Are we stagnating aesthetically?

by on December 12, 2011 at 7:11 am in Books, History, Music, Television, The Arts, Uncategorized | Permalink

Some of you have been emailing, asking for my opinion of this recent Kurt Andersen Vanity Fair article.  Here is the summary introductory paragraph:

For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.

There is plenty more at the link.  A serious response would require a book or more, so let me offer a few conclusions, noting that it’s not possible in blog space to defend these judgments at any length.  This is all about aesthetics, and it is distinct from the TGS technology argument, though one might believe that technical breakthroughs are needed to usher in aesthetic innovations, and that slowness in the one area would lead to slowness in the other.  That’s not a claim I’ve ever made, but it’s worth considering even if it can’t be settled very easily.  In any case, here’s my view of the evidence:

1. Movies: The Hollywood product has regressed, though one can cite advances in 3-D and CGI as innovations in the medium if not always the aesthetics.  The foreign product is robust in quality, though European films are not nearly as innovative as during the 1960s and 70s.  Still,  I don’t see a slowdown in global cinema as a whole.

2. TV: We just finished a major upswing in quality for the best shows, though I fear it is over, as no-episode-stands-alone series no longer seem to be supported by the economics.

3. Books/fiction: It’s wrong to call graphic novels “new,” but they have seen lots of innovation.  If we look at writing more broadly, the internet has led to plenty of innovation, including of course blogs.  The traditional novel is doing well in terms of quality even if this is not a high innovation era comparable to say the 1920s (Mann, Kafka, Proust, others).

4. Computer and video games: This major area of innovation is usually completely overlooked by such discussions.

5. Music: Popular music has been in a Retromania sludge since the digital innovations of the early 90s, but classical contemporary music continues to show vitality and it is even establishing some foothold in the concert hall and in nightclubs too.  Jazz has plenty of niche innovation, but it’s not moving forward with new, central ideas which command the attention of the field.

6. Painting and sculpture: Lots of good material, no breakthrough central movements comparable to Pop Art or Abstract Expressionism.  Photography has seen lots of innovation.

7. Your personal stream: This is arguably the biggest innovation in recent times, and it is almost completely overlooked.  It’s about how you use modern information technology to create your own running blend of sources, influences, distractions, and diversions, usually taken from a blend of the genres and fields mentioned above.  It’s really fun and most of us find it extremely compelling.  See chapter three of Create Your Own Economy/The Age of the Infovore.

8. Architecture: Slows down after 2008, but there were numerous innovative blockbuster buildings prior to the crash.

Today the areas of major breakthrough innovation are writing, computer games, television, photography (less restricted to the last decade exclusively) and the personal stream.  Let’s hope TV can keep it up, and architecture counts partially.  For one decade, namely the last decade, that’s quite a bit, though I can see how it might escape the attention of a more traditional survey.  Some other areas, such as the novel, global cinema, and the visual arts are holding their own and producing plenty of small and mid-size innovations.

Although that is a relatively optimistic take on the aesthetics of the last decade, it nonetheless supports the view that aesthetic innovation relies on technological innovation.  Most (not all) of the major areas of progress have relied on digitalization, and indeed that is the one field where the contemporary world has brought a lot of technological progress as well.

1 dearieme December 12, 2011 at 7:17 am

On the whole I don’t care about other people’s taste in the arts. Hang what you like on your walls, and – as long as you don’t subject me to it – listen to what music you want. The obvious exception is architecture – don’t push ugly objects into my field of view. In the UK (do tell me about the US) the architectural nadir was the 60 and 70s. Things have improved since then. Mind you, most people still prefer Georgian, and I can’t say I blame them.

2 Anthony December 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Architecturally, the nadir in the U.S. was the 60s and 70s also, especially in government buildings, though there has been some innovation in ugliness recently. Many of the low-grade disasters of the 60s and 70s were significantly helped by painting over the avocado green.

3 arne.b December 12, 2011 at 7:21 am
4 DKN December 12, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Was just about to post this too. I wonder if the definition of “Christmas Song” required the songs to be old. Also, I wondered if I spend too much time wondering about the the data behind an xkcd comic.

5 bob December 12, 2011 at 7:35 am

Why do you think that no-episode-stands-alone series no longer seem to be supported by the economics? Aren’t there like four or five new, good ones each year?

6 Joe B December 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

I too was puzzled by this point. Are the relevant economics any worse than they were five years ago?
More importantly, I’m not sure that “no-episodes-stand-alone” shows are necessarily aesthetically superior. Many of the most acclaimed ones are good, but overrated (eg *Friday Night Lights*) or overrated and nearly unwatchable (eg *Louie*).

7 Console December 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Louie isn’t really serialized. It’s actually more like a collection of short films all loosely built around the same theme. Insomuch as serialized shows are seen as aesthetically superior, I think by” most acclaimed,” people mean shows like The Sorpranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc. We’re talking about some of the best series in history, all made within the past 10 years.

8 Console December 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm

*television history

9 Lord December 12, 2011 at 11:40 am

I can’t figure out if the half of tv that is reality programming has made the remainder better to really compete against it by eliminating the worst or worse purely from the numbers of fewer available programs. Cable has improved if only to the one or two shows necessary to keep them carried on it. Lagging technology should boost fields like acting in numbers though probably not dollars so a renaissance may lie ahead.

10 jb December 12, 2011 at 7:46 am

I would say that websites, even separate from games, are a source of aesthetic innovation as well, in terms of functionality, interface, etc. This is, of course, something that barely existed 20 years ago.

My pet theory: in the past, the fidelity of recordings of previous generations of music and television were horrible, and so people could always find the new and immediate to be more engaging, deep, rich, etc. Digital reproduction has ended that, and now we have high-fidelity access to older stuff.

