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
- 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
Music Unbound - Home