Friday, November 11, 2011

How culture moves

Full disclosure: I can't really explain how culture moves. Whatever alchemy turns an individual act of creative exploration into a permanent cultural force is mysterious, even to its creator, and a subject of wild speculation even on the part of scholars generations after the fact, speaking with the benefit of hindsight.

Having spent my entire adult life working in the arts, surrounded by accomplished writers, poets, painters, musicians, and other extraordinary creators, I can say with some authority how it doesn't work. Within the arts community, and outside of it, I have encountered many strange ideas about how culture moves, expressed with great confidence, but amounting to a glorified form of magical thinking, which I will try to use this space to dispel.

(1) Culture does not move like products in the free market. That is, unlike the best brand of peanut butter, the market does not decide which works are the most important, the most vital, or those that contain the potential to transform the culture itself. The historical correlation, in literature, between book sales and depth of cultural impact is so slight, for example, that you would do just as well correlating its influence with the book's other properties, such as color, weight, or texture. Or, perhaps more to the point, if you were to take two books out of the library at random that were dated from the 19th century, it is quite likely that the less popular book has had the more lasting cultural impact.

(2) Culture does not move like canons perpetuated by academic institutions. That is, if the free market does not get to decide, neither does the intelligentsia. Harold Bloom tries but fails to unseat Edgar Alan Poe; the Nobel Prize committee ignores Philip Roth and hopes he'll go away; a small cadre of true believers prematurely elect Infinite Jest a 20th century classic. Strategems to engineer influence of this kind can be temporarily successful, but in the long term, despite our attempts to subvert or replace them, certain works still gain traction and stick in our collective hair like... well, like peanut butter, I suppose.

(3) Culture does not move like internet memes, rapidly replicated and quickly forgotten. Richard Dawkins brilliantly devised the term "meme" to describe the cultural gene-- the melody that gets stuck in your head and plays on a loop, the unusual flourish of paint on a piece of pottery that gets imitated and copied by other ceramicists, the strange phrase that spreads and spreads until everyone begins using because it sounds right-- but no where does he suggest that the same principal operates on the level of art. Rightly so, because while you can certainly credit foundational works of literature like the King James Bible, Dante's Inferno, and Shakespeare's Hamlet for becoming meme-farms, they do not compel us merely due to the addictive, skinner-box-like attraction to the noise they make. They contain a wholeness, an integrity of creation, that is greater than the sum of their parts, and which the "meme" explanation does not account for. Look, for example, at Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary for an example of a meme breeding ground that, for all its brilliance as a compilation of cynical wit and wisdom, contains none of the coherence of a work that will penetrate the culture to the degree that his less meme-worthy story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," has.

As far as I can discern, certain cultural manifestations take hold and stick because of either their absolute mastery of a particular form, genre, or style; or because of their revolutionary potential-- their power to change the nature of their medium by their evident originality. That is, they are the most representative or the newest. But here's the catch: few artists of any stripe can achieve work that is relevant or new by striving to be relevant or new. In other words, deep cultural influence is unpredictable, and art can never be manufactured with the intent to change the culture. Which is bad news for propagandists, but good news for writers and artists. You can stop trying to position yourself at the center of things. Instead, you can follow your own imperatives.

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