That doesn’t explain the whole story. My 14yo son seems to have a fondness for AC/DC and “Stairway to Heaven”, and a dislike of most current music that surprises me.

11 JSK December 12, 2011 at 8:07 am

Think U.S. aesthetics are bad, I invite you to my country (the Netherlands). On every point with the possible exception of modern architecture, we lag you guys by quite a bit. I do not think its very different for Europe in general.

Oh yeah, how about food aesthetics? Interior design? Some progress there yes?

12 Mehm December 12, 2011 at 8:08 am

Good point on video games. I’ve been playing quite a bit lately and I still didn’t think of them myself when I read the article. Interesting how the still lingering nerd stigma affects my/our perception.

Regarding stagnating aesthetics as a whole: The 20th century brought both exposable income for the masses and almost inescapable mass media. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the combination of both lead to a fairly focused mass culture. The 21th century still leaves people with disposable income, but there is practically no unifying mass media left for younger people. Everything has become a niche. See your point 7., the personal stream. Basically, there is still plenty of new stuff around, it’s just not adopted anymore by a majority of people.

13 bob December 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I would argue that videogames are stagnating too. We had periods of rapid development due to the rate of tech growth, but the last few years have been rather lackluster IMO. Games do not tax PCs anymore. Consoles have slowed down, as the difference between one generation and the next gets smaller, practically speaking. Instead, what we see is lack of growth and innovation due to the high costs of creating high definition art. Each big budget game is a big gamble, and the way that market works, very few products can win.

The closest thing to innovation in the videogame arena come from small developers making tiny games: The extra power we get today allows someone to be a lot sloppier in ther coding and still get a playable game out the door. But there isn’t all that much money in the indie scene.

14 JWatts December 14, 2011 at 4:29 am

I see no sign that video games are stagnating. If anything the categories are broadening and games are becoming much more immersive.

Indeed, an entire category of games (phone games) essentially didn’t exist in 2008 and now numbers in the 10’s of thousands of titles with billions of sales. How many people are familiar with the Angry Bird franchise now? At least by name, even if they’ve never played a game of it. 10 million, 50 million, more…

Meanwhile Multi-player persistent games went from an ascii based niche to billion dollar industries, exemplified by World of Warcraft.

15 Will McCullam December 12, 2011 at 8:12 am

As an expert in children’s literature I assure readers that the field is more exciting today than at any time in the past. David Small’s graphic autobiography “Stitches” is complex and compelling, but, more importantly, this form is the only way in which this story could have been told….a first for Graphic novels. Brian Selznick has created a new genre, in last year’s Caldecott Medal book, now the 3-D film, “Hugo”, and followed it with as spectacular a book in the same style, “Wonderstruck:. Mo Willems outstanding photmontage book “Knuffle Bunny” expands and develops ideas from early Soviet Constructivism. Calef Brown is another new picture book maker. M.T. Anderson is another author who is turning out experimental fiction of quality, (try “Feed” or the Octavian Nothing books). In England, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series (try “Wintersmith”) makes a quantum leap past J. K. Rowling and there are numerous others.

16 Ted Craig December 12, 2011 at 9:51 am

As a parent, I can tell you this field is more exciting for adults today. Kids, less so.

17 Pete December 12, 2011 at 11:24 am

Agreed. I find some of the stories that I loved as a kid (e.g. If you give a mouse a cookie and its spinoffs) to be not as enjoyable now, but like reading the newer stuff much more. My 4 year old daughter has no such preference, and often seems to select the books I like the least.

18 Engineer December 13, 2011 at 8:57 am

My 6 yr old daughter’s favorites are Dr. Seuss and Flat Stanley. I can’t think of any newer books that seem as clever or as creative.

19 Michael Lin December 12, 2011 at 8:23 am

There is still a lot of innovation in slightly-less-than-mainstream music — namely in the electronic music genres. The evolution of dubstep and its subsequent influences on drum and bass have been very innovative. The rise and fall of entire subgenres of electronic music in the past decade is often overlooked. While much of it is derivative, there is a significant amount of material that does not sound like any other music that has previously existed, and technological innovation has been a major driver of this growth.

20 Slothtosser December 12, 2011 at 9:04 am

Agreed. And while technology has enabled accessibility to new artists and types of music, it’s becoming more difficult to sift through and find the wheat amongst the chaff. Thankfully new resources have emerged to help guide the process (I’m a fan of Pitchfork).

21 Dan December 13, 2011 at 12:47 am

I was going to make the same comment as Michael. Electronic music is burgeoning. I’m not a professional musician but I perform in jazz bands regularly — while I am passionate about jazz, I agree with Tyler that there are niche innovations, and a large base of virtuosic talent, but few new big ideas. Electronic music, on the other hand, is churning through new ideas, many of which (dubstep in particular) are now spilling over into popular music.

22 Mercy December 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm

This supports the mass market theory: what we’re talking about here isn’t electronic music in general (which frequently lacks vitality) but dance music. And mostly european dance music where the big club scene means there’s still something like an old fashioned mass market- in the british bass scene it’s not uncommon for artists to release tracks responding to new developments in a matter of weeks.

Notably once dubstep got picked up by the much slower moving american blog/gig/festival scene, stuff started being produced for that market which was extremely stereotyped and played up all the aggressive and obnoxious elements in the music. The abrasive chainsaw/wobble bass/film sample formula you hear in album-orientated dubstep is a small subset of the variety of tones and moods employed by club-orientated dubstep, which itself is a small subset of the broader uk bass scene – both fans and producers would be much more likely to be into breakbeat/uk funky/etc in a way that fans of say, skrillex, or chase and status, wouldn’t be.

