Arts and popular culture (2)

Two books I’d highly recommend:

Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good For You. Ironic title, of course. The book’s about how complex popular culture now is.

Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution. One of the best books I’ve read in years, a real page-turner, but deeply serious in its study of how French art films helped spark a huge change in Hollywood moviemaking. Along, of course, with the emergence of a new culture in the ’60s. (Nice classical music reference in the title, by the way. But we in classical music can’t, I fear, claim any moment like the one Harris describes. Our art largely stood aside when the new culture emerged, and we haven’t had anything after World War II (a very long time ago!) that had as much force for the culture at large as Truffaut and Godard did when they were new. Minimalism comes closest.)

The Mark Harris book, of course, shows the vitality of popular culture, its flexibilty, and its ability to become art, something we see happening in Hollywood, as we keep turning the pages, right before our eyes.

What we in the arts need to understand, of course, is how smart, serious, and artistic some of popular culture has gotten.

And here are two widespread ideas — or, at least, I’ve run into them a lot — that we should look at very critically.

1. People these days have very short attention spans.

Meaning, of course, younger people, though I guess some of us would extend this to the entire culture. The idea is very tempting for a lot of us in classical music, because it seems to explain why we’re losing cultural ground. Younger people don’t pay attention to classical music because they can’t pay sustained attention to anything. They won’t sit there for 20 minutes, listening to a symphony.

But strangely enough, they’ll sit for three hours and see a movie. Oh, well, someone will say, movies are visual. But that’s another conversation! The point we’re considering here is about attention span in general. If people sit quietly — as all of us have seen them do — through a two- or three-hour film, there’s no reason they couldn’t sit still in a concert hall, if they wanted to.

And what about Project Runway? A reality show, as most of us know, on which contestants have to design and make clothes, week after week, with maybe one day to get the entire job done. How could they do that, if they couldn’t concentrate in a focused way for hours?

Likewise Top Chef, where contestants have to cook. Likewise video games, which — despised as they are — take hours of concentration to play, as Steven Johnson explains. Likewise sports. Stars practice their game incessantly. Major league infielders might field a hundred or more grounders in a single practice session.

And we all know that web design (to pick just one example) is a quintessential 21st century endeavor. It takes ages to get right. Again, you have to concentrate, for hours. (As computer programmers of all kinds are famous for doing. Work 36 hours straight, then crash.)

What the attention span argument really means, in practice — peope aren’t paying attention to the things we want them to pay attention to.

2. There’s no creativity in our society these days. See, for instance, the Dana Gioia speech I talked about in my first arts and popular culture post. I’m not sure he puts it quite that way, in exactly those words, but he and others who talk brightly about how they think the arts are needed in our society, to foster creativity — well, aren’t they saying that creativity needs to be fostered?

Which it does. We can never have too much of it. But we should also recognize that it’s breaking out everywhere. In fact, I’ve never seen, in my lifetime (and I grew up in the ’50s), such a creative time as this one. That doesn’t mean we don’t have social problems we don’t know how to solve, but in popular culture, technology, and business the explosion of creativity is — at least in my view — just staggering.

Again, look at Project Runway. (And Top Chef.) The clothes the contestants design are strikingly creative. (As is the food the Top Chef contestants cook.) That’s one of the reasons the show is so addictive. We watch serious creative work going on. A form of art.

Or technology. If you have an iPhone, and buy apps for it at the iPhone app store, it’s easy to be dazzled by the uses people find for the device. My iPhone, thanks to apps I’ve bought, measures the decibel level of sound, and measures wind speed (through a highly creative adaptation of the output from the iPhone’s microphone). It’s also a theremin, a carpenter’s level, and a device for measuring the angle of an incline (the app that does this interesting for hikers, but is raved about by engineeers, who say it takes the place of expensive equipment). It helps me identify birds, and tells me what stars I’m seeing in the sky.

And it’s a slide rule! Someone went to the trouble of designing an app that, in looks and function, perfectly recreates the slide rules engineers and scientists depended on for calculations, decades ago. (My father taught me to use one when I was a kid, to figure out baseball batting averages.) Useless? Yes, now that other iPhone apps will do all those calculations with far more precision. But it’s beautifully executed, a wonderfully crafted triumph of design and nostalgia.

And then there’s the famous ocarina, which you play by blowing in the microphone (another highlly creative adaptation of its input), while you finger equivalents of the ocarina’s holes, on the iPhone’s screen. It sounds quite beautiful (a creative adaptation of current sampling and synthesizer technology), and, best of all, everything you play is transmitted throughout the world for other users of the app to hear. You can listen to them, of course, too. The interface for that, featuring an evocative world globe, is strikingly lovely.

