Culture is a middle-class phenomenon. As David Stove pointed out, you could cull out all the aristocrats and all the proles from any human field, and lose virtually nothing. Middle class men are anxious about climbing up the social ladder, and terrified of sliding down it. This tension — call it anxiety, “alienation,” what have you — is culture’s wellspring.
Or, at least, it used to be. We’ve debated here whether there’s anything good at all in Modern “art,” or if there are any truly great American artists, but whichever way you fall on those questions, it’s obvious that modern culture in general, and Americanized culture in particular, is a vast desert compared to even the recent past. Even if we stipulate that The Godfather is the Hamlet of its age, it took an entire studio of people to produce what one guy did back in the 17th century. Proportionally it’s even worse — granting the widest possible latitude to “art,” such that Citizen Kane is the 20th century’s Doctor Faustus — we’re still way behind. Shakespeare and Marlowe were near contemporaries in a population of a few million. Modern America has over 350 million, and we’ve got one Orson Welles… and he died in 1985.
The only creative endeavor in which America stacks up is technology. Again using the broadest possible definition of “culture,” we could argue that America’s Renaissance was roughly the period from the 2nd Industrial Revolution through the Internet Age. Our achievements were staggering… but those, too, have ended. What’s the last truly new technology? Even the Internet, you’ll recall, had its roots in the 1960s. Some of the tweaks are impressive indeed, but they are just tweaks – I’d argue that technical innovation peaked right around the time of the moon landing.
Which, not coincidentally, is right around the time Western culture went into permanent caloric surplus. Betcha didn’t see that coming!!
Prior to about 1960, the entire social spectrum faced the same basic fears. Medieval kings wouldn’t starve to death like their peasants might after a bad harvest, but disease — always humankind’s main killer — took high and low indiscriminately. Moreover, though the aristocracy might not starve, they probably faced an equivalent mortality risk in battle. Pestilence, war, famine — there was no real defense from any of them…. until modern times.
That tension, I argue, is the real wellspring of culture. Only someone tragically aware of his, and everyone else’s, mortality could produce a Sistine Chapel, a Hamlet, a Requiem in D Minor. All culture is a more or less disguised memento mori. Back in the days, death was always just around the corner… and you were reminded of it every time your stomach rumbled.
Our world has flipped that on its head. Before about 1960, even in America, people went to bed hungry involuntarily. Infant mortality is an almost inconceivable tragedy now; it was just a fact of life back then. Modern medicine’s miracles are so recent, in fact, that my grandparents’ generation steadfastly refused to go to the hospital, since that’s where people went to die. (I’m no spring chicken, but I’m hardly ancient).
The Baby Boomers are the way they are, I’d argue, because their experience really was unique. Or, rather, their lack of experience — while every adult they knew, knew someone who’d died of something like scarlet fever, the worst the Boomers had to endure was chicken pox. Is it any wonder that The Wonder Years was the best they could do?
It’s a testable hypothesis. Take China, for instance. The Mao generations came up rough, but Mao died in 1976. Things were still rough out in the provinces into the 1980s — naturally rough, I mean, not communism’s artificial suffering — but the generations born around 1990 should, on my hypothesis, be hitting total caloric overload. How’s Chinese culture doing these days? Are they innovating, or just tweaking stuff Diane Feinstein’s chauffeur stole for them? How about Japan? They were going gangbusters into the 1990s… right up to the point when even the worst aftereffects of WWII and the Occupation started fading away. What have they done lately, other than stuff used panties into vending machines?
Humans are hardwired for belief in the transcendent. We strive for immortality, because we know we’re going to die. Ruthlessly suppress that knowledge — say, by stuffing your gullet with gallons of corn syrup — and you suppress the striving.. which is the only thing that makes culture go.Loading Likes...