For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ''24'' episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all.What's interesting to me is that this phenomenon was observed in network television, "mass media." I expected this kind of thing to really come into its own with plurality and the diversification of niche channels and the Internet, i.e. the long tail effect.
(Musings about TV's relationship to visual art, and the roles of producers vs. consumers)
In Aesthetics Proseminar we're discussing Arthur Danto's idea of "the end of art." He argues that the major narrative of art, from the Renaissance when art was first recognized as an activity to pursue for its own sake (as opposed to merely utilitarian or religious reasons), through modernism when the focus shifted from representation to exploration of the art process and materials, through the contemporary when the very idea of art is questioned (Duchamp's urinal asks: "why am I art?") -- he argues that this narrative has ended; it's exhausted itself. Post-narrative art, therefore, is pluralistic, and as opposed to, say, 50 years ago (when surrealist art was ignored by art critics and historians as counter to the "real" trend of art, for example), now "everything is permitted." So now that "art" (the narrative) has ended, Danto argues, new art must incorporate an awareness of the narrative, must show that it understands its relationship to this common history and that it has moved self-consciously beyond it.
Perhaps Johnson's observation about TV can be seen in a similar way. "The Love Boat" was perhaps a stage to be passed through, one that was innovative for its time but quickly outgrown. Perhaps the increasing sophistication of mass media is part of the process of the TV world's "narrative" continuing to raise the bar for itself, until the point when finally it will reach its logical conclusion and then plurality (the long tail?) will take over.
So, what's counterintuitive about that analysis is that it implies that TV's development is internally driven, not driven by the public's demand, as most people seem to assume. But in art, the public demand was and is often shaped by what goes on in haute circles. When I worked in the framing store, plenty of people were framing Kandinsky and other stuff that may have been art-historically significant but which I didn't find that intrinsically appealing. As I think the radio model of popular music shows, the consuming public is often led to want what is being offered, through training them to like it or convincing them that it is fashionable. So perhaps the development of current TV shows is more driven by the writers and producers' artistic vision than it may seem prima facie. Perhaps the model has more push (as opposed to pull) than we, on the pull side, tend to think.
This line of thought has interesting, and rather opposite, repercussions when applied to utilitarian products as opposed to artistic ones, because makers of art and manufacturers of products have quite different motives. It implies that strategies like "planned obsolescence" can be more successful than we'd want. But again, the increasing availability of independent information on product quality could turn it around.
Steven Johnson (stevenbjohnson) appears to be an interesting author. Incidentally, this confirms my ongoing observation that some of the best philosophers are actually physicists.