Not that I meant to rave so much about the iPhone and its apps. But as I use my iPhone, I’m struck every day by the amazing creativity involved. (And I’ve barely begun, here, to describe how far that goes.)

Business. Today, in the e-mail supplement to David Pogue’s technology column in the New York Times, I read about a new idea for spreading the use of electric cars. It was one of those things that’s obvious, once someone else thinks of them, and I won’t try to describe it here. Pogue hasn’t posted today’s e-mail yet, but when he does, you can find it here.)

Some businesses, obviously, are mired in stubborn, useless thinking. (Auto industry, anyone?) But a daily reading of the Times business section fills me full of new ideas.

And then there’s the growth of the Internet.

And the way popular culture has become participatory, so you don’t just passively absorb it, but remix it, mash it up, and send it out on your own.

And I haven’t even talked about pop music, or TV shows like The Wire. If the arts can make us even more creative, bring it on, but we’re also doing fine without them. (Difficult, maybe, for people committed to the arts to realize, but it’s true.)

Time management alert — time to stop now. More tomorrow.

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  1. Otto von Humboldt says

    To denegrate the creativity and ingenuity of popular culture as opposed to “art” culture is, of course silly. Both have existed side by side and influenced each other for centuries.

    But to deny that there are differences also doesn’t make much sense. In the long run popular culture will always be a more accurate picture of current times than “art” culture (for lack of a better term). In general, it’s made to be comprehended and consumed quickly…and this is not to detract from it’s intelligence or ingenuity.

    “Art” culture tends to exist in longer forms that require a bit more effort to comprehend and in general require a more advanced technical skill to perform.

    I’d hate to profess something as corny as “art is forever” but I think most people would agree that by definition popular culture moves on quickly. You may pull out your old CCR records and enjoy them to no end, but ask anybody under 20 if they’ve heard of them.

    I attend a wide variety of popular and “cultural” events. Last night I saw a brilliant performance of Beethoven chamber music performed by the Ebene Quartet. The musicians looked to be no more than 25 tops. The Beethoven pieces are going on 200. Are they a record of our times? Not really. But the players performed them as if they were written yesterday, and I’ll speak for the rapt audience when I say I’m pretty sure they spoke to us last night. A group of hip young French guys made an audience in Seattle who had probably heard these works a dozen times hear them as if newly made.

    Maybe what those who are defensive about the support for “high” art are really talking about is economics. If you saw Bruce Springsteen on TV, chances are he’s pulling down a pretty hefty check.

    The Ebene Quartet performed for a house of about 300. I’m not sure how much of their training and preparation was covered by the take at the door, but I’m guessing not much. I’d hate to think that we couldn’t have events like that because they couldn’t fill a stadium or attract a high Nielsen rating.

    Yes, people will sit through a 3 hour movie…often filled with a lot of loud music and spectacle (all fine and entertaining things) and very little dialog, but will most of them also sit through Chekhov? Just because no one’s going to line up to see Chekhov at a multiplex doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have Chekhov, just that he might need a little help. The kind of help the “Dark Knight” is never going to need.

    I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to say that people in general and for whatever reasons are not too thrilled about expending a lot of effort to appreciate something. Probably a lot more people read “Twilight” last year than have read “Remembrance of Things Past” in it’s entire history. Most people would concede it’s not for everyone. It doesn’t make “Twilight” readers bad. But there are real rewards to reading “Remembrances” though it may be more elusive and therefore require some special pleading.

    I’d hate to think that anyone would want to deny the creativity, intelligence, fun and rewards of popular culture. But with Celine Dion selling out Vegas for umpteen years and opera houses and symphonies going under, it doesn’t really seem to me that she needs anyone to stick up for her. The “High Artists” don’t respect her? boo hoo. I’m going to bet she’s not real broken up about that.

    These seem like reasonable points, but I wonder who you’re saying them to. I’ve never said that art and popular culture aren’t different, and certainly didn’t make that point in my posts.

    That said, I think the differences don’t really lie in the things you’ve mentioned. In the long run, you say, popular culture will always reflect its time better than art culture because it’s made more quickly? Then why do people talk about the art music of the past reflecting its culture so unerringly?

    And when you say popular culture “tends” to be made to be understood very quickly, while arts culture “tends” to require more effort to comprehend, you’re papering over a lot not so fine points when you say “tends.” A lot of things labelled as popular culture these days aren’t at all easy to comprehend at first. To give you one example, for which I wouldn’t even claim any high artistic status, how about the recent episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that took place in the sleep clinic? There was no way to tell, by the end of the episode, which events were dreams and which were reality, or even if any were reality. And the entire episode was (I’m willing to bet) incomprehensible, completely incomprehensible, to anyone who hasn’t been following the show for at least the past season. The same has been true for many recent Battlestar Galactica episodes, including the famous finale (which, by the way, I didn’t think was nearly as good as the raves it got might make us think).

