Last week, Michelle Goldberg wrote to piece that puzzles me for the New York Times editorial page on the crisis of contemporary taste.
Goldberg is here to tell you that culture is no good now. He quotes the literary critic Christian Lorentzen: “Hollywood movies are boring. Television is boring. Pop music is boring. The art world is boring. Broadway is boring. The books of the big publishing houses are boring. Goldberg “can’t think of any recent novel or film that has provoked passionate debate.” Discussions of art “have become stale and repetitive”.
As a piece of criticism, Goldberg’s essay is not as inspiring as, say, David Brooks’ famous book noodles on the decline of taste. But even his foray into the Crisis of Culture genre has nothing like Brooks’ sense of purpose. He is tiring and meandering.
At one point, Goldberg presents this as proof of his thesis: “When I go to bars where young people hang out, the music is often either the same music I listened to as a young man, or music that sounds just like that.” It’s like a parody of leaden cultural criticism. (“When I get my morning Starbucks, they play Adele: really, youth culture is dead!”)
But the thing that bothers me about Goldberg’s essay isn’t its style or its superficiality or the fact that the exact “culture” she talks about seems to change throughout the essay or that she has to bring up Dimes Square. It’s that he’s maddeningly wrong in diagnosing the pressures on contemporary culture.
What is to blame for our “cultural stasis?” Why isn’t there “more interesting indie stuff bubbling up?” Let’s see what Goldberg has to say.
The hypothesis of stagnation
The title of Goldberg’s piece is “The Book That Explains Our Cultural Stagnation.” It evolves into a gloss on the imminent by W. David Marx Status and culture: how our desire for social status creates taste, identity, art, fashion and constant change– “a book that is by no means boring and that has subtly altered the way I see the world.”
I have no idea if this book itself is actually richer than you think. “Marx posits cultural evolution as a kind of perpetual motion machine driven by people’s desire to ascend the social hierarchy,” Goldberg writes. The idea that there is a social prestige to embracing the new, the different and the experimental doesn’t strike me as a very new thesis.
What has changed, then, in the relationship between cultural innovation and the desire to earn that prestige that could “explain our cultural stagnation”? Here’s what Goldberg proposes:
The Internet, writes Marx in the concluding section of his book, changes this dynamic. With so much content out there, the chance of others recognizing the meaning of any obscure cultural cues decreases. The challenging art loses its prestige. Plus, in the age of the internet, taste tells you less about a person. You don’t need to work your way up in any social world to develop a familiarity [John] Cage—or, for that matter, with underground hip-hop, weird performance art, or rare sneakers.
This is a real #TheTimesIsOnIt kind of theory. My god, people have been discuss self or not The internet was making the taste less deep for a long time. I wrote my book which includes essays on taste, social media, and appropriation, so the space given to this analysis probably annoys me more than most. But I really don’t think Goldberg knows what he’s talking about.
The idea that in the age of the Internet “one does not have to enter any social world” to gain access to culture is not true. I mean, sure, you can skim the surface of culture very easily for moodboarding purposes. But scholars have long studied how people interpret identity on the web: the openness of Internet culture levels some barriers but also causes users to erect new kinds of esoteric cultural norms, inside jokes and subcultural languages: try reading any NFT forum without looking for a term. (As Paul Hodkinson argued long ago in his studies of chat culturethe relative openness of the internet also explains the vitriol of online cultural discourse: fending off careerists becomes more important when anyone can join the conversation.)
There is so much recent writing about these dynamics of the internet subculture that it is much more informative than what we get from this editorial, by Caroline Busta about creators navigating the “light web” and the “dark forest” at the work of Josh Citarella niche political identities on social media at Legacy Russell’s Glitched feminism and its discussion on the role online cultural spaces play as a “club space by congregation” for queer and trans people.
There are even ways that the removal of cultural barriers online seems to increase the cachet of the remaining signifiers of actually being part of a special scene or club. “It makes more sense for an upstart to pretend a trip on a private jet than to pretend an interest in contemporary art,” Goldberg writes, summarizing his thesis. But the archetypal upstart, the sham heiress Anna Delvey, actually done I project an interest in contemporary art via his Instagram as part of his attempt to “move up the social hierarchy”. A art-themed members-only club it was his whole move.
