The End of Cultural History?

Writing in Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen asks whether we are in a decades long design rut.  During the twentieth century, design and style evolved at a predictable pace – so much so that images from any given decade are instantly distinguishable as being from that era.  The styles of the 1950s, say, would never be mistaken for those of the 1930s or the 1970s.  This holds, says Andersen, across the art forms – fashion, design, architecture, cinema, and music from most of the twentieth century are all very much of their moment.  However, in the past two or three decades, this evolution has stopped.  The 1990s look very much like the 2010s, give or take a collar and quiff.  Our big cultural events are all repeats, reboots and revivals.
(See also, by the way, Jason Kottke’s Timeline Twins for a stark illustration of Andersen’s observations).
I can relate to this idea of over-nostalgia.  A few years ago I wrote about Global Music Event Fatigue, where we were treated to several ‘historic’ concerts in the mold of Live Aid on (what felt like) back-to-back weekends.
Anderson says that part of the blame for this failure to progress is the result of the new technologies, which give us

instant access to every old image and recorded sound … it the rare “new” cultural artifact that doesn’t seem a lot like a cover version of something we’ve seen or heard before. Which means the very idea of datedness has lost the power it possessed during most of our lifetimes.

Why is this happening? In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.

I think the answer may well lie in technological development, but not because of the overload that Anderson cites.  Rather, I think it is due to a decline in optimism, and a decline in the belief that we are progressing.  During the Industrial revolution, the ‘white heat’ of technology was so great it would singe your eyebrows, with huge machines dominating the landscape and the factories.  A very visible progress.  This sense of change certainly continued into the twentieth century, when even the most horrific events, such as the industrial slaughter of the Great War, or the Nazi Holocaust, seem products of the technological age (recall how the codes tatooed on the arms of the Jewish concentration camp inmates were for the benefit of an early IBM computer).  Think also of the strides in aviation during this same period: from the Wright Brothers to Armstrong & Aldrin in just 66 years, the flying machines bringing other countries, continents and even other  planets that much closer.  The big political developments of the century (however misguided) also tapped into that sense of progress.  The historical determinism of Marx and Engels, and the Communists they inspired, is mirrored by the Fascists’ self-belief in their own glorious destiny (and American exceptionalism – arrogant but far less lethal – could also be slotted in here). Their effects may not have been as positive as the proponents of the ideology claimed, but all had an unmistakable optimism in the future, a certainty that tomorrow would be different, that Change Was On Its Way.
Think also of events that straddle the cultural, social and political spheres, such as the civil rights movement in the USA or the onset of mass immigration from the colonies into Britain.  Here, one can also percieve a real sense of progress, of being in-the-middle-of-it-all, a knowledge that one is witnessing the proverbial ‘interesting times‘.  This cannot have failed to have an effect on the visual and aural culture, with artists and (perhaps more importantly) designers experimenting and innovating, in order to better capture the mood of the time.
Andersen’s complaint about cultural stagnation rings true.  It mirrors the ennui I percieve in much cultural and political chat, especially around the problem of disengagement from politics and the decline of political parties as the means through which people do engage in activism.  The narrative of this decline is familiar, almost to the point of cliche:  After the optimism of the 1960s came to nothing, economic woe set in during the 1970s.  The callous approach of Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s jump-started the economy, but gutted society.  Then in the 1990s, we had the likes of Clinton and Blair triangulating their way back to power.  Of course I am aware this is just one reading of modern history, but the idea that politics has lost its ideological drive in recent decades seems to be broadly accepted.  And as this momentum dissipates, the wider culture loses the sense that it is motoring towards a new future.  In turn, the artists and designers cease to innovate, and begin to consolidate.
The post-script to all this, is that the events such as the economic crisis, the Arab Spring, and popular movements such as the Tea Party and #Occupy, all promise to reinvigorate politics.  Regardless of whether any of these movements succeed in creating a better world, the fact that they exist at all may nevertheless inspire a shared sense of being A Part Of It All… of being alive and present as big changes take place.  Will this spill over into art and design, resulting in more experimentation, and a shunning of retro, nostalgic chic?

One Reply to “The End of Cultural History?”

  1. This is excellent stuff, EXTREMELY interesting. On the purely “arts” level, I’ve been thinking some of this stuff for years. Most blockbuster films these days seem to remakes, sequels, or based on longstanding “iconic” comics or novels. Similarly, in music, you can’t move these days for bands either reforming, or performing their greatest (old) albums in their entirety.

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