Exploring the limits in art, writing, and science

In the poorly-titled but otherwise interesting essay “The Disquiet of Ziggy Zeitgeist: Unsettled by the sense that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper,” Henry Allen says that “For the first time in my 72 years, I have no idea what’s going on,” because a lot of culture has splintered, for lack of a better term, and as a result “I don’t know what’s going on. I doubt that anyone does.”

That sense is a result of reaching boundaries or borders in many if not most artistic fields. In music, for example, John Cage famously “recorded” a track that is entirely silent. Composers have created songs or symphonies or whatever that seem indistinguishable from noise. Popular music’s last major style shift was the early 90s, with rap and grunge; since then, we’ve mostly heard dance-disco-hip-hop variations.

In the fine arts, the avant-garde is probably dead, as Camille Paglia has argued in various places for, what is perhaps not surprisingly, twenty years. What people call concept art or non-art or art from life appears indistinguishable from noise or pranks. Or, as Allen says, “Now I go to New York and look at a work of art in Chelsea and say: ‘Oh, that’s one of those.’ (Dripping, elephant dung, monochrome, squalor, scribbling.)”

Literature in some ways “got there” first, with Joyce (Finnegans Wake) and Beckett (whose novels are the whole of boredom) about which I wrote more in “Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction.” If you’re trying to write a novel that truly pushes the boundaries of the novel, you’re going to have a very hard time doing so while being comprehensible to readers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASex mores have fallen too: this weekend I’ve been reading Katherine Frank’s book Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, she describes gang bangs involving hundreds of participants, along with BDSM and assorted other sex adventures. Most people in developed countries have nothing between them and that, provided they want it. As a side note, she describes swingers who were featured on a TV show called Swing, and the swingers talked to the show’s crew, who said in this rendition that “We don’t know how you’ve done it but most people would kill to have this life.” But you don’t have to kill for that life: you only have to love for it, and most people probably could have it, or a version of it, if they want it. No murder necessary!

Porn has also reached limits or gotten asymptotically. The market has devolved from the monolithic Playboy to innumerable small, online outlets, some commercial and some not, and porn faces the same availability issues that any information does: perpetual availability. Although I’m not an expert, porn videos or pictures from, say, 2005 are still being passed around and viewed in 2013 and may continue to be in 2023. There is already more out there than a single person can digest and the amount is growing over time. Curating, searching, and sorting become the problem amid what is effectively infinite. If you want it, you can probably already find it, and if you don’t like what you find, you can probably make it for a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars.

Video games are an intriguing exception to the trends described above. They’re a young medium, since they’ve only been popular in the last 30 to 40 years and have consequently seen a tremendous explosion in sophistication: compare Pong to a modern game versus a novel published in 1980 to a novel published in 2012. Video games also piggyback on growing computational capabilities. Video games, like the Internet, are still in relative infancy, and they appear to be very far from technical or comprehensibility limits.

I’m not saying that art or artists or culture is dead, but I am saying that the boundaries of comprehensibility have been reached in many fields. If I were more of a blowhard I would also pontificate about the role of the Internet in this—Allen picks 1993 by coincidence, perhaps, but 1993 was also just before the Internet reached the masses in the developed world. Within the next decade or two more than half of the people on the planet will probably get access, and that may further splinter culture. Already it’s possible for people with weird, niche interests to easily explore those interests, like Borgen, in the absence of social feedback.

Some fields, like math, appear inexhaustible. Others, like delivering things people want (which goes by the otherwise dull name “business”) appear if not inexhaustible then nearly so, since material desires keep expanding with GDP. I also doubt that art per se will ever be exhausted; the limits of comprehensibility don’t mean people will stop making art, only that we have to find ways to make it meaningful without being able to push constantly against a conservative establishment, which has been the animating force since Romanticism and now makes little sense.

3 responses

  1. I’ve just started a course on modernism and post-modernism which basically was the emergence of the printing press and the education of the masses. Ironically (or not unexpectedly?) this course is a MOOC delivered to thousands of people. It strikes me, that having now wholly bonded to technology across generations and cultures, we find ourselves in – as you say and as Henry Allen describe – a similar world which is spinning strangely under our feet and we have to find new ways of connecting and identifying with a massive shift in our cultural references. It’s really a fascinating time.

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  2. This is an interesting post and interesting essay on which it is based. So, is this really the decline of Western civilization and has America become a latter day Roman Empire, jaded by bread (SNAP), circuses (NFL and NASCAR) and gang bangs (no analogue needed, nothing changes with this one).

    Perhaps, but I’m fairly certain that there are young artists, writers, technologists and categories we cannot imagine out there, who will shake us out of our complacency. Around 1977 or so, I was mostly listening to what were then called “arena bands,” like Boston and ELO. From seemingly nowhere, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and so on arrived and within a year or two I was transported musically from the Forum seeing giant production to small clubs in Hollywood with unknown groups that could barely play, but had ferocious intent. Of course, the whole punk/new wave LA scene ended rather badly (see Penelpe Spheeris’s very troubling film, “The Decline of Western Civilization”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Decline_of_Western_Civilization). But, I’m ready for the next Darby Crash or Steve Jobs.

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