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.