For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.
The preceding text acts as forward to this month’s Vanity Fair article by Kurt Andersen, entitled, “You Say You Want a Devolution?” In his article, Mr. Andersen … Sorry, but before we go any further, imagine Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) from “The Matrix” saying that, “Mr. Andersen”. In his article, Andersen argues that the cultural revolution that defined the 20th century, the American Century, has like a needle on a record player, hit a scratch and continues to replay the last two decades, over and over again.
Imagine a time traveling hipster, fashionably dressed, up on all of the latest trends. Traveling back to the turn of the century, no, the last one, our hipster then skips forward in time, by twenty year leaps and bounds to the present. Every jump requires a visit to wardrobe first; else our hipster would lose his cool. Every jump save the last, the jump to the present. With just a little freshening up our hipster would be good to go from 1992 to 2012.
Andersen offers many examples for his argument. Isn’t Lady Gaga just Madonna redux? Why these days are so many movies remakes? When did they ever start remaking TV shows, like Hawaii Five-O? An Aeron chair is still an Aeron chair, especially in true black. Aren’t blue jeans, t-shirts and flannel shirts still sold at the Gap?
Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” is still a good read, but then so is “Moby Dick”. Cultural fads come and go and often repeat, but true art always endures. The afore mentioned “The Matrix” was a recent cultural event, not a great one but still significant. It was predicated upon technology, it revisited past themes, but it was also rather novel in its way. It was not great art, but still it was new art.
Andersen in his article discounts the revolution in computer technology: the personal computer, the Internet, the iPhone. Those are all just changes in the delivery system, not a change in content. He also ignores advances in science, like parsing the genome. I find this to be the fundamental flaw in his argument. You just can’t gloss over the most basic changes in a society and expect to offer a cogent criticism.
I recently watched Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, on Netflix online I might add. Forty years ago, I would have gladly trooped down to the local art house cinema to watch this movie. Twenty years ago, I would have rented this movie on VHS from Blockbuster. I am older and wiser now, well mainly older. I know that Netflix is only an improvement in the delivery system, per Andersen, but I especially love Herzog’s quote of Pablo Picasso after he viewed similar Neolithic cave paintings, “We have learned nothing.”
The Boomers are at fault. They are the moms and the dads, so let’s blame them. Their demographic dictatorship has held the cultural conversation captive past their allotted 15 minutes of fame. These arguments are at the crux of Andersen’s article. I don’t know if this is a symptom of a reverse Oedipus complex, or just self loathing, but I suspect the later.
I say that if subsequent generations are complaining that we, the Boomers, are smothering them, then we’re just not holding the pillow tight enough. Andersen’s essay though very well written is a bit like the arsonist’s fire bomb, once thrown, it tends to light up the conversation. This was probably his intention all along, to write an article that inflames passions and stirs things up, to do as Neo was told to do, “Be the spoon.”