Moving Image 9-13-2005

Too Much of Everything Means Not Enough of Anything, Part 1

Michael Fallon laments the loss of a clear cultural trajectory, finding a terrible sameness in the profusion of difference.

michael fallon

AT THE RISK OF SOUNDING LIKE GRAMPA ON THE PORCH SWING, let me point out something: Life sure has changed since I was a kid. Now I know a million real grampas on porch swings are shaking their fingers at their laptops (see what I mean), and they’re saying “I’ve been saying this since I can remember,” while a million grandsons and granddaughters are shaking their heads in dismay. But I’m actually very serious here: Things have gone all haywire over the past thirty years or so, and I have evidence.

In simpler days, when sandwiches were on the lunch menu we had several types of Campbell Soup to choose from as accompaniment—Tomato, Chicken Noodle, Chicken Rice, Vegetable Beef, and Cream of Mushroom. Since we couldn’t stand the sight or scent of Tomato or Cream of Mushroom, this meant we had three options. When Campbell’s brought out their Chunky brand, apparently for people who preferred their soup less soupy, we shrugged and stayed away from it as long as we could. Recently, a visit to the soup aisle of my local grocer shocked the hell out of my inner ten-year-old. The shelves are now clogged not only by newer brands like Progresso, Amy’s Organic, Healthy Choice, and generic store labels, but each brand carries its own pantheon of soup varieties—including carb-monitor soups, low-sodium soups, kitchen-classic soups, healthy-request soups, select soups, and low-fat soups.

When I was a kid life was simple. In the summer we drank Lipton tea. At snacktime, we had peanut butter on saltine crackers (or on graham crackers, if we were lucky). I remember when Triskets came out—they still seem a little strange to me (and bless me if Triskets now don’t come in nine freakin’ flavors, according to Nabisco’s website). Years ago, when we were thirsty for a soda pop we had Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, and Dr. Pepper. If we wanted something different, we went for a Shasta or an Orange Crush or maybe the occasional Grape Nehi. When this thing called Tab showed up, we were skeptical and nervous, but it was okay—because, after all, it was still only one little niche product that dieters and and disco dancers seemed to enjoy. Today, there’s a gazillion different children of Tab the Diet Soda: Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke with Splenda, Diet Pepsi with Lime, Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi, Diet Coke with Lime/Vanilla/Lemon/Cherry, Diet 7-Up with Splenda, Diet Sprite, Diet Sprite Zero, Diet Sprite ReMix, Pepsi One, Coke Zero, Diet Dr. Pepper, Diet Dr. Pepper with Cherry and Vanilla, and on and on.

Nowadays, according to an article by Virginia Postrel called “Consumer Vertigo” , a Los Angeles-area Ralph’s grocery store recently boasted it sold 724 varieties of produce—at just a run-of-the-mill store. The cheese section of the store boasted 14 varieties of feta cheese (“what’s feta cheese?!” screams my inner ten-year-old). Meanwhile, on TV the three or four stations we used to watch have been replaced by the hundreds, even thousands, on cable- or satellite-driven TVs. Movie theaters now have upward of twenty screens, rather just one or two. And if you don’t had enough to choose from in this explosion of screens and stations, Netflix and its 35,000 DVD titles is just a click away. Or else, if you’re looking for a little reading, Amazon is a local (virtual) bookstore with 2 million titles within reach of all. In the old days, everyone listened to pretty much the same music (Side A of Dark Side of the Moon, Side B of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run) on the same two or three radio stations, and it was a big deal when “alternative” music was invented and radio stations loosened up a little bit. Now, you can get XM-radio, a conglomeration of 150+ digital radio channels, each in their own independent genre, including six or seven different stations dedicated to variations on the “alternative” genre we saw invented back in the day (“soft alternative,” “alternative hits,” “deep classic alternative,” “hard alternative,” “college/indie,” and so on).

Consumer options have expanded so much that someday we will each become our own individual markets, buying increasingly personalized products. And while such expansion of products results in a watered-down market with decreasing profit margins for ever-increasing numbers of products, businesses deal with this by mega-merger consolidation, through which competing products are bought up and overall market share is controlled by fewer, but larger, corporations eager to feed the ever-expanding demands of their customers. It’s a self-sustaining cyclone spiral of product development and consumption.

SUCH INCREASING INDIVIDUALIZATION IN OUR CULTURE has had an effect on the development of art over the past thirty years. Aside from the fact that the number of people claiming to be artists increased by 300% between 1971 and 2000, there has been an explosion in the number of genres, styles, viewpoints, and so on, in art—with little overall sense of cohesion in the art marketplace. Fads and trends come and go in the art world now at rocket speed, as each new graduating class of MFA students (an estimated 2,500–3,000 each year) brings its own set of issues, riffs, and imperatives each year.

With so many certified artists and so many options, the idea that there could be any kind of cohesion in the art world is a quaint relic of simpler days. Whereas it was common up until just about twenty or thirty years ago for artists to form groups and produce artistic movements that changed the way we thought about and viewed art and the world, today this is a somewhat absurd notion. Just as we’ve reached a time when each consumer is his or her own market, now each artist seems to have become his or her own movement. At the same time, as the number of artists and artistic genres have exploded so too has the sheer amount of cultural choices available to potential consumers of the art all these people make (Recall: 556 cable TV stations, 62 screens at the Cineplex, 2 million volumes on Amazon, etc). It’s a wonderful, big, confusing world of art out there!

Meanwhile, as the art market and arts communities fragment, art museums, galleries, and even artists are acting more and more like big corporations. That is, some have increasingly seen the need to make their product stand out from among the clutter of artistic and cultural offerings available to consumers today, resulting in reliance on blockbuster exhibitions and events. As the New York Times reported several years ago (in “Museums: If You Wow Them, They Will Come” by Elizabeth Hayt), “Spectacle is the buzzword in contemporary art these days.” Meaning: There is an increasing overall turn in art to lavish Hollywood-style, super-sized, big-budget art exhibitions. The article cites Damien Hirst’s 2001 show at the Gagosian Gallery, which cost more than $1 million to mount, and included a twenty-foot-tall painted bronze anatomical figure, gynecological examining rooms submerged in tanks filled with live fish, and vitrines lined with various items such as dogs’ skeletons and 8,000 pills.

Blockbuster museum shows appear nationally at the rate of about one every two months. Museums increasingly are turning to such events to drive attendance and attract funders in an age when state support for arts institutions lags and is spread thin among so much competition. Much has been said, for instance, about the current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.” The show attracted crowds upward of 500,000 in its first month but has drawn criticism for its $30 price of admission, as well as for coopting the museum’s mission. As Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times, the museum, in an “abdication of responsibility, integrity, standards,” “sold its good name and gallery space to a for-profit company” in order to mount the show. Similar complaints were heard locally when a major museum hung “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” and also after it sold off the rights to design a new wing to a major corporation.

In sum, while it’s dandy that so many people are turning out to see what the museums are putting out, and it’s nice that museums can then pay their electric bills, this much energy poured into extravaganzas means much else is ignored. After all, no one heading to see Wookie costumes and Millennium Falcon models is going to stop off and see the contemporary prints or Native American artifacts. In art, just as with the consumer market, I can’t help but wonder what overall price the culture pays in the face so much diffusion and profusion.