Issue 04
Words by

This is what peak culture looks like

20th May 2021
16 Mins

Is the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe a sign of art in decline? It’s common for people to assert that film, art, music and literature are getting worse. This is why they’re wrong. 

If someone refused to use Google Maps and preferred to rely on a vellum chart from the 1400s, we would think they were very strange. If a bank communicated with its branches via telegraph, who would deposit money with them? If an army used guns from 1650 in a modern battle, they would meet certain death. And yet, it is commonplace to allege that not only is the art and media we produce no better than that of the near or far past, but that it is actually worse. These arguments are false. In fact, the mechanisms that drive progress in technology and science also drive progress in art – in closely analogous ways.

Here’s a simple way of thinking about whether the products of some field have been getting better or worse. Can we copy what was created in the past using no more labor and aggravation than it took previously? There are some examples where we cannot. In much of the West, especially the United States, it is costlier to build infrastructure than it was fifty years ago. Elsewhere, scientists still don’t know exactly how Roman concrete works, and Roman concrete seems better than the concrete we are currently using (note: I did not refer to this as a “concrete example”). But for most things, we can perform a metaphorical copy and paste. Nonetheless, it’s considered boorish to point out that we can take any great famous painting, copy it, print it, and frame it, such that not actually owning the original won’t ever be relevant for the owner of the copy. Though boorish, it’s also literally true. If you want to copy and paste the great works of human history into your living room, you can generally do it for almost free, or for the monetary equivalent of a few hours of a typical worker’s time.

How do we know this means that the modern world is better? Because people don’t just copy and paste. All of these incredible works of the past are just sitting there waiting for you to enjoy them (with 80% or more of the impact of experiencing the original in real life) on YouTube, your local library, or Google Images. Instead, we choose to experience other things. Economists have a phrase for this: revealed preference. Our revealed preferences mean something, and it ought to be a baseline assumption, if nothing else, that if we are making the choice for one thing over another it’s because it’s better for us. To recapitulate: in a given field of art or practice, if we can replicate a near approximation of a historical masterwork at a cost no higher than it was in the past, and we’re doing something else, that something else is probably better than the supposed historical masterwork.

Experts do not agree with this analysis. Imagine we wrote a list of every major cultural field (e.g. literature, film, architecture, fine art, etc.) and asked the experts in that field whether it was getting better. Despite the fact that people in general tend to consume newer, rather than older cultural products in all of those fields, in only one field is there a consensus of improvement – television. Meanwhile, we see a wide range of figures who are pessimistic about progress, from contemporary cultural reactionaries like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, from cultural commentators of the last generation like E.D. Hirsch, from progress denialism on the left in anthropologist Jason Hickel, or from Hollywood romantics like Peter Biskind. Even video games, where improvement is most dramatic in technical terms, has many experts who profess to prefer the games of the past.

But this near universality of cultural pessimism should make us give any individual claim of pessimism less credence, not more. It seems cultural pessimism is a constant going back in time. In academia, variations of the same proclamation of the failure of the university to fulfill its mission for cultural reasons can be found in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in 2018, The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom in 1987, and God and Man at Yale by William F. Buckley in 1951. In The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James includes a running series called “Old Ballplayers Never Die” where he includes quotes from former players complaining that the quality of play was better during the player’s day going back decades and decades. If you wish to zero in on the early years of the twentieth century as the golden age of baseball, consider that later research has shown that the ultimate baseball nostalgia book for that period, The Glory of their Times, is littered with half-truths and outright fabrications. If we did take each and every claim that culture was better in the earlier period as being transitively true, eventually we would conclude culture was the best back when the average person couldn’t even afford to own very many books to read when he or she went to make use of the hole in the outhouse!

To a certain extent, this is a result of how nostalgia influences our perception of quality. I was in middle school when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was published, so my skewed perception is that it is a uniquely good video game. Years later, it felt like a switch flipped on when I turned thirty and I no longer had interest in any of the new music played on my preferred radio station. But neither of these sentiments reflect underlying reality. I expect that pretty soon I will be yelling at clouds and telling kids to get off my lawn. Some research supports the idea that there is a nostalgia-age nexus, whereby you are locked in to preferring what you experienced at a particular age. And with the cultural dominance of Baby Boomers in place, the received view remains that by some bizarre “coincidence,” what the Boomers experienced at the relevant times in their lives is what all future generations have been forced to experience since then: Christmas music from when the Boomers were children; pop music from when the Boomers were teenagers or in their twenties now deemed to be “classic” rock; and the artsy or edgy movies from when the Boomers were in their twenties and thirties supposedly the best artistic era for Hollywood. This does not actually reflect reality either, of course; our expectation should be that the best Christmas music, pop music, and movies all appeared relatively recently, because that is what progress means.

