Response to Edward Rothstein

In the Sunday, December 29, 1996 Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, Edward Rothstein presents a cry of anguish for traditionalism in his cover article Trend-Spotting: It's All the Rage. Needless to say, I think he's got it all wrong, and here's how.

The times they are a changin', and Edward Rothstein doesn't like it one bit. Rothstein is a traditionalist through and through, and bemoans the death of tradition in modern culture like a favorite old aunt's passing. He is left with feelings of vacancy, aimlessness and confusion. No more guiding lights to show the way.

Frankly, I don't give a damn. Nothing personal, Ed. But your old aunt never really did show us the way, she just kept us from pursuing our own paths. She would never have let Robert Frost go off on "the road less traveled" and I am not sorry to see her losing her grip on our culture(s). I just wish she'd finally let go once and for all.

Rothstein effectively describes the replacement of tradition by trends in the modern world, and correctly discounts trends as shallow fluff, but his observations could be re-examined from a different perspective with different results. Here are just a few reactions to passing comments from his article:

  • He talks of our culture "haphazardly strewn about us" and how it is "increasingly difficult to decipher" and "a mess" as if this were some sort of tragedy. Perhaps for someone in the business of defining culture after the fact, this makes things more difficult, but it creates an environment of unfettered opportunity for an individual artist. Contrary to his proclamation that "artists work within a tradition" most artists may be aware of other works, traditional or otherwise, but they work within an individual creative space that they define for themselves. Only critics and musicologists work "within a tradition" because it is they who create traditions in the first place, by analyzing culture from a social aspect rather than from the individual artist's point of view, which clearly must dominate any true understanding of an artist's work. To understand the context is surely important, but not the point of the artist's work itself.

  • Trends are not intrinsic in our culture, they are created by the market structure of the arts businesses, and they are created specifically by the critics and marketers themselves, not by artists, except to the extent that artists concentrate on volume sales and aim to create "a buzz" that they can use for mass marketing their artistic products. Trends are really just little "traditionettes" created for easy identification in the mass marketplace, which still requires category labels in order to effectively address a market perceived to be homogeneous. They are the status quo, old methods in a world that is changing into a more customized, personalized and individualized range of "cultural continuum" without the hard boundaries created arbirtrarily by those who wish to parcel up the world into niche markets. If there were no critics and no mass (niche) markets, there would be no trends.

  • He contends that there is "plenty of movement within a tradition" but this is simply not the case for contemporary artists anymore. Artists only worked within traditions to the extent that they were exposed only to a single tradition. Now that the information age provides us with access to any and all traditions of cultures around the world and over an increasing range of time, the "tradition" of the modern world is multiplicitous. The melting pot, rainbow coalition, whatever you want to call it, opens up a wonderfully rich ocean of possibilities for any individual artist to draw upon, and that opportunity almost demands a "custom-blended" approach for successful artists in today's circumstances. If "the past has become a burden" it's only because those whose reputations and livelihoods rely upon a clear authority of the past over the present have made it so. When the past circumscribes the ability to stretch artistically, it becomes an obstacle to natural artistic expression. Past traditions remain a source of a wealth of rich material, but when they become prescriptive rather than simply descriptive, they become an albatross.

  • Rothstein notes that "many artists have cultivated this attitude" over the last century. He might also note that critics have fought this attitude just as consistently over the same time period. If I have to pick a side, I'll side with Samuel Beckett, who, in Waiting for Godot, creates the ultimate insult to top all insults: "Crrrrrritic!" This attitude is simply a reflection of the natural artistic creative spirit, in opposition to the almost fascist approach of after-the-fact analysis by those in the present trying to gain control over the past, and thus also the future. Tradition is only imposed upon the past by pundits of various kinds. Artists do not pay attention to such classifications in the creative process unless economically forced to do so. Without a thriving artistic expression, critics would have nothing to talk about anyway, so it seems obvious which comes first. Artists could continue to make art without critics, but critics cannot discuss art without art. This is not a symmetrical relationship.

  • Rothstein is justified in reviling the lack of substance of "passing trends" as just all so much fluff. However he is wrong to point to progressivism as the source of such things. Trends are created specifically for marketing purposes, in which modern criticism is an integrated participant. Where he goes wrong is in thinking that older traditions were substantially different. They are just older, and more slowly developing, reflecting the economics of their times. Modern trends are designed specifically to address homogenized consumer niche markets in order to boost the sales volume on a single product as much as possible in order to produce the highest possible profit margin for that product. Addressing a group as homogenized in this way leads directly to a kind of least common denominator pressure on culture that constrains real creativity, and leads to fads that lose our interest more quickly because they are not deep enough to instill passions in the audience the way truly individualized art does. In fact, much of today's most interesting, vital and expressive culture is not accessible in the mass market, any more than older traditions. Trends hurt contemporary art as much as they hurt older art. They hurt art in all forms, because they impose constraints on art that do not have any artistic relevance or origin. They are replacing expressive art with designed consumer culture.

The way to combat this force of decay in culture is not to return to the traditions of the past, but to evolve the market tools of the present and future. The problem is mass marketing to mass audiences. The solution would be customized and individualized marketing to volume audiences. We need to move past the mass-production, mass-marketing industrial age to the mass-customization, individual marketing, computer-powered information age. Funny, we seem to be starting that in earnest already. I see that as a reason for optimism.

-- Dan Krimm, 12/96

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