    And I’m not even talking about serious artistic work within popular culture.

    Your comparison of the very fine Ebène Quartet and Springsteen makes me smile, I’m afraid. First, one reason that the quartet sounds so spontaneous may well be that they spend a lot of time playing jazz and pop music, including a Springsteen song, which you can hear on their website. Mainly, though, of course Springsteen makes more money, because he plays in much bigger venues. Compare the quartet to Anna Netrebko. She might be in the arts, but she makes far more than they do.

    Better still, compare them to an indie rock band that plays for 300 people. The quartet is going to be making a lot more than the band does, I’m willing to guess. Generally, people in classical music — on the lower rungs of the success ladder — make more money than their equivalents in pop.

    And then, when you trot out Proust, my favorite writer, why don’t you not just wave his name like a flag, but say exactly what it is that makes him so superior, in your view, to popular culture? Or do the same for Chekhov. I saw The Seagull on Broadway, and I’m not prepared to say it operates on some deeper level than a really thoughtful and artistic TV series like The Wire. Proust is more or less in a class by himself, but why? I could make a list of qualities I like in him — utter pristine precision of language, for instance, and exhaustive powers of observation, operating at tremendous depth and length, both about the outer world and the inner world (that’s a start, anyway). One thing that emerges from that short list, I think, is that Proust isn’t for everyone. Not in the way that Beethoven or Picasso might be. So now we have gradations within the arts. Are you sure there aren’t similar gradations among things labeled as popular culture?

  2. gary panetta says

    Your comments in support of popular culture are refreshing. I think especially since the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, people are getting more and not less creative. Your comment about three hour movies isn’t right, though. Movies are getting shorter and shorter — although the reasons don’t seem to have much to do with attention spans. Take a look at this link:

    Interesting. Thanks. But there still are very long films, that sell tickets and/or get awards and acclaim. This year, Benjamin Button. Last year, There Will Be Blood.

    My impression is that films currently are longer than they were when I was growing up, decades ago. But even if most filmsm were only 90 minutes, the timing I seem to remember as more or less average some decades ago, they’d still be longer than most works in the standard classical repertoire.

  3. says

    I agree with basically all of this, but I want to make one strategic point: using contestants on reality shows like Project Runway and Top Chef doesn’t really help your point. Contestants on those shows are outliers, which is why the audience is interested, but the argument about short attention spans isn’t about the attention spans of outliers, it’s about the attention spans of average people. But the attention spans of the people who _watch_ those shows is pretty good. You have to really pay attention over a sustained period of time to take in the basic information of those shows, and in a sense reality TV is more demanding because it’s not scripted–the plot lines aren’t neatly constructed and then spoonfed to viewers one piece at a time like in scripted TV, but rather cobbled together after the fact. And lets do some TV versus Opera math. The Ring Cycle is considered epic at its 15 hour running time. A season of American network TV drama is 20 to 26 episodes at 44 minutes each. That’s between 14.7 and 19 hours, and that’s a _single_ season. M*A*S*H ran for 251 half-hour episodes (probably 22 minutes) over eleven seasons, which should total about 92 hours. Or look at the modern classic The Sopranos, which ran for 86 50-minute episodes, or just under 72 hours.

    I get the sense that when people complain about short attention span they’re actually talking about willingness to pay attention to things that you don’t find interesting. I don’t know what I think about that, but it’s telling that short attention span gets brought up in the context of the non-popular arts, as if the problem is that “high” art is good for you so you should have to sit through it even if you don’t like it, and modern audiences are less willing to put up with that.

    Very interesting, as always, Galen.

    If the argument is about the attention spans of average people, then the those who make it — the people who are convinced that people now don’t have very long attention spans — are really in trouble. Because how do we know what the attention spans of average people were 20, 30, or 50 years ago? I doubt there’s much data about that. And especially about attention spans for art.

    About outliers (fascinating how Malcolm Gladwell brought that term into use, virtually overnight; just as he did with “tipping point”). I would have thought that the attention span argument — translated into something more specific than the vaporous generalities it’s usually couched in — would mean that we’d now see fewer outliers with long attention spans than we would have seen a generation ago. And if that’s the argument, then the contestants on those shows really do make a point.

    But I certainly agree with you about long TV series, especially since (as I said in another comment somewhere here), I’m now seeing episodes of shows I watch that must be largely or even completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t followed the shows for quite a while. The Wire, I think, required (in some ways) more concentration than the Ring, or even Proust. It went on for five seasons, spinning out some plotlines for the full length of a season, and others for seasons on end. The full scope of the show — a show intended to give a deep critique of dysfunctional American institutions — is surely not apparent until you’ve watched all of it. I can’t say that for sure, because I’ve only watched two seasons, but that’s what I gather. I know that Mad Men has essentially unfolded, over its two seasons, a single plotline, which doesn’t seem remotely near its end.

