American culture has exhausted itself. It is running on fumes. It’s a dead man walking. The popular songs everyone talks about sound the same as the slightly less popular ones. The big movies are all remakes of previous big movies or next installments in never-ending series. When these movies aren’t atrocious, they get good reviews, but we all know the bar is very low. We just don’t want to be completely bored. Novelists recycle gimmicks learned in their MFA programs; poets have replaced arresting phrases with “transgressive” political ones, which, it turns out, are not so transgressive after all. Painters now only look backwards in their frantic search for something new.
Thankfully, exceptions abound in all of the above arts, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the works celebrated in the culture at large, the works that win the prizes, have never been so vacuous.
In the Nation, David Bromwich blames a politics of “respectability” for all of this:
Between the 2020s and an earlier age of conformity, the 1950s, the language of cliché switched from middle-class respectability—the self-evident ideal of movies like Executive Suite (1954) and Marjorie Morningstar (1958)—to the current Hollywood agenda of the inclusive and the marginalized. In last year’s film The Power of the Dog, an early-20th-century frontier businessman is relieved of the burden of his macho-sadist brother when his gay stepson surreptitiously infects him with anthrax. In the just-released Top Gun: Maverick, the loner protagonist leads a diversity-checked squadron of fighter pilots to bomb a uranium-enrichment site in an unnamed country. The first of these films is stark and highbrow, the second flash and lowbrow, but they share an optimistic moral. Elimination of bad guys knits the brotherhood of the good and true.
“Just as once there were bourgeois commonplaces,” wrote André Gide in Return From the USSR (1937), “so now there are revolutionary commonplaces”—but let us say the same of anesthetic uplift generally—catchphrases and righteous slogans which, though “so successful today, will soon emit to the noses of tomorrow the insufferable odor of the clinic.” That odor has been with us for a decade or more, and it is not getting weaker.
True enough. But there is something larger afoot. I hate to speak in generalities, but grosso modo the turn to politics in art, which over time has become clichéd, was a way of replacing the abandonment of truth — or, at least, the abandonment of the idea of a shared truth in an increasingly fractured society. Great artists, of course, simply became more assiduously specific in what could and couldn’t be said, à la Wallace Stevens. Lesser ones, however, found an easier solution in turning to political posturing to give their work some temporary substance. While Bromwich is right that that political posturing, which initially seemed radical, has now shown itself to be what it always was, the problem is not the symptoms but the illness itself.
In other news
Speaking of exhausted culture, Kwame Alexander will host a new reality show called “America’s Next Great Author”: “Billed as ‘the groundbreaking reality TV show for writers’, ANGA will give its contestants one minute to pitch their novels to a panel of judges . . . Those that are lucky enough to win the heats, to be held in cities across the US, will proceed to the writers’ retreat ‘bootcamp’ stage. The six finalists, locked together for a month, will face ‘live-wire’ challenges as they attempt to write an entire novel in 30 days. The winning novelist will be crowned America’s Next Great Author.” Sounds awful.
The rise and fall of Sad White Men novels: “Novels about middle class male malaise are now considered passé but they were once both groundbreaking and shocking.”
In The New Atlantis, Jon Askonas looks at the similarities between QAnon and alternate reality games: “With both QAnon and alternate reality games, it can be hard to tell what is and isn’t ‘real.’ Of course, QAnon followers think that their world is the real world, whereas ARG players know they are in a game. That’s an important difference. But the point of an alternate reality game is also to blur the boundaries of the game. In fact, many use a ‘this is not a game’ conceit, intentionally obscuring what is real and what are made-up parts of the game in order to create a fully immersive experience.”
Samuel Goldman reviews Walter Russell Mead’s book on the relationship between the United States and Israel:
There is an obvious difference in scale between America’s 330 million inhabitants and continental territories and the state of Israel, which comprises around 10 million people in a territory the size of New Jersey. There are also ideological differences. At least since World War II, many Americans have embraced a creedal nationalism open to everyone who consents to the Constitution and its underlying principles. According to a law passed in 2018, by contrast, Israel is the “nation state of the Jewish People,” which offers legal citizenship but not full inclusion to ethnic and religious minorities. While its relative power is waning, the United States remains the world’s only superpower and sustains military, political, and economic connections throughout the world. Israel’s interests have grown far-flung compared with the state’s early days. But they remain focused on its immediate neighborhood. Walter Russell Mead’s The Arc of a Covenant is the most recent attempt to resolve this question. The book ranges widely through periods and sources. At bottom, though, Mead argues that American culture has a deep affinity for the idea of a Jewish state in the biblical promised land.
Randy Boyagoda reviews Pankaj Mishra’s novel Run and Hide:
Twenty years after publishing his first novel—years he spent establishing himself, in incisive, often fearsome essays and reviews and nonfiction books, as a leading literary–cultural critic—Pankaj Mishra had a Damascene moment of sorts. He describes it in a recent essay for the London Review of Books: “I didn’t have faith in the ability of long-form reporting or op-ed commentary to convey complexity and nuance, as I had long been susceptible to D.H. Lawrence’s boast that the novelist is ‘superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.’ Much of what I knew of history, sociology and political psychology had originally been gleaned from novels. The splintering of society into a mêlée of self-seeking individuals; economic exploitation and material inequality; the corruptions of politics and the press; the inadequacies of liberal gradualism; the thwarting of revolutionary hopes; the impotent resentments of the low-born and socially insecure: all of these enduring pathologies, the staple of academic and journalistic work, were first anatomised in the novels of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev.” In fact, a few weeks earlier, Mishra published his second novel, Run and Hide, which is very much concerned with these same pathologies—in particular, the “splintering of society” and the plight of individuals who seek to close the distance between the circumstances of their birth and the promises held out by twenty-first-century globalized life.
Wil Netflix’s plan to save itself work? “In a year of falling subscriber numbers and shaky stock prices, why is the streaming service doubling down on expensive, risky blockbusters?”
A history of Labour’s civil wars: “Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice begin their thought-provoking book with the biblical adage that ‘if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand’. They assert that this ‘provides essential counsel for any political party that aspires to win elections and govern in a liberal democracy’. This axiom, of course, holds true for all political parties. However, there is no doubt that ever since 1929, when for the first time in its history the Labour Party won the largest number of seats in Parliament, it has struggled to avoid division.”