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« Life Among the Ruins | Main | Light Entertainment »

March 25, 2004

Cultural Hype

Dear Friedrich

I don't doubt that some of the people who visit the hot new gallery-art shows or read the latest hot "literary" novels do so out of simple enjoyment. I've got one friend, for instance, who, when asked what his cultural interests are, responds quickly, "Gallery art and graphic novels." Hey, he knows what he likes, and I see no reason to question his word. Our occasional Guest Poster Turbokitty is another example of someone who enjoys the hot-new-gallery-art scene. Her enthusiasm about it is winning and genuine.

At the same time, I have zero doubt that some of the people who keep up with what's hot are doing so well, for other reasons. They aren't reading, looking or listening simply because they love the stuff. Perhaps they're there out of curiosity. Perhaps they're there because they think "keeping up" is important, god only knows why. Perhaps fools! -- they think something of immense cultural import is happening here and now, and they've got to, they've just got to, be part of it.

Once upon a time, I followed a fair amount of the new, high-end hot stuff myself; I did it partly because I was curious and partly because I didn't know better, but mostly because I was being paid to "keep up." But I haven't been a pro for three years now. These days, interacting with the arts like a normal person (ie., choosing my cultural matter according to interest, whim and mood), I'm enjoying the arts far more than I did in my keeping-up days. I also experience them differently than I did during the pro years -- but that's for another posting.

Which leads me to what I find myself wondering about today: if all the juju around the new and the hot cultural thing -- the hype, the cultural pressure, the pretences -- if all that evaporated, how many people would remain in the audience? How many would still be visiting that art gallery or buying that novel, let alone commissioning that piece of starchitecture?

No way of knowing the answer for sure, of course. And in self-defence let's make all necessary noises about how people are grownups, are responsible for their own decisions, and are doing things for their own reasons, etc etc. Still, it seems obvious that a lot of what sustains these worlds and these phenomena is cultural pressure: newspaper and magazine babble, peer-group urgency, and whatever oomph the arts industries themselves can manufacture.

Make those pressures go away, make the juju lose its magic, and how big an audience would remain? Some kind of audience, obviously. But how much of one? Me, I'm guessing that 80% of the audience for the new hot cultural thing would vanish if the hype and pressures sustaining it were to disappear.

What would your guess be?



posted by Michael at March 25, 2004


Well, art galleries will always have a built-in audience of school students, at least here in Sydney. Practically every time I go to an art gallery here there's a swarm of schoolkids on excursions...

Posted by: James Russell on March 25, 2004 3:08 AM

Schools, how could I have forgotten about schools? Those generators of so much nonsense cultural pressure. Thanks for the reminder.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 25, 2004 3:23 AM

I can't pay attention to this right now. I'm too busy reading magazines sitting around the house:

- "His intensely personal pinings about heartbreak and longing on his 2002 release Australia caused a minor stir among the young and emotionally restless, and Howie Day's newest proves no different." From Teen Vogue December/January 2004

- "Over the last couple of years, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has done shows on Machu Picchu, chocolate and baseball. On March 14, it will turn its attention to a more immediate subject, the Los Angeles region, in an ambitious extravaganza called "L.A.: Light, Motion, Dreams." From Los Angeles Times Magazine, Feb. 15

- "Leave it to Benedikt Taschen to toss aside the rules for how bookstores ought to look. The former comic book king has upset publishing by printing mass quantities of high-quality books at low prices. His trademark: making hip feel hip...At his sumptuous new flagship store on Beverly Drive, the Cologne native brazenly sets out to primp literature as haute couture. In this bookstore, the object is to judge books by their covers." - From the 'Architecture' page of Los Angeles, February 2004

I mean, there's all this hip new stuff I just gotta keep up with!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 25, 2004 3:40 AM

I wonder if the "classics", written, painted and sculpted by those hot new young artists, Shakespeare, DaVinci, Byron and Poe, were as eagerly sought in their time for their aesthetic value or fodder for social conversation.

Posted by: susan on March 25, 2004 9:20 AM

Likely there would be very few in the audience --- until the next fashionable thing came along. Horses are not the only herd animals.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 25, 2004 10:02 AM

Hey, the hype writers and fashion promoters need jobs too!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 25, 2004 10:49 AM


At least during the lifetimes of Shakespeare and Da Vinci, there were no 'mass media' with a stake in pushing 'hot new things' on a consuming public. While news of their activities got around, it wasn't as a result of the activities of commercially-motivated third parties (such as the media.) Shakespeare's plays were, of course, advertised by posters put up around town (paid for by his company) while Da Vinci's marketing was generally done by word of mouth or a letter or two to an aristocratic patron. So there has been a shift here, and to ignore the increasingly important role of the third parties is to miss an important part of the modern celebrity culture.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 25, 2004 11:56 AM

I think 80% of the audience for anything would vanish if it wasn't hot---restaurants, art galleries, neighborhoods, vacation spots, movies, high-heeled boots, tattoos.