23 Melvin December 12, 2011 at 8:36 am

Perhaps the perception that we are in a sort of aesthetical plateau has more to do with a change in the way innovations happen now vs. the past. Now we have small marginal changes built upon previous innovations that go in every direction, whereas in the past there were more or less unified waves of radical change that made the transition a lot more obvious.

24 Cyrus December 12, 2011 at 8:52 am

It’s the demographics. Marketing to the boom generation has been a winning strategy for 40 years.

25 Bill December 12, 2011 at 9:10 am

The other area of decline is Blog quality.

26 Ted Craig December 12, 2011 at 9:25 am

Why not start your own? I’d read it.

27 Bill December 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm


It’s easier to free ride on someone else’s site. (The irony of free riding on a Libertarian website! Or, bloggers on this site benefiting from uncompensated communal interaction!)

As a lawyer, commenting on this blog is sort of like being an animal that scratches on objects to keep the claws sharp.

Sometimes, though, it is too easy.

Like swinging at a pinata.

28 Ted Craig December 12, 2011 at 9:25 am

TV has been going down hill. I blame the writers’ strike, but I could be wrong.

29 Rahul December 12, 2011 at 9:25 am

Doesn’t the appreciation of aesthetic qualities need time to mature? The public peak of the aesthetic fame of artists, structures, writers etc. often has a time-lag; ergo we are temporally ill-positioned to judge the true merits of stuff created in the very recent past.

30 rjs December 12, 2011 at 9:27 am

sad when you see teenagers listening to music circa 1970

31 B December 12, 2011 at 9:30 am

Pornography. Fifty years from now, teenagers will be appalled to hear that I had to look for ladies underwear ads in newspapers and catalogs if I wanted to take care of business. Or that adults had to rent awful low quality garbage on VHS from a sleazy independent movie rental.

We are experiencing a pornography renaissance.

32 Rahul December 12, 2011 at 9:43 am

Is that a true renaissance in aesthetics or a merely a revolution in distribution logistics?

33 B December 12, 2011 at 10:22 am

You don’t think porn today is more aesthetic? Have you seen old porn? Ugly actors with no personal grooming, no body makeup, dimly lit sets, annoyingly intrusive music and like two camera angles.

34 Ted Craig December 12, 2011 at 9:52 am

I’d argue porno is worse today than ever. No plots.

35 Anon December 12, 2011 at 10:03 am
36 Ted Craig December 12, 2011 at 10:23 am

Ah yes, Pirates. But overall it seems the quality has declined.

37 B December 12, 2011 at 10:25 am

Ted, you and I watch porn for different reasons. When I look for “quality” in my porn, I don’t think first and foremost about the plot.

38 B December 12, 2011 at 10:29 am

Oh, and to satiate for lust for plot.


39 Sbard December 13, 2011 at 1:31 am
40 babar December 12, 2011 at 9:52 am

one thing that’s never discussed in this capacity: a very large subsection of creatives died young in the early and mid ’80s. we’re still living in that shadow.

41 bluto December 12, 2011 at 11:59 am

On a tangent, what if creativity is fostered partly by a very unpleasant early childhood. Could a drastic reduction in unwanted births also be contributing to less creativity?

42 Shane December 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Wow, that’s a good one! Had not considered that angle. So it would trend along with decrease in crime. There’s a SF novel in the consequences of those trends in there, somewhere.

43 Nickolaus December 12, 2011 at 9:58 am

Get off my lawn

44 Dave S December 12, 2011 at 10:06 am

It’s curious that architecture is judged by a limited number of buildings that often don’t have systemic influence. For example, most buildings do not have and never will have the astonishing geometry of Frank Gehry’s or Zaha Hadid’s creations. Really significant changes in architecture don’t make it into magazines because they are considered aesthetically miserable–like new styles of single-family homes in subdivisions and box stores. Improvements in architecture that really make people’s lives better have often been separate from the sculptural qualities of the building form.

45 K December 12, 2011 at 10:09 am

Did they miss an obvious one (food)? For example, Processed Foods->Cappuccino/Espresso->Sushi->Organic Foods->Farm-to-Table/Local. I’m not saying that there’s a Sri Lankan place on every main st in America nowadays, but I’ve seen gelato places in rest stops where there used to be Baskin Robins’. We’ve come to expect and find a greater diversity of foods than there was previously even if they are from chain restaurants.

46 Ted Craig December 12, 2011 at 10:14 am

And gelato at Baskin Robins (granted, quality varies).

47 WGarton December 12, 2011 at 11:21 am

Good point- and on the higher end there have been drastic shifts of style in “fine dining”. Enough that modern dishes from 5 years ago look dated and stodgy today. We are within 10 years of big “fusion” movements and even seeing a decline in some of the “farm to table” and “head to tail” movements that have been huge within a 3-5 years.

48 Gary Leff December 12, 2011 at 10:26 am

Contra your point about TV, please see “Ringer”

49 Scoop December 12, 2011 at 10:26 am

The notion that we need innovation of the form (rather than just excellence of individual execution) damages the arts and our society — except in cases where the art form is immature. Hence, video games are still changing, as a form, for the better (though at a far slower pace than 20 years ago when they were really improving). Architecture and painting are not improving.

Human tastes are pretty fixed, presumably by genetics. In mature art forms, artists and craftsmen over the centuries have already discovered what people like. The chance of finding undiscovered preferences is much lower, much like the chance of finding undiscovered gold is much lower in a mine that’s been worked for 2,000 years than it is in a just opened mine. Each art, in its broad form, is not a field for creativity but a field of problems to be solved. Once the problems are solved, they’re solved. (Innovations come in individual applications. Certain patterns, proportions, relationships make a building good, but there are limitless ways to apply them to individual lots to maximize the value.) There’s no need to make a wheel for our own age rather than using the Roman round wheel because round simply is the best shape for the wheel.

