2018-12-28

Where Young People Have Something To Say, Art Will Flourish


An offhand thought I had the other day: Art is only any good in societies that have something to say.

First of all, I can't prove this, so don't bother arguing with me. It's simply a consideration.

Consider the most recent artistic explosion of my lifetime: the early 1990s. Reasonable people can argue as to the inherent worth of the things that Generation X had to say, but it seems impossible to contest that they did, in fact, have something to say. The result was a massive wave of artistic output that has not since been equaled. In music, there was the so-called "grunge" or "alternative" music revolution. For better or worse, an entirely different sound took hold of the musical landscape and changed things basically forever. In film, there was a flood of new styles that, in hindsight, are perfectly obvious. No one who watches even a B-movie from the 90s can deny the stark difference in cinematography compared to the average movie from the 80s. The book world moved away from classic murder mysteries and toward dark new thrillers from the likes of John Grisham and idiosyncratic takes on familiar themes, like Interview with the Vampire.

This is not the only example, of course. Before that, there was the great and disruptive social revolution of the 1960s, during which every conceivable art form changed drastically; and, I would argue, beautifully. Before that, the early 20th Century brought us atonal music, jazz, Dadaism, and even "modern art" itself, all during a time of remarkable social upheaval. When young people had something to say, art flourished.

There is nothing like that happening today. The closest thing is perhaps the Netflix series thing, where beautifully shot serial soap operas are made available all at once, and then viewers "binge watch." It's close, I admit, but it doesn't seem to have the same kind of staying power that Full House did. Think about it -- nobody goes back and watches old reruns of Deadwood. Once you've gone through it the first time, you never think about it again. It exists only in the vague memories of "stuff you once binge-watched." But almost everyone smiles and laughs when they see old re-runs of Full House or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Even cheap sitcoms were more artistically sound in the 90s than the cream of the Netflix series crop. As for music and visual art, forget about it. There is no revolution going on out there; it's a never-ending quest to achieve viral status with increasingly more generic-sound or -looking artistic output.

And this is because today's young people have nothing to say. There is no great message from the up-and-coming generation. They seem cynical and socially engaged, but it somehow never manages to go beyond social media memes and "campus protests." Even the campus protests strike me as being quite tame; not the least because there is no safer and less-disruptive place to stage a protest than in the common area of a university. They sure ain't marching on city hall!

Interacting with young people today is no more encouraging about what their message to the world might be. In general, they seem skittish and distracted. At best, they sound like they're leaving something important unsaid, which they will only divulge to their friends on Snapchat or some other such direct message platform. As for holding their heads high and saying something genuinely controversial -- leaving themselves vulnerable to widespread criticism and peer-review: forget about it.

There are probably good reasons for why young people no longer behave this way. It likely all makes sense and is not at all their fault that they do so. I don't mean for this to be a value-judgment. It's simply a plain fact: wherever young people have nothing interesting to say, art will not flourish.

Bear in mind, too, that I'm speaking primarily from a North American perspective. There are places in the world where this is not true. Much has been written about the booming heavy metal scene in Africa. Much less has been written about the thriving art scene in India, where young people gather at open mic nights and sing, play music, read poetry, and more. And there are surely small pockets of artistic output scattered elsewhere throughout the world, including even right here at home. This is great. The point is, where young people have something to say, art will flourish.