I'm very glad that Bridgette and Jennifer have continued talking about some of the differences between generations. It's not a conversation that you hear enough about, especially in media dominated by the sensibilities, interests, fears and anxieties of the Baby Boomer Generation, those born between 1946 and 1964.
There has been an off-blog conversation going on that's concerned about sparking a "generational flame war," as one of us called it. But we think there is merit in discussing the differences between boomers and those of us in Gen X and Gen Y (all four of us in Flyover are in Gen X, though I might be on the cusp; I'm 33).
The first thing I'd like to point out is this: As the boomers get grayer, there's a gradual but ever-hastening uptick in what I'll call the "rhetoric of declension." That is to say, the ubiquitous talk that aims to persuade and, oddly, to reassure the participants of the conversation that the world, indeed, is going straight to hell.
My parents started me on that tone, as evangelical Christians who believed the emergence of a beastly Antichrist would be any day now and that the Son of God would then return to take back with him to heaven the twice-born and Lord-we-hope-so everlasting souls of the Saved.
Then there's everybody else saying: Moral values are in decline, education is in decline, the government is in decline, the arts are definitely in decline. I'd hear this from parents and family and teachers and professors and parents of my friends.
It's like some grand paradigmatic narrative that all the adults in my adolescent life bought into. And the benchmarks of this teleological tale -- the story and its characters are, after all, slouching toward one inexorable outcome -- came when JFK and Bobby and George Wallace and the Gipper got shot.
This rhetoric of declension is everywhere, and it's getting more intense as boomers grow old, retire to the Sun Belt (which is here on the Georgia coast, by the way) and begin to wax nostalgic for the good old days when things weren't so hectic and people were just plain nice.
If it's growing more intense in everyday life, the rhetoric is virtually screaming when it comes to the arts, where it is especially pernicious. George Cotkin, in an insightful piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, provides an excellent example of how deep it goes by characterizing the state of cultural criticism from the view point of those who thinks it's going down the tubes.
The state of cultural criticism today, in the view of many, is debilitated, perhaps even moribund. For [Sven] Birkerts, Alvin Kiernan, Russell Jacoby, and others, there once existed a lively, deep, public, and engaged cultural criticism. Great critics -- Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg, Alfred Kazin, and Dwight Macdonald -- roamed the roadways of criticism, stopping to dispense sage or impassioned judgments and to uphold standards. What happened?
According to this line of thought, our present generation of cultural critics, arriving after the assault of postmodernism and the increasingly widespread commercialization of culture, has been cast adrift, without any firm basis for judgments. Publications and institutions to support serious criticism, in this view, either no longer exist or are few in number.
Critics today, it is also claimed, are too cozy behind the ivied walls of academe, content to employ a prose style that is decipherable only to a handful of the cognoscenti. The deadly dive of university critics into the shallow depths of popular culture, moreover, reveals the unwillingness of these critics to uphold standards. Even if the reasons offered are contradictory, these Jeremiahs huddle around their sad conclusion that serious cultural criticism has fallen into a morass of petty bickering and bloated reputations.
Cotkin goes on to say that this is a revisionist perspective of cultural history and that there was no Shangri-La of Literary Criticism, that there was in-fighting, vanity and narcissism even among the ranks of High Modernists perched atop the Ivory Tower.
Cotkin was inspired by an essay by Sven Birkerts, a well-known literary critic who in 2004 (when Cotkin wrote his piece) saw occasion to once again mourn the decline of intellectual discourse after the Partisan Review closed up shop.
But even the venerable Partisan Review wasn't immune to displays of self-aggrandizement, folly and cravenness, as Cotkin points out. Besides, there are many outlets for intellectual inquiry today. Cotkin's list includes Reason magazine, the New York Review of Books, the Claremont Review and the Boston Review.
Remember, Cotkin's piece was written three years ago. Much has happened since then. I would add to that list NextBook, Prospect, SignandSight and the many thoughtful and skillfully managed blogs we read -- PBS's MediaShift, Culture Lust, Theatre Ideas, Bookforum's Shelf Space et al. and, of course, Artsjournal's blogs.
Back to my original point: generational differences. Where do you think this rhetoric of declension leaves those of us in Gen X and Gen Y when we have to deal with this gargantuan belief that everything's going to tarnation?
What's left for us when persuaded to believe that the reason the theater, orchestra and dance company are struggling is because people don't support like they used to.
What's left to believe in if all of this is true?
I hope it's clear that I'm being somewhat hyperbolic and somewhat facetious when I say all this. But I stress -- somewhat. With the media being run by boomers and arts groups being consumed with the theory of "get-'em-while-they're-young," I get a sense that Jennifer was onto something when she said it looks like Gen X/Y is being written off.
I also get a sense that boomers don't understand how Gen X/Y perceives the world. Moreoever, many boomers, as they get older and more entrenched in their ways, seem practically drunk on the sweet nector of nostalgia for having been the generation that "changed the world."
Elton John provides a nice example of the latter when he expressed his wish for the internet to be shut down because it keeps "people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff."
"Instead they sit at home and make their own records, which is sometimes OK but it doesn't bode well for long-term artistic vision.
"It's just a means to an end.
"We're talking about things that are going to change the world and change the way people listen to music and that's not going to happen with people blogging on the internet.
"I mean, get out there -- communicate.
"Hopefully the next movement in music will tear down the internet.
"Let's get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home and blogging.
"I do think it would be an incredible experiment to shut down the whole internet for five years and see what sort of art is produced over that span.
"There's too much technology available."
Note that to be considered a social force one must "march and protest." I don't know about anyone else, but I'm really tired of this. It's as if Elton and his ilk didn't know that the social upheavals of the 1960s were fought on the op-ed pages as much as on the streets. And they used words in newspapers, just like blogs do.
The reason Boomers don't understand the way Gen X/Y thinks has to do with, oddly enough, the Grammys. This year, we put a wire story about the results right on the front page the day after the Grammys awards. The reason we did that has a lot of do with the cynicism at the heart of the rhetoric of declension: Pop music is what those kids like. Put it on the front page and maybe they'll read the paper. Maybe if we keep putting all this celebrity crap out there, these whipper-snappers and their confusing ways might step up like they're supposed to and be the new generation of newspaper readers.
Well, they don't read the newspaper. What's the point? They already knew who won and who lost the Grammys hours before the press run that night. There are those who might argue that popular music is popular for a reason: lots of people buy the CDs of these artists. But that doesn't take into account the fact that Gen X/Y are not buying CDs. They're downloading. The people buying CDs are boomers, mostly.
And they're already subscribing to the paper.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog