Last week he penned a piece for Michelle Goldberg that baffled me New York Times op-ed page on the crisis of modern taste.
Goldberg is here to tell you that the culture isn’t good right now. He quotes literary critic Christian Lorentzen: “Hollywood movies are boring. TV is boring. Pop music is boring. The art world is boring. Broadway is boring. The books of big publishing houses are boring.” Goldberg “can’t think of any new novel or film that has sparked passionate debate.” Arguments about art have become “outdated and repetitive.”
As a criticism, Goldberg’s essay is not as eye-opening as, say, David Brooks’s famous writer. noodles on the decline of taste. But his entry into the Culture Crisis genre lacks anything like Brooks’s sense of purpose. Fast and winding.
At one point, Goldberg offers this as proof of his thesis: “When I go to coffee shops where young people hang out, the music is either the music I listened to when I was young, or music that sounds like it. .” It’s like a parody of cultural criticism. (“They play Adele when I get my Starbucks in the morning – really, youth culture is dead!”)
But what bothers me about Goldberg’s essay isn’t his style or superficiality, or the fact that he seems to change what “culture” he’s talking about throughout the essay. there is Bringing up the Square of Dimes. Diagnosing pressures on modern culture is irritatingly wrong.
What is the fault of our “cultural stagnation”? Why isn’t “more interesting indie stuff brewing?” Let’s see what Goldberg has to say.
The title of Goldberg’s work is “A Book Explaining Our Cultural Stagnation”. It becomes a gloss on the forthcoming work of W. David Marks Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rating Shapes Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Perpetual Change-“A book that is not at all boring and subtly changes my view of the world.”
I don’t know if this book itself is richer than he thought. “Marx presents cultural evolution as a kind of perpetual motion machine driven by the desire of people to move up the social hierarchy,” writes Goldberg. The idea that there is social cache in accepting the new, different, and experimental doesn’t seem like a very new thesis to me.
So what has changed in the relationship between cultural innovation and the desire to acquire one’s own wealth that “may explain our cultural stagnation”? Here’s what Goldberg had to say:
Marx writes in the final part of his book that the Internet is changing this dynamic. With so much content, the chances of others recognizing the meaning of any obscure cultural signal are reduced. Difficult art is losing its prestige. Moreover, in the age of the Internet, taste tells less about a person. You don’t need to make your way into any social world to make an acquaintance [John] Cage – or underground hip-hop, with weird performance art or rare sneakers.
This is a true #TheTimesIsOnIt theory. Gosh, people have been debating whether or not the internet has made their taste shallow for a long time. I wrote my own book, which includes essays on taste, social media, and appropriation, so the space given to this analysis probably worries me more than most. But I really don’t think Goldberg knows what he’s talking about.
In the age of the Internet, the idea that you don’t need to enter any social world to access culture is simply not true. I mean, you can very easily skim the surface of culture to boost your mood. But scholars have long studied how people enact their identities online: the openness of internet culture removes some barriers, but also leads users to create new kinds of esoteric cultural norms, inside jokes, and subcultural languages—try reading any forum about NFTs. without searching for the term. (As Paul Hodkinson argued long ago in his research on chat room culture, the relative openness of the Internet also explains the vitriol of online cultural discourse: when anyone can enter the conversation, it becomes more important to turn on newcomers.)
There are so many articles about this dynamic of internet subculture that are more informative than what we can get from this article, from Caroline Busta to Josh Citarella’s work on niches about creators navigating the “clear web” and “dark forest.” Political personalities on social media to Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism and an argument for the role online cultural spaces play as a “clubhouse for community” for queer and trans people.
There are even ways that breaking down cultural barriers online actually enhances the remaining signs of being part of a particular scene or club. “It makes more sense for Parvenu to fake a private jet than to fake an interest in modern art,” Goldberg concludes his thesis. But the archetypal parvenu, fake heiress Anna Delvey, actually did presents his interest in contemporary art through his Instagram as part of his attempt to “climb up the social hierarchy”. An art-themed members-only club was his whole gambit.
The Grind Hypothesis
Don’t get me wrong, modern mainstream culture does I feel really bad – emaciated, exhausted, addicted to money and popularity. But Goldberg’s “internet because bad things” argument fails for any of the actually important reasons that can be discussed.
Here’s an example: Does mainstream culture seem to favor comfortingly familiar tropes and is built for superficial, distracted consumption? Well, “serious” culture is generally difficult; It requires a level of focus and investment to reap its rewards. Aesthetic pleasure actually implies a certain measure of leisure. So today’s burnout epidemic and overwork culture probably isn’t helping to build an audience for a “serious” culture. Art critic Philip Kennicott argued a few years ago that the best program to support the arts would be for people to work less.
Do you Do you find it easy to read a Toni Morrison novel after working through 5 to 9 (the title of Dolly Parton’s recent, sleazy update to 9 to 5 for modern requirements)? I don’t.
Obviously, the internet isn’t innocent – although “the internet” isn’t really something you can talk about. The commercial internet, in particular, has a disincentive structure that is inhospitable to the sustained “passionate debate” about Real Culture that Goldberg aspires to: niche cultures have smaller audiences and criticism requires effort; Commercial online media tends to write about the most popular culture in the least invested way.
This is not just a Big Media problem. Independent YouTube video essayists complain about how the algorithm penalizes them for not riding the latest trend or craze. When Sarah Urish Green left the popular YouTube channel Art Assignment in 2020, she noted that what she learned from making art videos was that, disappointingly, viewers mostly clicked on famous artists or controversies.
“And the thing is,” he added, “I’m tired. This burnout, which reaches everyone on YouTube, also affected me.”
Most publications are somewhere in the middle, and these commercial incentives are trying to slowly starve the cultural brain of oxygen. The cultural hot economy that Goldberg finds “stale and repetitive” is a product of these economic realities—obviously. (Another slippage in Goldberg’s argument is between artistic production and “arguments about art”..” There may be “interesting indie stuff” being made, but if you’re not actively invested in these scenes and only follow the mainstream conversation, then you’re mostly exposed to the most ephemeral, trend-themed stuff.)
In the last issue of the series New York Times In his PopCast, which focuses on the underbelly of hip-hop journalism, writer Jerry Barrow of HipHopDX explained the realities of his field. He recalled an oral history of the hip-hop group Camp Lo’s debut album, Upper Saturday Night. He says it was a piece of cloth
something I’m very proud of – something I’m very proud of – something that puts in the time, talks to the kids, digs deep. And with that difficulty, the traffic made a blip wise, I’m not even going to lie to you. But if any of these guys were crazy, if we got called out for something and we reported it, it would go through the roof. And this is our daily battle as content creators because I need to get enough traffic to bring in enough revenue to pay for everything else…
Sharath, owner of HipHopDX [Cherian]- very smart and methodical when it comes to their budgets. More than anything else, everything must be justified. But he’s been in the game for 20 years, so he knows what he’s doing. He knows what keeps the site alive. Looking back, I’ve noticed that there were times when HipHopDX was doing more in-depth, long-form pieces. He told me, “Jerry, I can’t justify paying this writer $800 for this piece and it’s not getting me any traffic. Although this is a great, well-written deep dive, this little post from TMZ will get me four times the traffic and four times the money. How can I justify paying that?”
And that’s the reality… It’s painful. It hurts and hurts me and I try to carve out what I can….
That pretty much sums it up. Finally, I am deeply troubled by Goldberg’s article.
Because if you work in any field of cultural writing, you know how much this depressing economic dynamic, which feels like a constant, low-level crisis, affects everything. You probably feel these pressures intimately as you try to do meaningful work while keeping your good humor and a piece of your soul intact.
And then… here comes this New York Times writer, at the top of the establishment media, he talks aimlessly about how no one talks about good art anymore, without even acknowledging that dynamic.
And it’s terrible. because I know Goldberg knows this. I know that these pressures penetrate as high as the Paper of Records.
Is this article, after all, a clear example of the “low and tiresome” level of cultural discourse that it criticizes? What’s the best explanation for why, but Michelle Goldberg has to respond to clicks. Time readers every week – if he doesn’t even have time to figure out what he’s supposed to say?
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