The possible exception here is when humans have always had a taste that artists have been unable to satisfy because of technical limitations. Architects (who practice something more important than an art, and one of the most important of all trades given its affect on human welfare and happiness) would probably argue this applies to the new forms they’re unleashing. In a few cases, they’re right. In the vast majority, they’re dead wrong. Architecture of (most) individual buildings has been dodgy since WWI and terrible since WWII (though it has improved from its nadir). Architecture of communities has been unbearable.

Despite all our riches and what should be increasing knowledge of what makes places livable, all the most desirable places were built more than a century ago. This is one of the greatest failures of our society because the supply of good places is fixed, while population keeps growing so something that should get less expensive with progress (a good community to live) keeps getting more expensive and makes us all feel poorer.

Consumers need to force “artists” to produce work that conforms to human tastes rather than allowing them to indulge themselves with innovations that make things worse. Having people like Tyler signal their supposed sophistication by pretending to like crap that no balanced human likes (or have they actually brainwashed themselves into liking things like the CCTV building?) is only providing cover to people who are destroying our built environment and depriving society of the joys it could have if we had a functioning stock of artists who provided new materials that enriched society rather than duping status seekers out of time and money while leaving the other 95 percent to ignore it all and keep looking at the fixed stock of cultural achievements created before the Great War destroyed Western confidence.

50 K December 12, 2011 at 10:55 am

Hey man, that’s like, so, square! Once people are liberated from the tastes that the society has acquired for them, I’m sure that they’ll come to appreciate, say, enjoying a tall glass of wheatgrass juice while relaxing to the stochastic sounds of Iannis Xenakis in their minimalist apartment. Taste and craftsmanship are so suffocating, ugh!

51 Jon Bristow December 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Hey man, I love Xenakis. Musique Concrete isn’t for everyone, but I find it strange and wonderful.

52 Taeyoung December 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Hear hear! This:
Consumers need to force “artists” to produce work that conforms to human tastes rather than allowing them to indulge themselves with innovations that make things worse.
Is an important point. Modern classical composers are making some headway in the concert hall, but to the extent this is because they’re drawing in audiences, it’s because symphonies have stopped playing unlistenable crap by Schoenberg and his ilk (or Stockhausen, if you prefer) and started playing music by people who actually wrote listenable, human music. Golijov, for example, has been pretty well represented in concerts at the Kennedy Center last year (all of which I missed because I was out of country) and has shown up a bit this year, and that’s all to the good, because the man writes fun music, not dreary modernist rot that’s all about being “new” and “innovative.” I’m sure he’s blathered on about doing new things and whatnot, in that tedious way modern artists are obliged to do, but his music shines through all the same. Sometimes stuff that’s “original” is good in spite of its altogether too-precious originality — Penderecki’s Natura Sonoris is quite listenable, for example, if one is in a particular mood, and I find Ligeti tolerable — but most of the time it’s complete and utter rubbish.

53 Curt Doolittle December 12, 2011 at 10:36 am

The western narrative, and the means of representing it as ‘art’ is in ‘winter’ for these reasons:
1) With the emergence of the middle class came, the advent of printing, which made ‘art’ affordable as a signaling device. Then with the emergence of the proletariat-consumer (which we falsely call the middle class), people sought signaling in even cheaper forms (posters, photographs).
2) The change in sponsorship from the nobility (high art) to the middle class (quality renderings with a pretense of high art), to the proletariat (the design aesthetic), also changed the CONTENT of artistic representation – in both 2d, 3d, plays and novels (now scripts) – to represent the value judgements (or lack of them) that were present in the social class. The upper classes have a longer time preference (they see history as valuable) the lower classes do not (they see consumption as valuable).
3) Sculpture is a property of Architecture. The change from hand-products to panel products in building construction, and the drop in associated costs, eliminated the market for sculpture, which is, specifically, a method of adorning spaces.
4) Decline in education (literacy) has ended the tradition of the western narrative and with it, narrative complexity – along with poetry, rhyme, and elegant verse.
5) Internationalization of entertainment has moderated the heroic narrative in order to adapt to foreign markets.
6) Without an heroic narrative, representational art is impossible. This may seem counter intuitive but the monomyth is what unites human beings. All fine art is somehow monomythological.
7) The movie industry is such a capital magnet that it has sucked money away from all other art forms.
8) It is no longer possible to obtain an undergraduate degree in fine art.
9) The difference between fine (high) art, design and craft, or even photo-journalism, has been eliminated, largely by the absence of any fine art – a limited number of literary works to the contrary. (Cormac McCarthy) This has partly to do with a decline in demand as each social class has crated it’s own narrative as a means of seeking political power for the purpose of obtaining rents and privileges.
10) The cost of producing craft, photo-journalism and design has decreased along with the availability of technology, but the cost of producing high (fine) arts has increased. What we see is a rapid expansion of design, photography and fantastic illustration – there are a lot of Frank Frazetta’s today there were only two or three peers in the past. So artistic experimentation is taking place in niches.
11) High art is political. It is either reactionary (feminist art) or perpetuating (new takes on shakespeare). In our current divisive environment it is not possible to produce uniting art. Only further divisive art, because the conflict of visions is so concretely expressed in the populace.
12) High art contains value judgements. That’s what makes it high art. Multiculturalism cannot tolerate value judgements. That is why we teach little if no history, and little if no art in our schools and why it is becoming impolite to do discuss anything that includes value judgements.
13) The progressive assault on value judgements in pursuit of equality has eliminated the heroic narrative, undermined the concept of self sacrifice, and made suffering or failure into heroism. These are simplistic emotions that we can watch in our living rooms, but they do not inspire us to political action. They do not create unity behind a cause. they are not political. In fact, they exist almost entirely to eschew the political.

