Cultural Decline in the West?

17/08/2019

I haven’t written anywhere near as much as I would have liked this month so far, partly because of university and partly because my motivation to do so has been mildly lacking. But a question that I have been seeing crop up rather frequently (for reasons I’ll explain below) is, “is Western culture in decline?” And for the context of this piece, by culture I am referring to art, like what you would find in a museum, music, literature, pop culture, that sort of thing; not an ‘East vs West’ definition of culture, and I will only briefly mention semi-political ideas as well.

The argument is that so much of modern culture, be it the mainstream music so many people listen to, accusations of ‘pretentious artistic elites’ with their million-dollar artworks, the long list of movies released each year, etc. is trash. There are three ways to approach this idea. The first and second are rather obvious.

You can either agree with that statement, believing that the cultural progress of Western society has stagnated and gone into freefall, or oppose it if you think our artistic potential is still high. This seems to be how many discussions tend to go – simply a divide down the centre, with people who crankily criticise everything on one side and vehement fans criticising those cranky people for having an opinion.

Or there is the third view you can take, which the majority of people probably hold, many of whom are smarter than I to avoid the moronic storm of vitriol that is an online comments section or YouTube. But it would be incredibly simple and pointless if I were to just say something along the lines of “if you don’t like it, don’t pay attention to it”, or “most people don’t really care what you think”. So I think it’d be better to actually give credence to both of the above ‘sides’ and actually explain whether or not we are, indeed, in decline or not.

The easiest point to make is that art is subjective. Yes, you might think an artwork looks crappy and that it shouldn’t be worth however many thousands of dollars (a fact that we will get back to later), but that doesn’t mean others don’t find meaning in it, or think it looks good. You mightn’t like pop music – I sure don’t, it’s ok as background music but definitely not my choice of music – but it’s popular for a reason. Didn’t like that book or movie? Cool, it still grossed millions at the box office, what’s your point? The same argument can be flipped around – whatever you like, whatever you think qualifies as ‘good’ might be awful to others.

Admittedly, even I fall into the trap of talking down popular stuff (usually in the context of movies or games), but that’s because I am a very story driven person – Avengers: Endgame is the greatest cinema phenomenon in history, and despite it being visually brilliant, I got very, very bored by the end, and unless dragged in by friends, probably won’t watch many (if any) more Marvel movies. Superhero fatigue has been kicking in for a few years now. But that subjective, personal opinion doesn’t hold sway in an argument over whether something is ‘good’. A reverse argument for me would be World of Warcraft – there is much hatred towards the game, mostly from its own fans (such is the art of fandoms), even towards its story. But I actually love the lore and characters. It’s the part that has kept me invested for over 10 years.

The next point to make is a criticism of one of the critics’ critiques – that modern pop culture is not as good as older, classical stuff. God forbid someone tried to compare Kanye with Mozart, or a movie franchise with the full works of Shakespeare. Liking or disliking different things from the present and from history are not mutually exclusive, people can mix things up. But more important than that, why are certain works from history so venerated? We have so many renowned artists, writers, musicians – nothing from the Renaissance period is ‘bad’. There is a pretty simple reason that I can see for that, however, and it’s not because the 1400’s to the 1800’s were the perfect peak of white humans.

No, the reason famous works of history hold such high pedestals is because they have survived the test of time. What we see is by no means the full picture of historic works, but merely a window into what people over the years deemed ‘good’. For every Mona Lisa, how many paintings are unknown? For every Bach, how many musicians died without so much as a modicum of recognition after death? Even back then, there would have been works of art that people would have argued over, that divided opinions. What we are left with today is what survived being filtered through the centuries, and guess what – not everyone likes those things either.

You cannot compare modern works with historical works because they are born from different eras and societies, and the older stuff has had time to sink into what we call our ‘culture’. Try and imagine 300 years into the future (yes, optimistic to think past 30 more years, but play along) – what do you think will survive? Should computers and the internet still exist as we perceive them, perhaps quite a lot. But what will retain its status? If in 300 years, pop music like Miley Cyrus, artworks made out of recycled materials, and Marvel movies are considered ‘classics’, then I’m afraid many of the doomsday prophets will be disappointed. It’s an impossible question to answer, so instead of trying in vain to do so, just let time do its thing.

Modern works also have the advantage of modern technology. We are saturated with an insane amount of content almost every single day because everyone is able to post their work, and everyone can view it. So of course there is bound to be a lot of stuff that could be deemed ‘trashy’. Again, it all comes down to subjectivity and filtering out whatever it is that you personally like.

The last point is in favour of criticising certain aspects of culture, but probably not for the same reasons the aforementioned critics do – yes, here is the brutal takedown of capitalism this website promises in the title.

Remember those paintings I mentioned that sell for thousands or millions of dollars? There does tend to be, in some circles, a very elitist view of art, where seemingly anything can be deemed ‘high quality’ and given far too much ‘in-depth meaning’. Compared to many other artworks, they don’t look anywhere near as ‘good’, but money talks louder than sense when people conflate status with actual value. The Banksy painting that shredded itself after being sold at auction is probably the perfect example.

It, by virtue of being a Banksy painting, whether it was ‘good’ or not, was worth a crazy amount of money, which the artist did not agree with. So, to prove a point, a shredder (that was installed in the frame) cut strips through half of it, subsequently… drastically increasing its value, further proving the point. My own point, here, is that just because there is money surrounding art, whether it’s a painting or music, etc. that does not mean, by default, that it is good. The idea of arts’ value being merely monetary detracts from what art is supposed to be. On the other end of the spectrum from those who hate modern art are those who fawn over it in a pretentious bubble.

The next bit is sex. Is modern culture, particularly music, overly sexualised? Sure, I won’t disagree with that, because to an extent it is a bit. But this oversexualisation has absolutely nothing to do with any perceived ‘decline’ (that’s more a reflection on an individual’s mindset than it is about society as a whole). Usually this specific argument is used by those combatting that dreadful evil, cultural Marxism. A spectre haunting everyone with its incredible vagueness. But sex in pop culture has little to do with ‘leftist’ thought at all – it’s purely capitalist.

Sex sells. It is that simple, really. Advertising has taken advantage of this for decades, from TV commercials to posters in shopping centres. In the music/entertainment industry, sex is popular for a number of reasons, two I can think of being liberation and controversy. People are interested in sex, so seeing it out there makes them more open about it and embracing their sexuality more (an aside, I don’t think the sexual liberation of people is a bad thing, from LGBT+ people becoming more accepted to women not being ashamed of, well, being a woman with desires – just that, because of it, there are people who capitalise on these trends with great success). Controversy also generates interest, so the next time you see some performer do or wear something ‘promiscuous’, keep in mind that Marx probably wouldn’t approve anywhere near as much as the bank accounts of the people running the show.

So, culture. Is it declining? No more than usual, and no more than it is ascending, really. Life goes on now as it always has, with art taking its countless forms, with countess people having countless opinions. There are certainly many valid ways to criticise art, most of which are subjective, and others more ideologically driven. It is a fluid and constantly changing beast, with too many facets for a single person to be aware of at a single point in time, let alone all of history.

I’m probably not the most ‘culturally aware’ person out there, so I hope what I have written makes sense. The simple conclusion is what I said above – let people enjoy what they want to enjoy and ignore what you dislike. No one owns the concept of art.

 

Previous piece: Trump’s Contradiction on Hong Kong

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