  4. says

    The argument that Classical music has some kind of special status because it is still being played in something resembling the same way for 200 years needs badly to be put to rest. If anything I think an argument can be made against the music for that reason, and I say that speaking as a fan obviously.

    After all, are ragtime, early blues or doo wop alive today? Absolutely: they are alive in every note one hears of rock and pop, because they were all part of the evolution of those art forms and what we hear today wouldn’t have been possible without it. That’s what vital art does – it evolves as culture does. Chubby Checker is still alive in the form of every rock band, even if we still aren’t twisting, because he was part of this ongoing, living, evolutionary process.

    In contrast, Beethoven looks more like a pickled corpse. Being performed the same way for 200 years – is this the result of an evolutionary or an anti-evolutionary phenomenon? And which process is more human, more alive?

    Evolution, of course, does not mean “ascent” as it is sometimes thought to mean, merely adaptation to change. But that doesn’t alter the point I don’t think.

  5. Yvonne says

    @Eric: Sure go ahead and put the argument to rest. You have a point there re claims to special status. But let’s not put the music to rest.

    Art forms and styles vary and different things age in different ways. When I listen to old pop music (especially from my lifetime) it’s more likely to seem “pickled corpse”-like to me than any performance of a classical work. (That may be to do with the contrasts between recordings, which fix in time, versus live performances, which introduce freshness and the potential for new interpretation, but it’s still the impression I come away with.)

    Anyway, drawing on your analogy: Haydn is alive in the music written since his time; so is Rachmaninoff – there aren’t too many composers whose music didn’t contribute in some way to the “evolution” of music.

    This is surely one situation where all of us get different mileage. To me, some of the great pop recordings — from Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” to (especially) Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” to “Graceland” and Nirvana and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring” — sound as fresh now as they did when they were new. And that’s also true of great classical performances — Callas in Anna Bolena, let’s say, or the amazing Nozze di Figaro overture from the live Metropolitan Opera performance in 1940 (the most drop-dead theatrical performance of that music I’ve ever encountered).

    But many composers, I’d think, didn’t contribute very much to music’s evolution, and that’s important to remember when we compare pop and classical music. How much influence does anyone think Spohr or Vanhall had on the music that came after them? It’s very likely unfair to compare, as some people will, a classical masterwork with the latest pop tune on the radio, if only because the masterwork has proved itself over centuries, and we have no idea how the pop song will look down the road. (The comparison actually is pointless, because the only thing that really matters — because it’s the only thing we can truly know anything about — is the pleasure, on whatever level, the two things give us now. But for many people the classical piece, in a pop/classical comparison, will always have the advantage, if it’s a well-known masterpiece, because our minds bestow the status of a masterwork on it, and we can’t get rid of that aura when we hear the piece. The poor pop song has no such advantage. Unless, maybe, it’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” which certainly has the aura of a classic for me.

  6. says

    Hi Greg,

    I believe you’re a fan of this show (I’ve actually never seen it), but how about how “Battlestar Galactica” was the subject of a panel at the UN:

    Very good point, Chris. And yes, I’m a fan. Haven’t liked the last season all that much, and I thought the much-touted finale was for the most part pretty bad — well meaning, in its cosmic philosophical scope, but eye-rolling (at least for me) in how obvious much of what happened was, and how trite some of the dialogue seemed.

    But serious issues were in fact raised — more than get raised in an entire season of NY Philharmonic concerts, let’s say, or an entire season of Metropolitan Opera performances — so the show definitely does serious things that classical music doesn’t come near. The UN’s interest demonstrates that.

    Battlestar Galactica also has a terrific score (though less good recently than it was in the past; Bear McCreary, the composer, is doing much better work now for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). In one early episode, opera played on a stereo during a dinner Commander (later Admiral) Adama hosted, and McCreary had some sly fun creating faux opera arias, complete with Italian text about the Cylons.

  7. says

    Sony’s PlayStation 3 already only does everything, so what more could you possibly need? Australians can find out for themselves with the Ultimate Blu-ray Movie Kit. Don’t let the name fool you, it’s really just the PS3 remote and two discs, but at $60 AUD (that’s $51 for US), it’s only one Banjo Paterson / $10 AUD more than what the remote retails on its lonesome. Both bundles include 300 as the first film, so you’re really choosing between 10,000 B.C. and Batman Begins. Not exactly a tough decision unless you already own Batman, but then again, you still might opt for a second copy instead.