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December 07, 2007

What Will Last?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thursday takes up a Charles Murray challenge and lists some contempo-ish art-things that he thinks might still be vital in 200 years. It's a good list. Commenters at Steve's blog pitch in with a lot of suggestions and ideas.

My response:

I'm not sure that in 200 years anyone will be remembering anything from the past.

Something we may take a little too for-granted is the existence of a Museum of Past Worthiness and Greatness. We maintain it, we argue over what deserves to be included, we teach it, we get upset (or cheer) when the canon is dissed, etc.

What we don't do often enough is recognize that the existence of this Museum is a historical anomoly. In most places, at most times, people didn't maintain a Museum of Past Greatness. (Or if they did it was a much more informal one than our version.) They just lived, created, and enjoyed in the present. There was no Lincoln Center in 1700 Europe, keeping alive the "canon" of past musical greatness. There were just bands, composers, and audiences making and enjoying music in the present. Old music? It was done, over, forgotten. Art museums as we now think of them are themselves of very recent vintage. They're mainly creations of 19th century Europe.

As for today ... Well, it seems to me that we're already in an era where people are living, creating, and enjoying in the present far more than they they did even in the very recent past. YouTube, Facebook, viral videos ... iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand ... In our mix-and-match, collage-it-together-for-yourself world, it's all about instant impact -- about making and enjoying and moving on.

Look at the film world, for example. While the New Wave and '70s filmmakers discovered film history and made it their own, there aren't many contempo filmmakers who make any use at all of "film history." They couldn't care less. Today's hot and talented youngsters are involved with ads, TV, magazines, videos, performance art, and clothing styles, even with skateboarding and tattooing -- with stuff that's hot now. They just aren't that interested in film history, and certainly not in the museum sense.

Since this seems to me to be the direction culture is going, my guess is that in 200 years museum-style "art history" itself will be a thing of the past. People with cultural inclinations are going to be making videos, collaging together music tracks, assembling Flash-like multimedia things. They'll be posting them online and social-networking them back and forth to each other -- and that'll be what "culture" will be.

As for the artistic past? Seems to me likely that people will raid the past for ideas, because why not? But the history of art won't be a cultural presence in the "canon of greatness" sense, and almost no one will be taking part in "Does this deserve to be considered great?" conversations. To the extent it'll have any life at all, the cultural past will instead be a resource for people to rip off in the present.

At a small university in Nova Scotia in 2207, an untenured professor will write a history of how the "art history" thing came and went, and how strange an episode it was. And no one will read his book.

What are your own hunches about what from our day -- if anything, of course -- will prove lasting? If there's any justice, all my own personal faves will prevail. But of course there is no such justice.

I yakked here about how I like to deal with the whole Greatness thang.



posted by Michael at December 7, 2007


Sorry, but I think that this discussion is about to become completely irrelevant, except to a very few Luddites.

The entire world of art and media is about to be turned on its head by the mass marketing of the holodeck. This will occur within the next decade or two.

Nobody will want to be in the audience. Art as a spectator phenomenon is coming to an end.

The art that does exist... say the Beatles... will be used for an entirely different purpose than passive spectator enjoyment. People will walk into the holodeck and take their turn at living out their Beatles fantasy. Everybody will get their chance to be Paul McCartney for a few hours.

Spectator art will survive only as a boutique phenomenon... sort of like what reading serious novels is today.

I'm not saying this is a good thing, or even what I want. It's just what will happen. The technology already exists. It must be perfected and miniaturized, and the artists/programmers have to learn how to provide the "content." They are experimenting today by producing video games. The porn version of the holodeck will be a social calamity.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 7, 2007 12:35 PM

I agree completely and wish I'd said it half as vividly! Basically I think the whole "arguing over the canon" thing is itself going to become a thing of the past. No one will have time for it, let alone any interest in it. They'll be plugged into some new interactive Orgasmatron, and won't be giving anything much thought (in the old sense) at all.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 7, 2007 12:52 PM

Another element is that the reason only "Great Works" survived is because those were the ones that publishers would publish. In 200 years, every song, movie, and book (although not in book form) published in the past 50+ years and after will be available instantly to everyone if they want it.

There'll be no such thing as publishers or distributors, or any need for limited physical archives.