But the issue isn’t just Boomer nostalgia – it’s also the vested interest of experts expressing cultural pessimism. They are the ones who have invested their time and energy learning the history of the field. It would be awfully inconvenient for them if this knowledge were largely irrelevant to knowing what is worth experiencing. So we get claims like Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made, today’s musicians are nothing compared to The Beatles, or the only real education uses a Great Books curriculum.

If the film buff is actually pressed as to why Citizen Kane is better than today’s films, one response may be the innovative techniques Orson Welles created in getting the shots he precisely wanted, like ripping up floor boards to achieve the low angle a scene required. Yet these techniques weren’t somehow forgotten with Welles. Modern directors can and do use this and all the other techniques discovered since then. Welles may be more praiseworthy historically speaking, in the sense that he was innovative and influential, but that praiseworthiness does not translate into enjoyment of the experience – excepting if you wish to mentally note the small bit of trivia that Welles did it first while watching the movie. Maybe this is important to students of film. For most people, it just isn’t why they watch movies. Watch The Aviator instead, or maybe Ford v Ferrari.

That there is substantive improvement to our cultural products may be less obvious where the importance of technology is less salient. Perhaps film as a medium took its time to mature over the course of the twentieth century, but literature already had thousands of years to do so. How to compare literature today with literature of the past is opaque, and those who do will often use it as an opportunity to jeer at postmodernism or Harry Potter. The comparison I will suggest is of prose. Which of these two passages is easier to consume?

“The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
The effects of the division of labour, in the general business of society, will be more easily understood, by considering in what manner it operates in some particular manufactures. It is commonly supposed to be carried furthest in some very trifling ones; not perhaps that it really is carried further in them than in others of more importance: but in those trifling manufactures which are destined to supply the small wants of but a small number of people, the whole number of workmen must necessarily be small; and those employed in every different branch of the work can often be collected into the same workhouse, and placed at once under the view of the spectator. In those great manufactures, on the contrary, which are destined to supply the great wants of the great body of the people, every different branch of the work employs so great a number of workmen, that it is impossible to collect them all into the same workhouse. We can seldom see more, at one time, than those employed in one single branch. Though in such manufactures, therefore, the work may really be divided into a much greater number of parts, than in those of a more trifling nature, the division is not near so obvious, and has accordingly been much less observed.”

“In September of 1983, an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC. It was what is known as a kouros – a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. There are only about two hundred kouri in existence, and most have been recovered badly damaged or in fragments from gravesites or archeological digs. But this one was almost perfectly preserved. It stood close to seven feet tall. It had a kind of light-colored glow that set it apart from other ancient works. It was an extraordinary find. Becchina’s asking price was just under $10 million.

The Getty moved cautiously. It took the kouros on loan and began a thorough investigation. Was the statue consistent with other known kouroi? The answer appeared to be yes. The style of the sculpture seemed reminiscent of the Anavyssos kouros in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, meaning that it seemed to fit with a particular time and place. Where and when had the statue been found? No one knew precisely, but Becchina gave the Getty’s legal department a sheaf of documents relating to its more recent history. The kouros, the records stated, had been in the private collection of a Swiss physician named Lauffenberger since the 1930s, and he in turn had acquired it from a well-known Greek art dealer named Roussos.”

The first passage is the first two paragraphs of the main text of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The second is the first two paragraphs of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. No one is claiming that Blink is a sounder or more historically important than The Wealth of Nations. But reading Gladwell’s prose is like cutting through butter, while reading Smith is painful.

There certainly are old works of nonfiction that are easier to read than Smith. And there are also margins where Gladwell’s prose is lacking where something from an earlier period is refined. But on the margins of clarity of communication and ease with which words enter your mind, I don’t think there is a single example of from, say, more than a hundred years ago, that matches Gladwell. And communicating clearly and making it easy on your reader are pretty high up there in what good writing is trying to accomplish. If someone had been able to write as effectively as Gladwell now does a hundred years ago, they would have done it. They didn’t.

