Are we stagnating aesthetically?

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.


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