Tag Archives: Neil Postman

The Great Appreciators

Informed criticism is clearly diminished as a cultural mainstay, in part because we have made it so much easier to produce and distribute simulations of cultural products.

This is an era in American life where the young seem as interested in becoming content creators than content appreciators. To be sure, this is a broad  and inexact distinction. But it is clear that a large segment of younger Americans today are ready to self-identify as musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, writers or audio producers, without much experience or training. The results are usually predictably modest: unplanned videos, under-edited and “published” books, magazine-inspired blogs, or derivative music produced in front of a computer.  Without doubt, serendipity has always had a place in producing wonderful new talent. But it is also true that more of us want to count ourselves as being a part of the broad media mix made possible with nearly universal internet access. It’s now hardly surprising to meet a middle schooler who edits their own videos or, after a fashion, curates their own web presence.  As You Tube demonstrates, self-produced media content is unmistakably popular.

If this first quarter of the new century is the age of the content producer, it seems that—broadly speaking—the last half of the previous century was an era for witnessing and reflecting on breathtaking talent. The decline of this impulse is a loss. An appreciator is more than a consumer. These are folks with an understanding of the history and conventions of a form, with an equal interest in exploring how new works can build on and stretch the most stale of cultural ideas. The best work of appreciators can be cautionary, encouraging, or fire us with the enthusiasm that comes with new insights. Productive analysis can help us fathom what we do not yet understand.

               Pauline Kael

In the previous century, critics and essayists of all kinds of art were ubiquitous. Periodicals and big city newspapers routinely published considered assessments of trend-setters in popular culture, fiction, television, theater and film. Some combined their pieces in book-length studies of the period that are still worth reading. Michael Arlen and Neil Postman wrote insightful analyses of news and entertainment television. Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert were among many popular reviewers producing novel assessments of films and the film industry. They were matched by music critics like Michael Kennedy, Dave Marsh, Gene Lees and Donal Hanahan, who provided appraisals of performers and performances. Their counterparts in the visual arts included writers like Robert Hughes, Walter Benjamin, and Jerry Saltz: all exploring the vagaries of talent and caché in that enigmatic world.

Among countless publications, readers poured over this criticism in the pages of The Dial, The New Yorker, Gramophone, Paris Review, Harpers, The Atlantic, New York Review of Books and Rolling Stone. And no self-respecting daily newspaper considered itself complete without its own music and film critics. Bigger city papers also added performance reviews of dance, along with the assessments from urbanists of a city’s newest additions to its skyline.

Even beyond obvious and daily samples of book and theater reviews in many Twentieth Century news outlets, there was an entire world of appreciators with appetites for reconsidering the rivers of culture that came from distant headwaters. For example, Gramophone was founded in 1923 by the Scottish author Compton Mackenzie, who understood that there was an appetite for essays about the composers and performers captured in the new electrical recordings of the time. He proved the unlikely proposition that many wanted to read about music almost as much as they wanted to hear it.

Criticism has Diminished as a Cultural Mainstay

                       Susan Sontag

With video and digital media still mostly in the future, Americans in the first half of the century, had the time and the will to know the backstories of the cultural products of the day. Indeed, some writers like Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Janet Malcom became intellectual thought leaders. They helped to explain what artistic mastery should look like. And they had the counterparts in a range of academic thinkers—T.W. Adorno, David Riesman, Marshall McLuhan and Kenneth Burke, for example—whose deeper cultural probes would soak into the fabric of the nation’s undergraduate curriculum. Sampling the output of so many professional appreciators would keep liberal arts students preoccupied for years, and sometimes forever.