In this environment it is not possible to construct high art en masse.

That is my opinion as someone who has studied this problem for thirty years.

54 steve December 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

Back in the 60s and 70s the best sellers list generally included authors like Bellow, Roth, Updike, and Styron. There was a rather high correlation between popularity and quality. Today I believe there has been a sign reversal, and the correlation is strongly negative. It is rare that quality fiction makes the list; many of the best writers have never made it.

55 lemmy caution December 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm

This is pretty common in general:

best selling jazz album in 1950’s:Kind of Blue
best selling Jazz album today: kenny G

56 Ted Craig December 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Actually, it’s Michael Buble. Not that that’s better.

57 Ken B December 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

50 or 60 years ago classical orchestras played new and recent music routinely. Then the academic serialists gained some sort of ascendancy and interest withered.

Plus the entire baroque and early music revival show that the interest in more than just the standard repertoire was always there.

58 Peter G December 12, 2011 at 11:14 am

The arts are fundamentally different than science and technology. Innovation in the arts is a fine thing, but not central to the enterprise – less important than quality and depth. Bach was considered an old fuddy-duddy in his day.

59 Lupis42 December 12, 2011 at 11:54 am


Some discussion on what game designers have been experimenting with in the last few years:

60 Noah Yetter December 12, 2011 at 11:55 am

The cultural elite have decided that “video games are not art”. It is not accidental that they are excluded from such pontifications.

61 TallDave December 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Yep, I’m sure they once said the same thing about movies.

62 Lupis42 December 12, 2011 at 11:58 am


That’s partly because of a strong cultural strain of elitism in the critical definition of “good”. Genre fiction has numerous excellent works that are nonetheless extremely popular, although the correlation is certainly not one-to-one.

63 Matt December 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm

With the rise of the internet and digital distribution means that art is increasingly marketed to micro-niches. If you like rap that sounds exactly like Jay-Z, then you can find all sorts of rap that does just that, rather than being forced to listen to the radio where you’ll hear all sorts of rap that doesn’t sound like Jay-z. As the radio station takes a back seat to the ipod, innovation slows as artists find it easier to latch on to the nearest micro-niche rather than attempt to achieve a broader appeal.

This is the case with music, but movies remain in the older model mainly due to cost and need for wide release.

I wouldn’t include video games. I tend to agree with Roger Ebert that they aren’t art (though they can contain art). In any case, it is hard to find anything more stagnant than the video game. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything significant that has changed in the past 10 years aside from WoW and the MMO, which appears to have fallen into stagnation itself.

Architecture is a special case. Innovation in architecture is almost universally a negative and it would be an improvement if we simply started building things to look exactly like they did 200 years ago.

64 Console December 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm

The wii was and is innovative and the 3DS has possibilities with it’s augmented reality games. And while not an MMO, but in the vain of MMO’s, is a game like Dark Souls which utilizes a kind of social networking concept to help you through the game. It’s a single player action RPG, but you’re helped (or harmed) by the seemingly otherwordly presence of other players. From witnessing ghostly spectres of the deaths of players that died in a spot you’re now at, to reading a hint passed along by someone that’s already been made it through the area you are at. And this help is necessary because there is no ingame maps, no pausing, no quest journal, nothing. You’re essentially lost in a very hostile world and dependent on this sharing and building of knowledge. It’s a very great way of community building.

65 Will December 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I’d say that Portal is fundamentally different and innovative, both in game play and as story-telling.

The Wii redefined the concept of game consoles, bringing movement-based controls (now being pursued by Microsoft and Sony).

FarmVille et. al on Facebook dramatically increased the “size of the pie” by bringing casual gaming to the mainstream.

Apple’s App Store and Valve’s Steam revolutionized games distribution and pricing.

The iPhone alone represents a fundamental shift in the game industry.

While certain game mechanics are broadly similar to what was popular 15 years ago (first-person shooters still feature a lot of running and gunning, most strategy games involve strategic clicking, dragons still associated with dungeons), that’s like complaining that most novels are retreads of The Odyssey or Romeo and Juliet.

66 Matt December 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Good points on the Wii and Farmville (I’m trying to think of what the pre-Farmville Farmville analogue would be). Portal, however, is an FPS minus the guns plus a gimmick. It achieved popularity mainly through the story–a short film might have had the same impact.

It isn’t really that FPS’s have only had minor changes, it’s that they’ve had essentially no changes since Doom. Most of the budget of games gets thrown into production values. At bottom you are still shooting pink demons over and over (or other players, which is the real popularity of the FPS). The new RPG of the moment, Skyrim, is nearly the same as Morrowind that was released ten years ago. It isn’t just me that is noticing this. I think games are somewhat in the position of movies, where they have gotten so expensive that it isn’t possible to deviate too far from the known. And that’s not always a bad thing by any means.

67 Will December 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I think removing a core aspect of the genre (the shooter in first-person shooter) and achieving the level of immersion of Portal is more than just a gimmick. Short films cannot force you to kill your companion and bring that level of visceral emotional reaction. But not everyone who played the game felt that. Reasonable people can disagree.

Part of the problem is that the big-budget games that dominate pop culture (Skyrim, Modern Warfare, any tie-in to franchise sporting events) are forced to follow tried-and-true means, as you say. No one is daring enough to bet $100 million on a new style of game.

However, there are many independent game developers that are trying new things. (Portal was considered a minor side project to blockbuster Half-Life 2, which allowed the developers to take risks.) I would recommend Defcon, Atom Zombie Smasher, and Gratuitous Space Battles as examples of indie games that pushed boundaries. There’s also Minecraft, which I don’t get, but everyone else does.