This is another way of saying that technology in the field of prose has drastically increased over the last hundred years. And it is not just the way we write sentences that has improved. The way we structure storylines and plots has too. In “The Slaughterhouse of Literature” Franco Moretti shows how relatively unexciting early 19th century detective novels were compared to Gone Girl. Indeed, detective novels showed a straightforward linear technological improvement, where new inventions, such as clues, red herrings, clues the reader could link to the outcome, and guessable outcomes, all rewarded their writers with more readers, and a place in history. We could reasonably extend this work via Golden Age detective fiction, hardboiled novels, and pulp to the pop thrillers of our own day, tracking the innovations that made them exciting and popular. Similarly, in his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson demonstrates via diagram how the plots of television programs have become increasingly elaborate from Dragnet to The Sopranos.

We have a general purpose tool for expressing how effective we are at producing goods. It’s called Real GDP per capita. COVID-19 has severely disrupted the most recent data, but 2019 saw the highest level in its entire history for just under half (100 out of 206) of all countries. Just under a quarter (50 out of 206) of all countries saw it happen at some point in the years from 2010-2018. Of the thirty countries where peak RGDP per capita occurred prior to the Millennium, they are almost uniformly either countries who were able to take advantage of the high oil prices of the 1970s, or are countries in Sub-Saharan Africa which have suffered from political instability and poor governance since then. In terms of economic productivity, the golden age is now.

It isn’t just GDP per capita improving. You can find quantitative measures that have deteriorated for humanity over the course of say, the last fifty years, but you sort of need to try to find them. Pessimists on the left can point to CO2 in the atmosphere. Pessimists on the right might suggest religious attendance. But skim through the treasure troves of data collected by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now or Hans Rosling in Factfulness, or take a look at Eventually you must begin arguing that there is a vast conspiracy making it so only that which is improving is quantitatively tractable, while a secret society manipulates the universe so that we cannot quantify all the things getting worse. Or maybe things are just getting better, and we should extend that intuition to culture.

According to economic historian Joel Mokyr, much of what drove the industrial revolution was ending the attitude in the natural sciences that all that is good is to be found in writings from the distant past. Just as many philosophers today somehow think that to understand their field you need to go back to the Ancient Greeks, scholars before the Enlightenment thought that you gained an understanding of the natural world by rediscovering the wisdom of the ancients. The shift in attitude towards actually disrespecting work of the past was led by figures like Francis Bacon. Writes Mokyr:

“The idea of progress is logically equivalent to an implied disrespect of previous generations. The idea of progress… is inextricably linked to the cultural issue of how one should rate the capabilities and wisdom of one’s contemporary generation relative to the wisdom of one’s ancestors. The same age that fostered a belief in progress shed its excessive respect for earlier thinkers, exuding a confidence that ‘we can do better.”

We never shed the earlier attitudes outside of science and technology. Those studying Shakespeare today are metaphorically using the same scholarly methodology as medieval monks copying ancient texts line-by-line while thinking it’s teaching them science. While our literature has undoubtedly improved since Shakespeare’s time, imagine what we could do if we redirected the energy expended on the medieval methodology towards improving things even more.

A recent issue by the academic journal Econ Journal Watch asked contributors to the journal to give a list of books published between 2001 and 2020 that a future version of yourself should read in the year 2050. Contributors took this to mean, effectively, which recent works should be added to the Western canon. In the same way, one could have been asked to forecast which books we should remove from the Western canon in the coming years because it will be superseded by something better, such that there is virtually no reason for anyone to ever read it again. If one can’t imagine the removal of items from the Western cultural canon taking place, then one’s paradigm may be inconsistent with even the possibility of cultural progress. We aren’t going anywhere as a society if we are using the same cancer treatments in 100 years. Similarly, we aren’t going anywhere culturally if the prospect of improving and innovating beyond what was previously achieved is closed off as a matter of axiom.

We need to stand on the shoulders of giants, not simply look up to and admire them. Yet progress itself is not an axiom, either. If our quantitative measures like Real GDP per capita collapse or stagnate in the next decade because of COVID-19, then I will change my mind. But if the optimistic forecasts are right and we actually improve the trajectory of our economic and social indicators in the coming years relative to where we were, we should expect the quality of our cultural products to follow course.

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