        Toland Image From Scene from Citizen Kane

To be sure, our interest in the understandings the nation’s cultural output has not vanished. But criticism is clearly diminished as a cultural mainstay, in part because we have made it so much easier to produce and distribute simulations of cultural products. I use the word “simulations” because the impulse to be a content producer often bypasses the intellectual labor that comes in value-added art. So many today proceed without a grounding in the canons of a particular form: its histories, possibilities, and innovators. I suspect the desire to be an immediate practitioner in a realm that is barely understood is usually fed by the promise of fame. The result, as my colleagues in film sometimes lament, is that students want to be producers of video stories before the have considered the durable conventions of narrative: for example, the norms of a written screenplay, or how this first written map is converted into the visual “language” and grammar of film. To cite a specific case, it would be useful for a young filmmaker to know how cinematographer Greg Toland used light and shadow to create the unmistakable visual palette of Citizen Kane (1941), or how Steven Spielberg and John Williams exploited the tricky business of musical underscoring to leave audiences suitably terrified by Jaws (1975).

In our schools and colleges, the equipment to make art is frequently made available to students who have only rudimentary understandings of how they might be used. The youthful conceit that progress is made by setting aside what has come before is mostly an excuse to avoid the work of contemplation that creates competence and a lasting passion for an art form.

Anchors

                     Sociogram                               Wikimedia

For many of us “connecting” has become synonymous with “communicating.”

The two basic social functions of communication are to sustain our sense of place and our sense self.  A diverse group of thinkers ranging from sociologist George Herbert Mead to communication theorist John Peters have noted that we are sustained by anchors to others we interact with directly.  Those others may be met at home, in the neighborhood, at work, in community groups or through contact with friends. And of course there are the digital approximations of small pieces of us that we send and receive.  Indeed, for many of us “connecting” has become synonymous with “communicating.”  The tiny artifacts of ourselves we send to others are increasingly assumed to be enough.

One of the reasons parenting is so affirming—if sometimes more in theory than practice—is that the dependency relationship between parents and children is concrete and defining. Parenting is a reminder of the burdens and rewards that come from the monumental task of shaping the world of another human being. No wonder some experience the remorse that can come to the “empty nester.”  They have had to relinquish most of the nurturing, guidance and witnessing that–as the cliche has it–gave their lives meaning.

There is also another narrative.  Workers will sometimes admit to feeling guilty about escaping to an office where one’s place is seemingly secure and affirmed.  While many parents can’t imagine entrusting their toddlers to a sitter or daycare, others seem to adapt easily.  Indeed, a number of workers report that life can be more predictable and supportive in the office than at home, where the new and unformed ego in their care has yet to learn that others matter.  With either parenting narrative note that we still end up at the same spot; it’s the direct contact with others that matters.

Can playing video games at a normative six hours a day turn an adolescent into the kind of person he will need to be in ten or twenty years? 

Research twenty years ago pointed to television as the mostly likely threat to the maintenance of self through direct contact.  The concern then was frequently framed in terms of the one-way nature of television, whose characters cannot return the interest we freely give to them.  In this world of “para social” relationships, a person who cares about whether Rory Gilmore will finally succeed as a professional writer–a long plotline in the popular Gilmore Girls–has made a small but consequential shift toward a world that is at once more predictable and attractive than may be the case with one’s own family.  Rory always looks great, is unfailingly polite, and has very clever things to say.  Who might not be tempted to “live” in her simplified universe?  But at best the “relationship” between a television character and viewer is “para-social”–only an approximation of the real thing. Rory can never be who we may need her to be.  She can never be there for us. In terms of a sociogram (above), she could only be represented with a dotted line, an arrow  going toward us, but not being returned.

Here’s the challenge: if electronic media allow us to put our heads in one place while our bodies are in another, are we destined for relatively barren emotional lives?  Does this fact of contemporary force us to sacrifice important social anchors?  To shift examples, can playing video games six hours a day (a gamer norm) turn an adolescent into the kind of person he will need to be in ten or twenty years?

This critique made years ago by Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz, among others, may still hold.  And, of course, the dual pathways outlined here are more complex and blended. But in fact most of us have committed ourselves to interaction at a distance via various social media platforms where feedback is minimal.  We even have a president who seems more comfortable issuing tweets than knowing how to act in the presence of others.

In short, where we are physically is arguably less important today than the digital drop boxes where we have deposited the contents of our heads.  We use these as social substitutions in what is sometimes a long and perilous digital chain. The key question is whether they can provide enough in return to affirm that we still matter.