Beatles anyway. The Beatles themselves had neither of these problems.

Its a simple idea, but there is plenty of evidence that as cultures age, their art becomes more traditional and more craftsman-like. You get more variations on already produced forms and less genuinely original work. With music, I’ve seen the argument that there is just so many pleasing combinations of notes.

The fall of classical civilization in the West before the dark ages was so complete that alot of art and literature got destroyed, for example we don’t have any of the music from that period. This created space for new culture to be generated.

15 Doc Merlin August 18, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Lots of illegal art, mostly in the form of poems and music, I imagine.

16 Ben Ho August 18, 2009 at 1:05 pm

A colleague of mine and I have been playing with the idea of a paper contrasting functional innovation and fashion innovation, on the assumption that there are different welfare implications, and that innovation in fashion may well be welfare immiserating.

17 dj superflat August 18, 2009 at 1:58 pm

saying that most of your favorite records are from the past 5 years betrays bias towards current/new work, rather than quality. i mean, could it really be the case that most of the best records of all time were released in the past 5 years, after years in which most of the good melodies, rhythms, chord changes, catch phrases were all used up? i’m not saying you shouldn’t like what you like, just that it seems fairly obvious you’re not listening to the best by any stretch of the imagination (which may not matter, but suggests a reason beyond tech changes that rock is dead, etc.). ultimately, people who truly love music seem to realize that they overlooked, even disdained, all sorts of past genius in focusing on current/new as a means of formulating identify, belonging, etc., and gain appreciation, love even, for old school stuff that is truly great, rather than just new.

18 Rob August 18, 2009 at 3:13 pm

I keep picturing going into an illegal music venue to hear illegal music performed by an illegal band. sounds cool. although it would suck if they turned out to be a cover band.

19 Douglas Knight August 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm

When did old movies stop being rereleased? and why?

If it was the late 70s, it was because of the VCR. But wasn’t it earlier? Maybe TV drove out movies? But that doesn’t explain why the new movies won.

gwern:

I think I mean the same thing, but I would phrase it differently: I wouldn’t talk about “real economic value” but about progress. New variety in art has value, but no one claims that Shakespeare will ever be obsolete. Whereas, new versions of Java are just better than old versions of Java, because of Wadler, if not Haskell.

20 Josh August 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm

dj superflat,

I don’t believe that “most of the best records of all time were released in the past 5 years,” just the ones that I personally prefer the best… and I’m definitely a sucker for the aesthetics of modern production. I think you could argue that all of the good elements have been used up already for any medium, and recorded music is actually relatively new compared to other forms of art. I believe there is always room for innovation and creativity in any art form..

Besides, if the old stuff is truly great because it’s great and not because it was “new,” than why is it so important that they were the first ones to use all those good melodies and lyrics and chord progressions? Although I think your point is that a lot of artists today are concerned with being different just for the sake of being different, a sort of musical parallel to those “abstract” paintings that don’t look like a thing.

21 Josh August 18, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Actually, the more I think about comparing music between generations… for every modern musician that’s merely derivative of a musician from, say, the 50’s, you could probably argue that that musician was only derivative of a musician from 50 years earlier, and trace back to folk music from the 1800’s, or hymns from the 1700’s, or classical tunes from the 1500’s, or as far back as you want to go. I don’t have any statistics on this, but I really doubt that the chord progressions or melodies of the 50’s were any more original than the ones we’re using today. I’m almost certain Mozart used a I-V-VIm-IV somewhere.

22 lemmy caution August 20, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Here are the best albums of 1959 according to rate my music:

http://rateyourmusic.com/charts/top/album/1959

There are plenty of good albums on that list.

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