68 WGarton December 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm

In that vein, some of the flash/app games that are being developed are extremely interesting and progressive– but they can be produced by a small team in a garage, instead of buy a multi-national with a $100 budget.

My vote for the Farmville analogue is Sim City.

69 WGarton December 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm


70 Ari T December 14, 2011 at 8:48 am

Rogbert is nearly 70. I don’t want to offend anyone but I think its more than likely that his generation, on average, understands as much about video games as my grandfather undertands heavy metal. Critics destroyed Black Sabbath, yet its message is timeless. And likewise some people claimed that rock isn’t music in 1950s. Maybe rock isn’t high art, I won’t go into that. I think video games are mostly pop art.

I would argue that if you can claim movies are art, you can argue that video games can are art too. In some senses I’ve got the the best aesthetic experiences in video games. Some contain other experiences too that include social and sports factors, but that’s not what I mean. Playing some games I’ve got the same kind aesthetic experience I get from watching a good movie or reading a good novel.

I think the honest answer will come from this generation, artists who intuitively understand games but also produce high art. Also I think what you will have in video games in terms of art is something like Academy Awards being Roger Ebert and Dark Knight being video games. The superficial problems will sway the professionals away from it. In fact this issue seems to be all about signalling. I think video games aren’t high art for the same reason esports are not considered sports. Sports are high status thing. So is high art even if you don’t understand it. Video games not so. In the future I think the stigma will dimnish. It will probably not make video games high art, but it should bring more objective analysis. I’m fairly confident esports will become comparable to chess, snooker etc. when it gains more social status.

I don’t like when the issue of aesthetics gets institutionalized. In words of Robin Hanson, a scientists (or even politicians) get a lot credit for progress they had little to do with with.

Will, Portal is different and innovative but there’re even better storylines than that.

71 somethingblue December 12, 2011 at 1:11 pm

As someone who’s had to work in “innovative” buildings, I’m in favor of more stagnation in this area. (Or even, as Matt suggests, some serious regression.)

72 newman December 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm


73 mjw149 December 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Solid points, but the videogame bit should put this out there: a lot of that talent is international, not American.

Further counterpoint: what about design? In no other decade has devices design mattered so much, and Americans had a pretty solid run for the last couple of decades. Not like the golden era, but ipods, thinkpads, xbox, some phones (razr comes to mind), OS interfaces, some consumer grade stuff, many cars have been really great. Clearly the Europeans have taken over as their economy supplies and supports this niche better, but we’re hardly slouches. Look at what the chinese are doing in cars now (the new volvos for example), it’s dreadful, they’ve not got the market to create the demand to create the suppliers. Like 19th century America in so many ways, though at least we had a literary tradition then and I can’t speak to the current Chinese culture in that regard.

74 P. Ed December 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I think there’s a parallel in the world of science, where the grant/committee dynamic has led to an extremely risk-adverse culture–labs doing “safe” work whose results aren’t terribly in question. For capital intensive art, there’s certainly a similar dynamic of risk aversion, and a natural gravitation toward forms, ideas, story lines that have already proved themselves financially.

75 Ryan December 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Frank Zappa hilariously suggested that the world could potentially end in “death by nostalgia,” a situation in which nobody could take a single forward step without becoming nostalgic for the one they just took.

My opinion: People don’t appreciate originality anymore. Artistic expression has been placed into so many marketing categories that if you do anything divergent, people complain – the basis of the complaint seems to be that it doesn’t quite fit into an existing category, therefore they feel that the execution of it was wrong.

It’s a real cultural problem. People don’t want originality in art; they want the same 4 things they already like. If you do something new, they get angry. I’ve given up hope.

76 TallDave December 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Definitely not. Music is better than ever, as are TV and movies, video games improve by leaps and bounds, and the advent of women shaving between their legs by itself represents the single greatest aesthetic achievement in the history of humankind.

77 Samuel X Brase December 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I generally find people who think culture is stagnating (aesthetically or otherwise) aren’t involved enough in the process of seeking out and consuming culture. Yes, what you’re offered by our culture is often tripe, but if you make even a modicum of effort–such as checking cable channels instead of broadcast–you are rewarded with above-average material.

Music is the area that frustrates me the most, because it’s the most easily digested–yet a lot of people don’t want to make even the simplest efforts to seek out new music that’s on small labels. By small I don’t mean Sub Pop–I mean labels like In the Red, Digitalis, Florida’s Dying.

I think writing will experience a similar fracturing as music has already experienced. The process is more belabored because the forms don’t translate as effectively from paper to screen, but experiments abound of the most effective ways to bring content to readers. Independent authors are cracking their way onto bestseller lists, forgoing the standard model. Writing is in a stark period of transition, and will be for some time. I imagine as tablets improve, they will enhance the popularity of graphic novels and comic books, as well as ebooks and so on. It’s pretty exciting to be honest and I’m glad I’m doing my part to experiment.

78 TallDave December 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm


79 Sigivald December 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

What Mr. Brase said.

There is an immense amount of media out there that people at Vanity Fair (ie, anyone they’d ever hire) will never even hear about*.

Innovation ever stopped; what slowed down, if anything, is innovation on the radio… not that I’m sure popular music has been innovative in my lifetime, apart from rap getting big.

And you’re dead-on right about #7. The mainstream is moribund, and increasingly irrelevant.

(* For that matter, that even a dedicated follower of music will never hear about. There’s too much for anyone to know all of it, or even come close.

I’d never heard of any of those three labels Mr. Brase mentioned. It’s quite possible he’s never heard of Profound Lore, Candlelight, or Southern Lord, to take examples more to my daily tastes. [Though my spot-check of Digitalis records suggests I’d like some of their output just fine.]

