Suddenly, there’s an epidemic of demise essays. They’re everywhere and I am binge-inhaling them. You know the species – an expert (whatever that is anymore) steps up to the podium and delivers a laundry list of troubling portents, each pointing to the death of a beloved form of expression. The novel has been discussed this way for decades, with good reason. Jazz, too – one prominent practitioner recently concluded, after much thought and discussion with elders, that his chosen mode actually died in 1959. It’s been on cultural life support ever since.
Lately it’s been film. Last week in the New York Times, critic A.O. Scott sounded the alarm with a perceptive rant about the general decline in quality of onscreen storytelling. Along the way, he referenced related observations by New Yorker critic Anthony Lane and critic emeritus Roger Ebert, whose The Sudden Death of Film is a symphonic opus of handwringing from one whose disposition is usually cheery. There’s a tendency among critics, whose discipline is in an alarming freefall of its own (get ready for a raft of “Death of Criticism” essays), to look around and mourn the state of things. Maybe this goes with the territory – we spend our days absorbing the latest works, with very little chance to have a perspective-providing encounter with a certifiable classic.
When we do, we become like the GPS lady after a wrong turn: Recalculating! This happens all the time, in part because critics are human and also because the context for art is constantly changing: When compared with every contemporaneous new hiphop release, that tiresomely overhyped collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West was certainly impressive. But put it next to Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and the story is somewhat different. It’s become almost a given in this age: Even if a new release like Watch the Throne seems powerful and invincible upon arrival, it doesn’t take long before the luster wears off, the songs are exposed as thin windbag gruel, and the emperor is seen scurrying for undergarments. A little context can be a dangerous thing.
The timing of demise-speak is interesting. While these well-documented declines seem to be independent, they are progressing along similar routes, if not running in parallel. Many essays about film glance at the dismaying and unrelenting dimness of current pop music and shudder: Look what can happen when the chokehold of top-down distribution is broken! Film is surely next! The questions start with “What happens when anyone can pirate a feature film?” and usually quickly run to “What is the impact on creativity when pirating is common practice?” Add up all the specific woes in specific realms, and what you have is a lamentation chorale in the key of quiet panic, a collective alert about the relative health of creativity. And, by extension, civilization.
The essays usually touch on the impact of technology, how the tools that enable people to create stuff rapidly and easily are also responsible for changing – often, cheapening — the final cut and how an audience experiences it. Some demise essays have noted the role of polling and “creation by committee” as happens at the large studios; it’s clear this is an age where the artist’s iconoclastic vision is subordinate to the concerns of those in charge of managing the big bankroll. The tragedy of that type of decision-making is evident in just about every would-be blockbuster: Cue up another explosion, Gretchen, we might have a few interminable seconds of quiet in there.
Group-think, that perpetual enemy of art, has taken root in the entertainment industry to a scarifying degree; it surely is a factor in all this death talk. For one example, just tally up the times the Broadway Spiderman has been through the dance of rewrite and revision and focus-group “testing.” The process may yet yield “acceptable” (read: financially successful) show, but for those who grew up respecting the singular vision of U2, it represents the sad incremental suffocating of idealism, a regrettable moment when once-fierce heroes capitulate to marketplace demands. Somebody’s probably already working on a master’s thesis about this highly visible implosion, and what it says about the creative process when the stakes get high and the deep pocket types get nervous.
What is striking about these mourning exercises is the way they focus on the state of the art and to some degree ignore the state of the audience. If we are witnessing the death of film, it is in part because we are living in age of flamboyant and widely accepted inattention, a time when every daily interaction is threatened by competing signals. If audiences are no longer inclined to follow an extemporaneous narrative created by a jazz musician over ten gingerly carved choruses of a tune, it’s partly because that requires some mental engagement, a mind that can stick with a single thought and not dart from one microburst status update to another. The malady known as Too Much Information has implication for all manner of discourse, the arts included.
The critics’ concern about how digital tools are changing the forms is, in some way, misplaced: Why bother worrying about the general health of an art form when members of its intended audience show up indifferent and harried, too stressed to bring any meaningful energy to a work? It’s a “Here we are now, entertain us” world. It’s a “I don’t have all day to wade through exposition, I want action!” world. Anymore, the expectation is that said entertainment will deliver thrills in short order and at regular intervals. Watch a few recent Hollywood movies on fast forward, and patterns begin to emerge: Though circumstances are different, the crucial moments of action seem to arrive according to a schedule. The same formula, in miniature, prevails within the architecture of Lady Gaga songs, too.
Then there’s the technology-fueled arrogance of the audience. A man toting a smartphone into a theater is a powerful individual, with command of infinite resources and the expectation that he can get anything he wants or needs with just a few clicks. This person has been trained by his technology that his choices reign supreme – his device stores his Favorites, his Playlists, and those, he is told endlessly, are the only art that matters. The device puts him in touch with more creative works than the mind can fathom, but it also can put him farther away from the state of receptivity – and, crucially, the patience – that’s sometimes necessary when encountering something new. The delightful smart little box is a portal to all kinds of worlds, each of them requiring some level of agency on the part of the user; anymore, people who live inside that lifeline may not be inclined or mentally equipped to suspend their own endlessly chattering narratives in order to follow someone else’s as expressed in art. It’s no accident that most people don’t listen to entire albums anymore: We’re seeking choice moments, not a more complete picture of an artist’s vision. Life is a process of culling the ultimate greatest-hits collection now: The folks cuing up for an encounter with a musician or a filmmaker are, to an alarming degree, not willing to grant the artist time enough to create a world or make a case. This may sound harsh, but it comes up constantly in conversations with artists: The relentless flow of “pushed” information, from texts and updates to shopping offers, has compromised what might be called the fullness of attention. Artists worry, with good reason, about the indifference of the distracted end-user, about the challenge of captivating the over-stimulated masses. They begin a project knowing that even the most spectacular special-effects scene might not be enough to pierce the blasé armor. Joe Smartphone User may have sophisticated tastes, but he’s also increasingly living explosion to ear-rattling explosion, numb to subplot and subtlety, disinclined to follow a story’s slowly winding path. Possibly unable to focus on any expression that lasts more than six minutes.
That’s not the fault of any artform. It would be the case whether said form was thriving or deeply enmeshed in the death spiral many have been ranting about. The problem right now seems to me to be less about the health of individual disciplines, and more about the health of the audience. That’s because the implicit pact at the root of all arts – the creator offers up what he knows to the best of his ability, and in so doing, expects the chance to earn a modicum of sustained attention – has been shattered, replaced by a zillion little blips, attention hogs all, claiming precious brain nanoseconds in an undifferentiated stream of endless updates. If the creativity on offer in any particular form amounts to a fractured mess devoid of uplift or even the skeleton of a coherent narrative, maybe that’s because art is doing what it always does: Imitating life itself.