Posted by: Foobarista on December 7, 2007 1:23 PM


You make such good points, and I largely agree with them. I just wish they weren't so depressing. I'm wishing more and more these days that I had been born in 1940, rather than '74. Then I might be able to ignore all of this talk about holodecks.

I do believe that paying attention to someone else's work gives something to people that stepping into the holodeck can't, and that a correction will be inevitable. In other words, there is some small part of me that holds out hope for humanity and the arts. It's a part that gets smaller, though, everytime I read a post like this one. Sigh.

Keep up the good (if dispiriting) work.


Posted by: JMW on December 7, 2007 1:41 PM

These comments above may be relevant to Manhattan, LA and a few other "advanced" places, but they show a total lack of awareness of the rest of the world, like the American West. The major institutions of American Western art, American Indian art and artifacts, and archives of all kinds of documents (index my earlier post quoting Buckingham Books) are all building, expanding, acquiring, becoming more authoritative -- even though most of what they showcase is only a couple of hundred years old. Their history is younger than than the invention of art galleries and museums, yet the fans crowd around and the International Cowboy Art Cartel can make or break individuals.

Yet the success is not so much based on fine institutions created by rich and educated people. Rather it is the commodification of the art through prints, as Donald occasionally addresses. And QUITE a different kind of art it is!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 7, 2007 1:42 PM

This is all assuming Jim Kunstler isn't right, and it doesn't all come crumbling down on top of us, of course. In which case we may, in 200 years, be playing primitive drums, putting mud stripes on our faces, and dancing around maypoles for our entertainment.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 7, 2007 2:14 PM

Contra MB and ST, I'm skeptical about the impact of new technologies. Skeptical that changes will be as profound as long-term trend extrapolations usually indicate. I'm not saying nothing changes, just that the changes might not prove to be as profound as first thought/feared. Besides, there's culture, human nature, inertia and a bunch of other stuff going on. All of which is far too much to cover in a comment or even a blog post.

One of my favorite examples is the phonograph/radio/CD/etc. where music is recorded/listened to. In theory, that set of technologies/delivery systems ought to have eliminated the need for having live music performances -- if the music is the key item being "consumed." I like classical music and between FM radio and CDs, I have no reason to go through the expense and hassle of going to a concert. Suits me just fine. Nevertheless, live performances continue, at a large scale.

Ditto video and film recording. Why didn't that wipe out live theatre?

So, as a quick reaction, let's suggest that technology does change things, creates new arty possibilities, but also only supplements --not wipes out -- what went on before. Sediments deepen as time goes on.

And those urban pre-museum Europeans? If they wanted to catch a glimpse of History, all they'd need to do would be to shift their gaze to the ruins of that Roman amphitheater or up the hill to the local count's family castle or, on Sunday, attend church and study the Giotto murals along the stations of the cross.

None of this contradicts what Michael said about young folks trying new technologies, new artistic approaches. I'm just thinking they're not and probably never will be the whole story, nor can culture -- even pop culture -- become completely a-historical.

Oh, yeah. The original assignment: What Will Last? Things that tap into the deep human experience: not technical tricks, ironic jokes or cheap political posturing.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 7, 2007 2:25 PM

Very interesting post.

And while I don't think holodecks will be with us within a decade or two, I would LOVE to have one. Holodecks will be the biggest innovation in entertainment since the invention of the novel.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on December 7, 2007 3:08 PM

porn holodeck + sexbots = beta male paradise.

beta male paradise + choosier alpha males = massively accelerated human evolution toward fantastically beautiful women.

you heard it here first.

Posted by: roissy on December 7, 2007 3:14 PM

Some things will carry on in the folklore tradition. Such as a limited amount of songs and stories that can be held in memory, can be performed by anyone and have enough universal appeal that more than one generation can related to them. Durable art will be held on to in family homes and estates. The rest will just become dust or so obscure only the geekiest will be interested.

Posted by: TW on December 7, 2007 3:26 PM

Not sure I agree. As people age, preserving and cataloging the past always becomes more important. Even, in all likelihood, for today's youngsters. Understanding the importance of museums, photo albums (online or otherwise), archives, etc. is certainly more relevant today to me than when I was twenty, and so today's youngsters in their lack of interest in history don't seem that unique to me. Understanding that life is fleeting is, alas, something humans have plugged into as they age for generations, and I think organizing and concrete-izing (for lack of a better word) the past becomes a much more viscerally importanttask ("I was here, I was young once, there was music then...") ...I don't think people are going to change that much.