And these days, hell, you don’t even need a label.)

80 Erik December 12, 2011 at 5:59 pm

I think you’re missing one of the biggest movements in sculpture, one which I suspect will be as well regarded as (say) the Hudson River School in painting. It’s the Burning Man based artists and the monumental works blending metal and wood with fire and lights.

Please take a pass on the cultural aspects (for or against, I don’t care – that’s not what I’m talking about) and look at the spectacular monumental art being created. Take a look at the Flaming Lotus Girls (, for example. I’m quite fond of Michael Christian (, though I admit a slight personal connection (friend of a friend). Try a Google Image search for Uchronia (, which I understand was for a few days the second-largest completely wooden structure on the planet. And one of my favorite recent pieces was Bliss Dancer (, which is so fluidly posed it’s easy to forget that it’s 40 feet tall and weighs 3 1/2 tons.

A Google Image search (try Burning Man sculpture) will turn up lots of spectacular pieces – as well as the usual ratio of not-so-spectacular works. But for the last 10-15 years it’s been the laboratory for a lot of innovative work that hasn’t really been seen by the mainstream, and which will influence artists for decades to come.

The real lesson here is: don’t expect innovations in art to be presented to the mainstream. They have almost always been known to cognoscenti first, and movements are generally much more easily seen in retrospect than as they happen. Many of the exceptions (such as Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism that you name) date from the narrow window when broadcast media had not yet fragmented, and one charismatic (and media-savvy) spokesperson could change the world’s perception of an art form with leverage that doesn’t exist today.

81 Sam December 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm

My initial reaction that ‘innovation’ is not the definitive characteristic of a good work of art and is a rather clumsy attempt to apply values from one domain of social activity to another, much as E.O. Wilson tried – and failed – to do in Consilience between art and science.

82 Michaelc December 12, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I have a theory that the fact that the past never dies any more means that history is something different today than it was 30 years ago. It used to be that once a song was off the radio you could only hear private copies of it, but now YouTube makes every song of the last 50 years instantly available everywhere, and the same thing is happening in every type of medium. The result of this is that the past has an even stronger influence on the present than it used to because there is so much more of it available. The downside is that innovation is diluted by the volume of the nostalgia.

83 Rahul December 13, 2011 at 12:45 am

End italics.

84 Brandon Reinhart December 13, 2011 at 1:13 am

Heavy metal is in an incredible creative upswing and has been so for several years. Oddly invisible in the US media. In fact, the increasing acceptance of 7 and 8 string instruments is having a really strange impact on the genre. Metal is a genre where I’m consistently blown away by the richness of new offerings and also stunned by the lack of awareness by the broader music listening world (in the US).

There is so much good material out there (in music of any genre) that the search problem is a lot harder. There probably is new music that someone is making that will really appeal to you, but digging through the stuff with only marginal appeal has become a lot more difficult. There is creative blues, jazz, country, dub step, and indescribable genre mutations waiting to be discovered.

Some fun bits of ‘research’ from soft to hard.

85 zrzzz December 13, 2011 at 1:50 am

Never underestimate the next generation. Mass-produced, formulaic culture can not replace creativity indefiniyely

86 Lynne December 13, 2011 at 9:21 am

I read this article earlier. I think the lack of innovation and the constant repeating of past styles, etc. could be attributed to the infantilization of our young adults.
Think about it: most of the things Mr. Cowen cites in his post are- let’s be honest- juvenileinterests. “Graphic novels” (a fancy name for comic book), Movies (which are mostly about comic book superheroes these days), video games, pop music. Over the past two decades all these pasttimes have been rebranded as adult activities. Like being eligible for your parent’s healthcare coverage at the age of 26, our society simply doesn’t expect anyone to “grow out of” anything anymore. It’s as though adulthood itself is dying out. And children are prone to imitate their elders.

87 anon December 13, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Some innovation in aesthetics where individual taste matters (household product packaging design). However, an ever expanding trend in which the aesthetics which lead to public art (museum curation, grant-making, art/architecture faculty tenure decisions, journal editing, awards and other forms of recognition) are likely to have been made by committee. Thus the stagnation. It’s really quite a bummer.

88 anon December 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm

High art has been destroyed by the academy (just as science has, but that’s another topic) so artistic expression emerges in “popular” art, which is, by definition, apart from the academy. Unfortunately, the fact that we have no structure for the actual development of natural talent means we will never create another Shakespeare (I’m an Oxfordian), but will be stuck between choices of balloon dogs and comic books.

The average person can not name a currently living poet, painter, composer, sculptor produced by the academy. Art is primarily a social marker, and those who involve themselves in that world no longer seek to uplift the lower orders, but rather to distinguish themselves from the wrong sort of people. They do this while simultaneously professing that all cultures are equally worthy and attempting to associate their art with the right kind of lower orders. Its a kind of anti-noblesse oblige to be expected in a world where one must profess democracy, but it has had the worst effects on both art and culture. Democracy has a way of turning the personal into the political and modern art is as much about who?whom? politics as it ever was in the Soviet Union.

Now here’s a story about Susan Surandon being puked on by a tranny:

89 Ryan December 13, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Haha, brilliant!

90 David December 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Video games continue to be substantially under-appreciated as a genuinely ‘new’ art form. They are much more “popular” art than “high” art, but that seems orthogonal to their novelty as human experiences. I can’t think of another artistic experience that can extend over a comparable scope of time. I am playing Skyrim now. I’m 54 hours in, and I feel like it is still the early going. That seems quite remarkable to me. (Reading the 20 1/2 Patrick O’Brian ‘Aubrey / Maturin’ novels took as many hours, but that was more episodic and less immersive.)

