I am of two minds about living in America today. Setting aside any discussion of politics—which I am glad to do for the moment—I find that I cannot escape my belief that our popular and fine arts and entertainment are, by and large, horrifically bad and stupendously boring. However, this shortcoming is more than made up for by the near-magical world of technological innovation we live in today. Although we clearly have our problems—every age does—I can firmly assert that I do not wish to live at any time other than now. Our daily cultural life may be a wasteland, but our work and play are made immeasurably better by the incredible creativity in technology that has relegated most fine arts and popular entertainment to a purely secondary role in early 21st century American life.
A while back I was appalled to discover that a total of six “Sharknado” movies have been made. I cannot believe we actually needed even the first, but this odd phenomenon brings a stark fact of the universe of popular entertainment into sharp focus: New ideas are typically few and far between.
There are, of course, many reasons that endless iterations of so many idiotic ideas plague our modernity. One is that investors and entertainment companies are desperate for a “sure thing”, so they reason that if Sharknado 3 made money, there is some likelihood that Sharknado 4 will as well—and, for reasons that surpass understanding, they often do. By the same token, the business executives who green light this kind of falderal presume that a flop will be more easily excused by their bosses if it can be presented as a wise decision—one derived from a sensible expectation based upon prior successes—that for reasons beyond their control simply failed this one time. Money in the arts and entertainment tends to chase conservative investments, and gambling with the cash provided by your corporate overlords is not a prescription for a long career in this business.
Consequently, artists and entertainers who long ago lost their edge are recycled beyond the point when they have any work truly worthy of our consideration. Even if the caviar of their early career has now degenerated into stale corn flakes, it has some intrinsic worth as a known “brand” that can still make a buck off name recognition and former notoriety. This explains why the late work of Pablo Picasso, which basically was terrible and derivative, continued to sell well and the tours of aging rockers still command premium prices despite the suspicion that their current artistry owes much to the wonders of lip syncing and hip replacement surgeries. We know what to expect and fill in the blank spots from our own memories—and so the illusion survives.
We are, in addition, now besieged by recycled drivel simply because there are so many more media outlets in need of content—any content—to fill in the spaces between infomercials. Cheap and disposable entertainment—contrived and packaged to present the best possible platform for advertisements or to encourage streaming subscriptions—rules a great deal of the entertainment world today simply because there are twenty-four hours and seven days in a week that must be programmed. No one plays the National Anthem and turns off their transmitter at midnight anymore because dead air is anathema in a culture where constant stimulation is the norm—and necessity.
However, as much as the traditional forms of creativity—music, sculpture, poetry, theater, dance, etc.—seem to have landed in a ditch today, we do live in an age of mind boggling technological inventiveness that has transformed every facet of our lives—and which provides sufficient compensation for the dreary state of our arts and entertainment.
I sometimes shake my head when I think about growing up in a world of land line telephones, rabbit ear antennae on boxy cathode ray tube televisions, clacking typewriters, and rooms filled with library card catalogues. Medical care was often diagnosis by stethoscope and “exploratory” surgeries because there were no wondrous medical imaging technologies available beyond a simple x-ray. Cars, which were attractive but unreliable, could not instantly tell a mechanic via a computer link what was wrong with them. Our connection to news and events in the outside world was a daily newspaper tossed on the doorstep in the morning or the “six o’clock news” on a black and white television. K-12 education was all pencil and paper, and the height of workplace computing technology was punch cards and slide rules. Carbon paper was still a common office tool, and eager young women strove to master shorthand (how many even know what this is today?) prior to entering a heavily hair sprayed career as a secretary.
It is, of course, quite natural that technology will outpace the arts when it comes to the application of creative power. Customers demand cutting edge innovation to justify the investment of their hard-earned cash. However, those tired souls seeking mere distraction from their daily toil are content with that which is as comfortably familiar as a pair of worn house slippers Therefore, the artists of each age tend to move as a herd so as to not stray too far afield from the tastes of their audiences, but the technological innovators become rich precisely by bringing new and wholly unfamiliar products to market.
There is, of course, always an audience of “elite” tastemakers who seek out edgy art and culture, but there is an obvious reason why The Monkees sold many, many more records than John Cage ever did—the art that is the most popular is always that which soothes rather than assaults. Middlebrow is always where the money is to be made, so this is what will always dominate as long as artists need food and shelter to survive.
Although the pace of creativity in engineering, science, and medicine may move faster or slower at any given time, it is always moving in one direction—forward—and this is precisely what humanity demands. There is little market for nostalgia except as it pertains to the collection of key technological artifacts of the past—classic cars being one obvious example—in order to preserve and enjoy the genius of a particular age.
However much we may still watch the plays of Shakespeare or read the poetry of John Milton, no one wants to again live in an age when travel from city to city meant days of bouncing along rutted roads, fire was the only source of heat and light, and surgeries were performed without the benefit anesthesia or antibiotics. The worlds that people inhabited in the past may have been more elegant in some very limited ways, but the vast majority of human lives were stalked by hunger, disease, vermin, and pain. Our knowledge and understanding of the actual daily misery of those days have their limitations, but we are willing to look past all that for a few hours of engagement with the music, paintings, or plays of centuries gone by.
Therefore, before we get too carried away complaining about the world we live in today while romanticizing some time period long ago, perhaps it is worth taking just one small moment to celebrate the many wonders of the world we have right now. We may have to occasionally endure the existence of the Kardashians, but we can also microwave some popcorn, stream some Miles Davis music through our ear buds, and read a classic novel on our iPads. I have to admit, it works for me….