I heard via the grapevine that some folks consider my posts too negative. Well, if the world was just about flowers, good dogs and sunshine, we could all wish it were so. Maybe my critics want relief from the incredible amount and frequency of bad/horrible news that we hear each day. Anyhow, you’re always going to get my unvarnished opinions here.
Many seemed to like my last post, Nobody’s thinking about you, which was really how the present culture fails old people. Today, let’s talk about how it fails all of us.
First, a bit of good news. A judge in Charlottesville, where my family lives, just advanced the claim to melt down the Robert E. Lee statue that has caused so much commotion. The City Council gave the statue to a group whose plan is to melt it down and use the ingots for local artists to create something new and noble. The group behind the effort is Swords into Plowshares.
So about the decline of what we used to call culture: Wikipedia defines it this way, “Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.”
I take it personally, and we all do. It’s expressed in how we dress, eat, speak to each other, experience art, and all the rituals we follow. It’s how we engage with the world and react to it. Traditionally—especially in the arts and before the digital world came on—progress, understanding and creativity came from how we learned and created from history.
Elie Weisel gave us my title for today. Here’s the rest of what he said: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” You can take memory in several ways here. He seems to mean that history is how we remember it.
But our present culture isn’t built that way. It thrives on chaos, narcissism, and detachment from what our forebears considered culture. Jason Farago wrote a long comprehensive view (Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill) of what’s wrong—and sometimes right—in present day, mostly pop, culture. Being an old putz I miss most of these references. But the point he makes is this:
We are now almost a quarter of the way through what looks likely to go down in history as the least innovative, least transformative, least pioneering century for culture since the invention of the printing press . . . The suspicion gnaws at me (does it gnaw at you?) that we live in a time and place whose culture seems likely to be forgotten. Our museums, studios and publishing houses can bring nothing new to market except the very people they once systematically excluded.
And the public has been willing to buy and promote, with a few exceptions, shards of crap. Ray Bradbury noted: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Well, the audience is there; the problem is what they are reading and reacting to.
Cultural decline comes also from what Farago calls the age of digital underachievement:
But more than the economics, the key factor can only be what happened to us at the start of this century: first, the plunge through our screens into an infinity of information; soon after, our submission to algorithmic recommendation engines and the surveillance that powers them. The digital tools we embraced were heralded as catalysts of cultural progress, but they produced such chronological confusion that progress itself made no sense. . . . If there is one cultural work that epitomizes this shift, where you can see our new epoch coming into view, I want to say it’s “Back to Black,” by Amy Winehouse.
If you like this grim take on “our new epoch,” let me know. The internet and its pop culture has become a zoo for diseased animals. Some of the consequences are explained here. I know, I’m ending on a sour note and I wish things were different.