Furious dabs of youngsters fluttering....furious dabs of oldsters this sounding familiar?

Posted by: annette on December 7, 2007 4:11 PM

I think you're right about The Canon, but I'm not sure you're right about the decline of history, if that is what you're predicting.

A little-appreciated fact is that we are living in greatest era for history the world has ever seen. And even if many people don't know and don't care, clearly some stable section of the population does (remember every bookstore has a history section, and we have a History Channel, etc., etc.) It is simply possible learn more about other eras today than you ever have been able to in the past. Clearly it will be possible to do better and better in the future as well (assuming some smart person starts downloading and storing the entire Internet at intervals.)

Art is old, but historical consciousness, as you point out with your observation that art museums are only 200 or so years old, is young...but growing. We have a far more intense historical consciousness than ever before (again, a phenomenon that seems to have arisen in many respects with the historical novels of Walter Scott in the early 19th century). I'm guessing, though, that it actually gets more intense with each passing year.

That doesn't mean, of course, that such consciousness must take the form of arguments over The Canon. I've always felt that Canon discussions are simply the culture-world's equivalents to "Who would win if Superman fought the Hulk"?

(Of course, my money's on Superman, but still..!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 7, 2007 4:50 PM

We need a canon - and will likely always have one - because of the unavoidable problem of scarcity. We have only so much time, so many resources, and we want to apply them to the highest value tasks. (Yep, econ major here.) It'd be a shame if we all had to listen to hours of good-enoughs like Leopold Hofmann before we realized we should have been listening to Mozart instead.

The cool thing about the technology and full libraries we have now is that we can challenge the canon - maybe we should be listening to Hofmann after all? here, give him a try! - and we can make and toss around bespoke canons of our own. But a challenged and fluid canon is much different than no canon at all.

Posted by: Brian on December 7, 2007 5:40 PM

I think both Michael and Friedrich are right -- we're awash in the past now, and not just big-picture history, but all the cultural detritus of the last 50 years at least (including the most obscure TV shows, comics, books, records, movies, etc.). And it's only going to get more so. In the future *everything* will last, every 2-episode TV show and self-published book--not just the stuff deemed by a select few to be "great." So Michael's right that the question "Does this deserve to be considered great" will go away, and is going away. When everything from the cultural past is eternally present, the major criteria for discrimination--survival--is eliminated.

Posted by: Steve on December 7, 2007 6:03 PM

Nothing in contemporary fiction will last. It's not only no damned good, but it can't be good, given the disintegration of values. It will be a long time before anything again is written that will last-- that is, a work possessing the universality that enables it to reach future generations with any power.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 7, 2007 7:55 PM

As we contemplate, rightly, a wholly digital, virtual future for art, let me throw in one caveat. I work in the field of distance education. The triumph of technology-mediated teaching (from radio, to TV, to computer-based instruction, to online learning environments) has been 'just around the corner' for decades. But at the same time, the number of students attending traditional face-to-face colleges and universities has exploded in every industrialized society.

Why? There are lots of reasons, but I think one important one is tied quite closely to the live/virtual art issue: the snob factor. As something (knowledge, art, whatever) is more and more easily commodified, the greater the status payoff for consuming a more equisite, limited, expensive version of that something.

So I wouldn't convert Carnegie Hall to a holodeck just yet . . . .

Posted by: mr tall on December 7, 2007 9:25 PM

bob dylan will last

Posted by: Luke Lea on December 7, 2007 9:33 PM

Pleasures of the flesh will gain on passive consumption of technology. Food & sex. Cooking will still be a consequential art. And the purely pleasurable dimension of sex will become more prominent -- although some religious and societal restrictions will lend the sense of transgression it needs for greatest enjoyment.

We will wake up to the fact that porn, served up through technology, has been a tired stand-in.

Humans enjoy movement and competition -- athletics will come back. More participation, less viewing.

We live too vicariously today. And it may get worse before it gets better, but 200 years from now the enjoyment we get from our bodies will not only have returned, but will be highly refined.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on December 7, 2007 9:58 PM

Museums and the Canon are about something much simpler than Past Worthiness and Greatness. Not all museums are about the past, and not all canons are either. We Western people just like collecting shit and making lists, is all. Gives us stuff to look at and stuff to argue about.