The Grind hypothesis
Don’t get me wrong, contemporary mainstream culture does really feeling bad: emaciated, exhausted, obsessed with money and popularity. But Goldberg’s corny argument “why the internet, things are bad” misses any of the really important reasons that could be discussed.
Here’s an example: Does mainstream culture seem to be set on comforting and familiar tropes and is built for superficial and careless consumption? Well, “serious” culture is generally difficult; it requires a level of attention and investment to reap its rewards. Aesthetic pleasure actually implies a certain measure of leisure. So today burnout epidemic And overwork from hustle culture probably doesn’t help build an audience for “serious” culture. Art critic Philip Kennicott argued some years ago that the best program to support the arts would only be if people worked less.
To do you it is easy to read a novel by Toni Morrison after working on “5 to 9” (title of the recent, obnoxious update of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” to meet contemporary needs)? I do not.
Clearly, however, the Internet is not innocent, although “the Internet” is not, in fact, something that can be talked about as a whole. The commercial internet, in particular, has an incentive structure that is not hospitable to sustained “passionate debate” about Real Culture of the kind Goldberg pines for: niche cultures have smaller audiences and critique is labor-intensive; for-profit online media lean inexorably toward writing the most popular culture in the least invested way.
This is not just a Big Media problem. Independent YouTube video essayists complain how the algorithm punishes them for not riding the latest trend or outrage. When Sarah Urish Green left her popular YouTube channel the Art Assignment in 2020, she noticed that what he’d learned from years of making art videos was that basically, discouragingly, viewers clicked mostly on famous artists or controversies.
“And here’s the thing,” she added, “I’m exhausted. That burnout that seems to reach everyone on YouTube has crept up on me too.
Most publications fall somewhere in between, trying to get by as these commercial incentives slowly starve the cultural brain of oxygen. The hot-take cultural economy that Goldberg finds “stale and repetitive” is the product of these economic realities, of course. (Another shift in Goldberg’s argument is between artistic production and “arguments about.” It could very well be that “cool indie stuff” is being made, but if you’re not actively involved in those scenes and only follow the more mainstream conversation, you’re mostly exposed to the more ephemeral and trendy stuff.)
In a recent episode of of the New York Times own PopCast focusing on the low state of hip-hop journalism, writer Jerry Barrow from the website HipHop DX he explained the reality of his field. He remembered an oral history had made of hip-hop group Camp Lo’s debut album, Saturday night uptown. That piece, he says, was
something I was very proud of – very proud of – something he put in time, talked to the guys, dug deep. And she barely made a blip in terms of traffic, I won’t even lie to you. But if one of those guys did something crazy, he got called out for something and we reported it, he’d go through the roof. And this is a daily battle we have as content creators, because I have to get enough traffic to bring in enough revenue to pay for everything else…
The owner of HipHopDX, Sharath [Cherian]—is very shrewd and methodical when it comes to his budgets. Everything must be justified, more than anywhere else. But he’s been in the game for 20 years, so he knows what he’s doing. He knows what keeps the site alive. And I’ve seen, going back, that there are eras of HipHopDX where they did more in-depth stuff, long-form pieces. And he said to me, “Jerry, I can’t justify paying this writer $800 for this piece and it’s not getting me any traffic. While this is a deep dive and well written, this little comment from TMZ will get me four times the traffic and four times the money. So how can I justify paying for this?
And this is the reality… It’s heartbreaking. It hurts and pains me and I try to carve out what I can…
That pretty much sums it all up. It’s also why, ultimately, Goldberg’s editorial annoys me so much.
Because if you work in cultural writing of any kind, you know how much these depressing economic dynamics, which look like a low-level, ongoing crisis, affect everything. You probably feel these pressures intimately as you try to do meaningful work while keeping your good mood and a piece of your soul intact.
And then… comes this New York Times writer, at the pinnacle of establishment media, chatting aimlessly about how no one talks about good art anymore, without even acknowledging those dynamics.
And this is striking. Because I know Goldberg knows. I know these pressures seep into even as lofty a place as the Paper of Record.
What is this editorial, after all, if not a clear example of the “low and boring” level of cultural conversation it denigrates? And what is the best explanation why but that Michelle Goldberg has to meet the clicks of Times readers every week, even when he doesn’t have time to figure out what needs to be said?
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