I disagree with the contention that mainstream “first-person shooter” games are stagnant. My personal experience as a gamer is that a series of ‘quantitative’ enhancements (screen resolution, frame rate, audio quality) at some point effectively become ‘qualitative’ changes in how the game is experienced. My Skyrim character got “married” over the weekend, and when my “spouse” said something to me after the wedding, I felt something like a genuine, involuntary burst of “affection”. It was a rather weird moment, and I can’t recall encountering anything similar when I was fully immersed in playing similar games 6-10 years ago. My guess is that when a game reaches a certain level of visual, aural and interactional “realism”, it starts triggering different modules in our brains, and the experience changes in significant ways.

91 Ari Timonen December 13, 2011 at 11:42 pm

On very few subjects I can talk with confidence but this would be one of them. FPS games may or may not be stagnant. It depends who you ask. For casual gamers, there’re plenty of options. Some good games are dead or don’t have scenes. I think one could argue FPS genre has Great Stagnation too (eg. BF3 is not that a big marginal difference compared to BF1942 when it came out) but there’re more options available than ever. So in some sense there is stagnation and some sense there is not, depends on which metrics you use.

As for competitive FPS gaming. The depth has arguably gone downhill. Modern games like MW2 or BF3 are nowhere near Q3CPMA, TFC, Tribes, UT99/2k4, NS or perhaps CS in terms of reflexes and movement skills required. This isn’t only my opinion. In fact, you can go ask some competitive gamers of any of these games (I can definitely speak for my own because I was part of scene so long). Plenty of old Quake players blame “console generation”. I think these villains are really straw men but stating this won’t make the issue go away. I’ve been trying to find a game that has a depth of these classics but to no avail. Fun games, mm-yeah, but not the games I was hoping for.

The problem is economics really. In late 1990s, nobody really knew how to make engines like we have today. So we got the mother of all game engines, Quake Engine. The physics and so on weren’t real, but engines were highly efficient and fun to play with. They came with all these gimmicks like strafe-jumping and bunnyhop that became real skills in the game. Modern engines try to simulate real person and have taken all “unrealistic” elements out of the game. The issue is that all these elements are hard to learn, and even harder to master. There’re not so many consumers who are interested in lots of effort or pain as Tyler would put it. After gaming became more mainstream, the hardcore market just became a niche. Previously the mainstream and hardcore played the same games because, most gamers were geeky enough to accept a higher learning curve, and secondly there weren’t that many “casual-only” games around. Just like attentions span have gotten shorter and reading has decreased (correct me if I’m wrong), so has the consumer’s interest in putting effort to learn games too. This means games get more blander. Ultimately its hard to get gain (depth) without pain (learning curve). I’m not moralizing here (hypocrisy anyone?) but just stating the issue as I see it.

I hope I don’t get my facts wrong but it seems in many ways same thing happened with art music as the golden age of “classical” music was in 1800s, with piano being a very common household item. Later music got popularized and rock came along. Progress, definitely, but in some sense not the high art the classical musicians were hoping for. This same thing has happened in hardcore FPS market, and to lesser degree in RTS market (SC1 vis-á-vis SC2), and in fighter game market (GGXX vis-á-vis SF4). I don’t think this transition is going to reverse anytime soon. Maybe one day we’ll have a renaissance but I wouldn’t be holding my breath.

There’s a whole “political” mess around these issues in some games with all the good things that come with politics. I never imagine I’d posting about this on Marginal Revolution though.

As for single-player market, I’d see two trends. The other one is with increased quality in all form of material but also more conservative idea base. Maybe writers were more ambitious with their storylines before but it could endowment bias doing its tricks too.

92 David December 14, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Fair points, and I think I was being unclear or misleading using the phrase “first-person shooter” when I was talking about Skyrim, which is not really a “shooter” at all. (Unless you consider archery and spell-casting “shooting”.) It would be more accurate to call it a “first-person role-playing game” instead (as-opposed to a non-real-time / turn-based RPG, or one that has an “overhead” or other non-first-person viewpoint).

FPS games can certainly feel “immersive” in a certain way, and can be a lot of fun, but they usually don’t have the story-driven emphasis and complex interactions with in-game “people” that feature in a game like Skyrim. Those are the elements where the best contemporary games seem to be crossing a threshold. My experience is that when the visual, auditory and interactional elements reach a certain level of “fidelity”, the game world and its inhabitants start to feel “real” in a way that is experientially and aesthetically significant.

I have less current and historical

93 Chris December 14, 2011 at 1:46 am

The exterior of cars are all progressing to a single design per class. Aside from the grille/logo, once you build a safety cage and put it in a wind tunnel, the distinctiveness disappears.

94 Anne Wareham December 18, 2011 at 9:06 am

A bit late to the party – but what about gardens and landscape? #alwaysfallofftheculturalmap

95 Tim December 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I think we’re looking at the question wrong. The “stagnation” comes from the fact that pretty much all innovation is happening in new models. The indie game market is insanely creative right now. Indie music may be recycling lots of previous ideas, but music always has. The big difference is that you have millions of choices of music, rather than the dozens you previously had. Netflix is frequently criticized for the amount of cruft on Watch Now, but that cruft (and the fact you can see it)is a pretty strong innovation. Theater is gaining a resurgence as small groups create new work using all sorts of new techniques and ideas outside of the standard Broadway/Regional Theatre model. Even architecture is going through a pretty crazy period right now, it’s just that the current movement seems to be on revolutions in materials and construction rather than design. My guess is that we’ll see a revolution in design within a decade or two based upon widespread availability of pre-fab techniques and low-cost computer controlled laser cutters and 3-d printers.
What we don’t have anymore is the ability to create isolated regional movements that don’t appear until they’re fully formed. Modern communication has done away with those silos, so it’s much harder to watch trends happen.

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