Where's the harm in that?

Posted by: PatrickH on December 7, 2007 10:53 PM

"... we may, in 200 years, be playing primitive drums, putting mud stripes on our faces, and dancing around maypoles for our entertainment."

That'd give an enormous economic and political edge to whoever managed to maintain an enclave of technological competence. Think of the the plot of Lucifer's Hammer: in the end, being able to hang on to some technology not only was more fun, but literally meant the difference between living and dying.

The reason I don't believe in a future where the entire human race "lives poor" is that, by and large, being poor is a great way to die young, and human beings in general have a very strong preference for letting the other dumb bastard be the one who dies young. To have everybody on earth give up technology, you have to postulate a future where nobody at all has the basic motivation to survival that humans have had for millenia.

Likewise with historical rememberance: there have been plenty of periods where most people ignored the past, but in the history of the West, there's never been a period where absolutely everybody was indifferent to it. Homer's poems were, as much as they were art and entertainment, also an effort by Greeks emerging from the "dark age" of the early 1st millenium B.C. to remember their own past; Muslims kept the memory of Plato and Aristotle alive while early medieval Europe forgot them; Byzantines fleeing the fall of Constantinople brought Greek literacy to 15th-century Italy. And the Old Testament, among other things, is a very long-transmitted history book.

It's just not that likely that people will all forget the idea of a canon, if several thousand years of past human behavior is anything to go by. It's at least as likely that by 2207 they'll have reaffirmed it, and that the attempts of the late 20th and early 21st century to define it away will be what seems quaint and retrograde to them.

Posted by: Erich Schwarz on December 8, 2007 5:05 AM

What about movies? Weren't they the great art expressions of the 20th century and now of the 21st? Kurosawra? Ford? Bergman? Kazan? Renoir? Not being a film buff I know that I'm leaving out some huge names. But won't the best of the best directors' work stand up as "for the ages?"

Posted by: ricpic on December 8, 2007 10:31 AM

Going back to Charles Murray's original statistical round-up of artistic achievement through the ages - does anyone, along with me, feel that there is something slightly scuzzy going on here?

Achievement - major or minor - is an end in itself, and often accomplished in the teeth of the artist's society or culture that Murray designates as statistical markers. Think of Cervantes, who tried to be a writer and poet through poverty, war, a prisoner of war, prison and more poverty back home in Spain (he was very much like a battered Vietnam Vet) but who persevered through everything - including his own culture, which did everything it could to swat him like a fly. Why then does "Spain" (or "Spain" filed under Western Europe) under Murray's statistical catalogue get to claim Cervantes as a great accomplishment?

Murray takes the great artists or achievers of the world and scoops them up like jacks - after the fact - and dumps them into boxes marked "Europe" "Asia" "Africa" etc. But a great artist's production is an individual production that belongs to the world - it is his individual production that astounds the world not his culture's. You can say, "ah..yes, but this particular culture X has produced so many..."
So what? It is not the culture that should get credit for the individual artist's production.

This whole excercise of crowning nation-states with the breakthrough achievements of great artists who those very nation states did everything to discourage - is misguided if not downright nerdy and blind.

Posted by: Doug on December 8, 2007 11:05 AM

It is hard to guess on this kind of thing. It is often the case that an artist who is ignored in his own era gets an audience later.

Scott Joplin died in obscurity, yet how his ragtime music is performed as high art.

Herman Melville was a practical failure. After his death, his work was resurrected and respected.

Film noirs, made as b-movies on the cheap, have now been identified as having artistic merit.

On the other hand ... .

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a gigantic figure in his day. Virtually no one likes his stuff now. (I do, but I am not an opinion leader.) No one reads the novels of Bulwer-Lytton. But he was huge. Who in 1850 would have believed that Sir Walter Scott would be dust-covered and forgotten. Look at the decline in the reputation of Hemingway.

Who is famous and respected now or recently is not much of a basis to say who will be loved and admired in another generation.

Furthermore, the point made above, that the technology of artistic creation is going into a massive phase of change. What impact that will have on perceptions of the artworks, popular or otherwise, of earlier eras, cannot be predicted.

