Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mass Production Means the Death of Style

Just a few days ago I and my husband were judging the date of a YouTube video by the hairstyles and clothing of the people in the audience at a concert. Usually when we look at films or TV shows from the last 70 years we can pretty easily guess the decade in which they were created. Kevin Drum posted this interesting observation: "Kurt Andersen writes in Vanity Fair this month about something that I've noticed too: visual style hasn't changed much over the past 20 years:
Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it.

....Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.
You can pretty quickly recognize a movie made in the early 70s or the early 50s. But the early 90s? In movies like Silence of the Lambs or Basic Instinct, only tiny clues give away when they were made.

Andersen's theory is that we're victims of future shock: "In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out." That doesn't really sound very convincing to me, but his basic observation about the inertia in fashion and other visual cues over the past couple of decades seems fair. Anybody got a better explanation?"

My explanation: corporitization of culture. Everything is mass-produced with the sole criterion the lowest manufacturing price possible. Design costs money. Our Wal-mart culture would rather have cheap look-a-like basic clothing made in sweatshops in Asia rather than spend a little more and have individual, stylish, but more expensive clothing. Everything's cookie-cutter. Cars have no individuality. Our electronic hand-held devices are minimalist - no room for anything but function. This stripping-down has been a steady process through the last hundred years but it took a long time to eliminate style this completely (think about the style in antique handcrafted wooden cabinets, a typical one had scrollwork and carved ornaments, and compare that to a typical piece for sale in a furniture store today).

Mr. Anderson's idea that we are overwhelmed by newness is a common misperception about history; that our time is notable for its disruptions due to rapid technological change. The Industrial Revolution upended Great Britain, tore up cultural foundations that had been in place for centuries (an agricultural/artisan pre-industrial economy), and replaced them with profoundly new lives for the working class: mechanized factory jobs and city living replaced a much less regimented rural existence.