Today’s Comment of the Day was spawned by the post about the fading of cultural memories of important film artists. texaggo4 has his doubts about my concerns, and whether the phenomenon is worth worrying about, or even a problem at all.
I admit, this topic is an unusually intense and personal one for me. It was the reason why I devoted a large portion of my life and creative energy for twenty years to the quixotic challenge of creating and trying to maintain a professional theater company in the Washington, D.C. area devoted to producing American stage works of quality and historical importance that were in danger of falling out of the American stage repertoire entirely, if they were not already forgotten. We proved that many shows thought hopelessly dated or politically incorrect still worked (“The Boys in the Band,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Native Son,” “The Cradle Will Rock”…), found genuine masterpieces that almost nobody knew existed (“Moby Dick Rehearsed,” “Machinal,’ “Marathon 33″…), and lost a fortune on artistic gambles that didn’t pan out, for a wide variety of reasons, including bad management, bad luck, or the unpredictability of show biz. Notable disasters that still give me nightmares include ” “Home of the Brave,'” Mr Roberts,” “A Flag is Born,” “Dear World, and “The Pirate.” We had a devoted and loyal following, and I think we proved our point, but basically didn’t make a ripple despite all that work. (Except perhaps in this case, and maybe that was enough…) Heck, our theater was in a school building, and we couldn’t get any teachers to bring their classes to our shows, even for free.
But then, most of my life has been devoted to futile pursuits. After all, I’m an ethicist…
Here is tex’s Comment of the Day on the post,I Worry About Cary Grant:
What exactly are we asking for here? Facial recognition of the actor and an ability to recollect every great movie ever produced? What’s the goal of Cultural Memory? It cannot be the rote memorization of EVERY SINGLE great artist, producer and creator of art & culture. 1, we’d never have time to get around to memorizing ALL of it, 2, we’d never have time to get around to viewing all of it, 3, we’d never have any time to get around producing new examples of it, 4, we’d never have any time to get around doing anything else that life calls us to do.
The great conversation, as it is called, which is the ongoing “dialogue” between artists of the present with their contemporaries as well as with their predecessors. Artists take the concepts that are explored in the past, the debates had between opposing concepts in the past, and rework them in the present, either shedding light on new angles or re-engaging the old arguments, or bolstering new arguments. This long process of cultural production has produced MILLIONS of individual works and, without a doubt, TENS of thousands of artists. Of those countless producers & performers, we can assume there are many many thousands of individual works that could be called “culturally iconic” or “unique” or “ground breaking” and thousands of artists.
Feeling less well read that I ought to, I compiled a list of what several thinkers considered to be the “Western Canon”: a list of essential books that captured the literary and written philosophy component of this “Great Conversation”, with the goal of plodding through them over my lifetime.
930 books. Just the books.
The authors, as I read their names, certainly had recognizable names and I could probably guess relatively accurately the eras they wrote in. Could I reasonably hold a discussion or even mention some prominent idea found in them? Maybe 10% of that list. With any level of deeper understanding? Less than that.
But what I could do, without those books, is hold a relatively well thought out conversation about the ideas that most of those books were also exploring. Why? Because that is what cultural memory does for us, without being able to hold an in depth idea about a particular work of art, we can still be able to hold in depth ideas about the particular notion that a work of art was exploring. Because cultural memory goes a great way towards preserving, through the Great Conversation, all those ideas and philosophies and beauties and art, without me having to memorize in rote detail the specifics of each work.
930 books, considered essential to grasp the great conversation of *just* Western Culture. How many paintings & painters? How many concertos and composers? How many sculptures? How many plays and playwrights and stage actors? How many buildings and architects? How many movies and directors and actors and screenwriters?
The interesting thing of course, is how the growth of culture has accelerated due to population, communication and technology. Whereas one generation in the 1000s may have produced a half dozen *iconic* culture producers, one generation in the 1500s produced several dozen *iconic* culture producers. One generation in the 1700s, maybe 100. A generation of the 1900s, easily several hundred.
Producers. Multiply that by 10 for iconic works. And I think I’m underestimating.
I think you are placing an incredible burden on the current generation to preserve *semi-iconic* works and producers that had a very personal impact for your generation, but given a few centuries of time may or may not be seen as truly impactful on the Great Conversation. Think of the half-dozen *iconic* producers of the 1000s AD. There certain were a hundred other producers who were either *semi-iconic* or just plain copy cats or failures. The generation of the 1100s AD didn’t remember THOSE guys. Only the *truly* iconic ones.
I get the impetus to remember as much as possible, but I don’t think the effort should get in the way of follow-on generations adding to the culture by encumbering them with such a load of nostalgic movie-watching that they cannot produce themselves.
I think the real root of your concern isn’t that certain icons are unrecognizable or that the current generation doesn’t have an ability to discuss the ideas of a particular movie and why that particular movie is unique. I think the real problem is the current generation doesn’t WANT to have those conversations nor is it capable of discussing the ideas independent of the works of art. Nor is it capable of gleaning out what IS important about those iconic movies if it ever did get around to watching it.
I think what is missing is not the watching of those movies, but teaching the generation to simultaneously WANT to appreciate older art forms AND to be able to understand the “language” and “grammar” of those older art forms in order to have the *ideas* conversation to contribute to the Great Conversation.
I can’t continue, this has been too much of a stream of consciousness monologue. I wanted to explore the role of the Democratization of Art due to production and communication technology and it’s role in diluting GOOD art while simultaneously, on occasion, producing GREAT art. I wanted to explore the role of education and “culture leaders” in selecting what ought to be seen as GREAT art (and their general failure at doing so). And several other topics.
But I guess we’ll just have to settle with my focus on this being too much of a burden on the modern generation to REMEMBER every last detail of the previous generation’s artistic output. I think the burden is on the generation that wants remembrance fight its own personal attachment to many works and really cull out what IS iconic from what is just semi-iconic. And focus on the excellent contributions.