Further, what if we achieve substantially longer lifespans? What if people have healthy and productive lives until they are 120, routinely? That will change what people are willing to do, and to learn, and to spend time with. The impact on the supply and demand for art is unknowable. However, it is a matter of fact that throughout the last 100 years the audience for classical music, opera and ballet has been skewed toward older people. Orchestra directors and fundraisers are acutely aware of this. So, what shifts in taste will occur when we have a large swath of the population which is made up of fit, active people aged 70-110? And if we end up with radical life-extension, what then?

Bottom line -- the next 20 years will impose changes vaster than the prior 100. To talk about 100 years from now is beyond the imaginative powers of science fiction.

Final point. All that said, in 100 years, in one way or another, people will still read and enjoy War and Peace, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Posted by: Lexington Green on December 8, 2007 4:55 PM

Your point about the "past" being a recent invention was driven home to me while reading Jacques Barzun's excellent "From Dawn to Decadence". He mentions in passing that in 17thC England the Magna Carta had been virtually forgotten, until dusted off by some politician to make a point. Pretty shocking I'd say.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on December 8, 2007 6:14 PM

One way for a literary work to "last" is to become acknowledged as a children's classic. Kids in school still read, or have time to read, or are just plain assigned books to read. A number of books have ended up in that category because they were about children (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn), had fable-like elements that made them work as fantasies long after their contemporary references were forgotten (Gulliver's Travels), or were animal stories (Bambi, Black Beauty). So assuming that trend continues, one way to predict some titles of our era that will last would be to look for books in the category of potential juveniles of the next century. Animals, fantasy, a certain timelessness that won't make them seem dated even though they are set in a historical time period... One book that ought to fill the bill and comes readily to mind is Watership Down. (At least I don't think it's already been forgotten... A sort of follow-up to was published just a few years ago.)

Posted by: Dwight Decker on December 8, 2007 11:44 PM

I suspect that there will continue to be museums and that an array of painting, sculpture, photographs, films, and so on will have a place there. Offering an opinion about whether the good folks of the 2200s will have a preference for our photo-realist or abstract painters, western genre figurative sculpture or Photoshop magic realism is well beyond my pay grade.

Still, to take a crack at it, I'd say first that I doubt film will be of interest to any beyond a small coterie of geeks. It is a technological platform for story telling that will (conservatively) have been superseded a half dozen times in 200 years. It might not be the holodeck, but you can bet that there will be a very different platform for similar story telling. There may well be a holodeck version of "It's a Wonderful Life" making the rounds every December, but Jimmy Stewart will be a lost name among the general public.

Music will still have plenty of live performers and audio archives will keep some of today's names in the pantheon, I suspect it will include the likes of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lennon and McCartney and so on, namely writers of songs that can be performed in various ways and passed along. Jazz players will be studied, but mostly obscure. Among composers I'd expect Steve Reich to be among the names familiar to XXIII Century concert hall audiences.

Pilgrimages will be made to the Roden Crater and James Turrell will be considered a great artist. I also expect that Christo and Jeanne-Claude will be well remembered. (Although perhaps more so by those interested in mid-XX century politics than art per se; just think what they'll make of the archives of all the official correspondence pertaining to the Wrapped Reichstad.)

Posted by: Chris White on December 9, 2007 2:33 PM

There may not be significant human population, much less cultures, in two hundred years. The corollary of increasing carbon dioxide is declining oxygen, and when it reaches 15 percent or so of the atmosphere there will probably be massive die-offs of oxygen-breathing mammals. That moots the whole issue.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 9, 2007 6:56 PM

WTF are you talking about? CO2 comes from oxidation by O2 of hydrocarbons, yes, but there's so much more oxygen than CO2 in the atmosphere that that's not the problem. The problem with CO2 is that it heats up the atmosphere, not that we're going to run out of O2.

Posted by: SFG on December 9, 2007 9:52 PM

Sorry, I was wrong. Oxygen remains at about 21 percent of air by volume.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on December 10, 2007 8:51 AM

I thought the original question was about things, which I took to mean artistic patterns of some sort, yet the conversation seemed to switch to the canonization of artists. What a world of difference!

My guess would be that a lot of 1950-2007 pop music will have life, especially the simpler melodies associated with the broader themes.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 10, 2007 9:12 AM

Some thoughts of Fred Reed on our time:

Posted by: Will S. on December 12, 2007 9:33 PM

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