Take Two #34: Devolution

By Kyra-lin Hom

I recently stumbled across an article from this year's Vanity FairJanuary issue that I'd like to share with all of you. In case you would like to look it up for yourself, the article is entitled “You Say You Want a Devolution?” and it was written by award winning non-fiction novelist Kurt Andersen. It's online and easily found with a google search.

The article covers what Andersen believes to be a radical stagnation in America's popular artistic culture. According to him, for much of America's modern age (say, about the early 19th century onward) there has been a distinct difference between the artistic works of one time period and those produced roughly two decades earlier or later. He cites many examples to nail home his point, but I think most of us can agree on pure instinct. Afro's weren't exactly all the rage in the 1950's or 90's after all. Further, he posits that this trend for innovation has stopped.

Andersen writes that in this age of overwhelming technological development, we have begun to cling to our nostalgic past. Trying to find something familiar, so to speak, amongst the raging newness of our science-fiction worthy video conference calls and Mars landing projects. This is made all the more convenient for us to pursue by the seemingly infinite accessibility and expanse of the Internet. And it's not as if the mass-producing companies with millions invested in their current brand images are going to be pushing for a population-wide evolution any time soon. It would cost them too much to change.

Nostalgia, economic pressure – it seems like a chicken or the egg problem if you ask me. Trends dictate that we apparently want sameness. The clothing stores, music houses, film companies, etc. want our money for the least amount of output. The longer they invest in one particular style, the less they have to pay to stay 'up to date' – whatever that means anymore – because they've already got the formula in the bag. This means they'll encourage us to remain in this trudging sameness for as long as they can milk it. So the goods get cheaper and we keep buying them because we think that's what we want, same and cheap.

The result is Andersen's 'Devolution.' From a Western cultural and historical standpoint, it should be alarming that we can't consistently tell the difference between songs produced, houses built, shirts purchased in the 90's and today. Why? Because cultural stagnation nearly always hints at deeper seated problems. Look at the history of Rome, Ancient Egypt, France, Imperial China – heck even Game of Thrones' mythical Westeros. If progress has ground to a halt, it probably isn't doing so in just your country's art sector.

Take for example, that the amount of paperwork needed to start a simple, small private bank actually requires a full-sized van to carry it all. I can't imagine how much time it would take to go through each page line by line let alone the resources required to consistently remain within each and every guideline. And it's all because we've decided regulation is better than hiring someone to use his/her common sense. That way, if something goes wrong, no one has to take the fall. 'They' just write another guideline.

Now imagine that thousands and thousands of times more complicated and that's probably what the obstacle course that is our government looks like. Oddly enough, politics and art have a lot in common. When you just keep building on and rehashing what was created decades ago, things don't progress. A popular fashion technique nowadays is reconstructing old garments into new ones. This is actually much harder to do than starting with raw fabric. Moreover, no matter how well you've made your new piece, it will still contain the flaws inherent in the old material. It might seem like you're getting somewhere, but it's nothing actually new.

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