I think there are people who think that the purpose of life is essentially keeping up with what's hot. Otherwise, how would they figure out what to wear or where to go on Saturday? They'd have to, though, and it would be quite interesting if people didn't have the external "clues" which allow them to make sort of uncontemplated choices over and over. I mean...what if they actually had to decide what they wanted to eat, themselves? Think of what a different world it could be!

Posted by: annette on March 25, 2004 12:44 PM

No kidding. I wonder whether we could all tolerate it. Having to make our own choices -- yikes. I'm probably not man enough, myself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 25, 2004 3:22 PM

It would definitely be a different world. In fact, a world that probably never did exist.
I'm pretty confident that Athenians were also motivated by keeping up with what was hot at the moment.

Posted by: Bill on March 25, 2004 4:06 PM

Friedrich, I can appreciate the value of being guided somewhat in my literary and cinematic travels, and I do feel that the benefit to artists is that often they would be unseen among the crowds to even have an opportunity to face that almighty crowd--the public (think Oprah). But do we need to bow to only those that receive the blessing to be considered one of the faithful? Or is being faithful to the art itself of more importance, risking of course, the loss of heaven as well as social status.

Posted by: susan on March 25, 2004 4:08 PM

MBlowhard's comment doesn't ring quite true---you're the one choosing buildings and authors which are Not Hot in the traditional definition all the time on this website!

Posted by: annette on March 25, 2004 5:23 PM

The following passage from Paul Johnson's ART: A New History, goes a long way toward explaining the death grip of the latest hot new thing (what Johnson calls, fashion art) on the art public.

Modern art establishments wield much more power than anything practised in the times say, of Le Brun or David: power both to create and to render invisible. They do not burn paintings, as Hitler did, or send artists to the gulag, as was the wont of Stalin. Nor do they manipulate mobs of Red Guards to butcher sculptors and craftsmen in the streets. But they break the hearts and impoverish the lives of artists who do not conform to their meritricious criteria. Writers and editors who resist these establishments quickly find themselves without jobs or platforms. The oportunities for corruption are also obvious. Indeed, fashion art, by its nature, is constitutionally corrupt. The way in which it operates is as follows. X, a professional collector, spots a likely young artist, and buys up his or her early work. He enlists the support of Y, a dealer-gallery owner, and Z, a museum director. Together the three "create" the artist who, let us say, produces collages of artificial cat-skins. He/She is given grants and prizes, and a highly successful show at Y's gallery, followed by purchases for Z's museum. At that point X is free to unload his purchases to finance his next operation; Y makes a handsome profit too; Z does not (as a rule) make money but is paid in power.

Posted by: ricpic on March 25, 2004 7:20 PM

Bravo, ricpic; that's what I always say, repeat after Marx - primate of material over ideological.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 25, 2004 7:44 PM

Annette beat me to it. I was going to say, 80% of everything would disappear if it weren't for the hype. And isn't it funny how easily led we are? At one time or another every one of us is a follower.

I remember one day when I was in high school (mid-70s) I was sitting in the library with a couple of friends looking at an issue of 17 magazine. There was an article about "next year's fashions" showing skirts much longer than what we were used to wearing. Mid-thigh was the "standard" skirt length at the time and the skirts shown in the article all came right below the knee. We were horrified and all swore we would never wear anything like that but in a few months the longer skirts started showing up in the stores and the next school year we were all happily wearing them.

Now, I wish I could think of an adult story along those lines because I know I must have several but nothing comes to me right now.

Posted by: Lynn S on March 25, 2004 10:14 PM

I'd like to hear how Mr. Johnson fits Jack Vettriano into his world view. The arts establishment is powerful only for an extremely small group of people who care about its opinions.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 26, 2004 1:12 AM


Of course, it's someone who once found himself professing interest in things for reasons other than his own personal enjoyment that now is mumbling about the insincerity of others' interests.

People are into stuff because it's popular and it's cool to be into it? Yes, and in the few millennia that have passed of recorded human history, this is different why?

Sorry if I'm snarky about it, but these comments are sort of a third-iteration snobbery.

First, you have the commoner. This straw man/woman is into things because they entertain him/her on a supposedly base, uninformed level ... or because other people are into it and it's the cool thing to do.

Second, you have the snob. This straw man/woman is into things because they supposedly entertain on an intellectually or culturally respectable level ... or, this writer argues, because all the other snobs are into it and it's the cool thing to do.

The writer, apparently, fits into the third group, melding a newfound interest in an emotional connection to art with his previously snobby intellectual view of it. His new criticism is couched in legitimate love for art, but he's actually turning his nose up at a group that he feels a bit too close to, thus making it necessary to sneer at, or complain about, them.

Posted by: Brendan on March 26, 2004 8:06 PM

Consider also that the latest new thing acts not only as an object to be read/viewed/eaten/worn, but as a social connector. It gives people something to talk about ("Did you see the Super Bowl show?"). It establishes a social or intellectual hierarchy ("What do you think of Pynchon?"). It even defines your tastes ("Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.")

It's comforting to think that our desire for the next hot thing is a modern conceit, but since we've always been social creatures, I doubt it.

Posted by: Bill Peschel on March 26, 2004 9:29 PM

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