Sunday, June 25, 2017

The End of Cultural History

When Fukuyama wrote about the "end of history" in 1992 he was prompted by the fall of communism in 1989. taking the intellectual gamble that the "cold war" and its ending was a defining moment. Debunked somewhat since - not least by 9/11 - there's a certain sense-making that went into that declaration. The short twentieth century would be one that began with the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand and ended with the fall of the Berlin wall. Had she been of the persuasion to argue with cultural commentators, my grandmother (1904-2000) might have found a problem with such neat boundaries.

It is in our nature - or at least it has been - to package up the past into manageable historical chunks. Whereas history follows the flow of political and economical upheaval, culture is both more malleable and more troublesome. We teach culture through its epochs, we exhibit it according to a timeframe, as a new show at Liverpool Tate - covering Weimar art 1918-1933 - again shows. Here a political boundary frames the cultural boundary; ending with an abruptness that we know from our history books - and from, say, Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin."

I picked up an educational art book this week - "Modernism in Dispute" - which came out in 1993, and traces modernism throughout the 20th century. Its final chapter, through concentrating on the sixties, does include art up to a Richter picture from 1989, very close to the time of writing. Yet the 1990s seems the last point that we have a clear view of the cultural world with an obvious cut off point (the millennium), even if it is only now that we are beginning to historify those movements - YBAs, Britpop, grunge. A recent comeback by TLC, has seen some quick flicking through the cultural history books to anoint the original incarnation as the start of a process that continues unabated through Beyonce, Rihanna and the rest. Yet even the nineties seems under, or un-documented in some way. You'll look in vain for a book on the "nineties novel" for instance - though it can be argued that it was the high water mark for that form; and as for poetry any discussion of "modern" or "contemporary" poetry seems to stretch way back - the deaths of Hughes and Heaney hardly being enough to put them on the history shelves.

I think part of the reason for this is that cultural lives are so much longer now than they used to be; with a demographic audience bulge - the baby boomers - refusing to give up house space (literally: they own all the houses) to the younger generation. So a venerable poet like Sharon Olds or Michael Longley can be shortlisted for contemporary prizes, not as a long service award, but on the merits of their work. (I won't comment on the merits - but it would an unusual poet to write their best work so late in their career.) The music industry is even more prone to this. At Glastonbury, at least one eighty something - Kriss Kristoffersen - was making his debut, whilst headliners included Barry Gibb, Chic and the Jacksons, which would have seemed historical in 1980. In this context the member for Islington appearing to rapturous crowds seemed positively youthful. Not that I'm not unaware of my own creeping years - with nineties icons Foo Fighters and Radiohead headlining two of the days, it could be argued it was a line up made for people now in or beyond their forties.

The other reason we don't seem to have much cultural era-defining these days, is that the "end of history" was closely followed by a new year zero: with the creation of the world wide web. Someone somewhere should be doing a PhD on the relative "online" presence of cultural materials pre- and post- the web. From the mid-90s onwards, the breakdowns between eras has been stopped by us being in the first tranche of the new information age. Twenty years seems hardly enough to process the cultural impact of the web - and it seems because of this people have stopped trying. By this time in the 20th century Ezra Pound had marshalled his Imagists to create an anthology, whilst a series of Georgian books stood in traditionalist opposition. We live in a an age of cultural plurality, where the Rolling Stones are still touring, Carol Ann Duffy and Billy Collins are the most well known poets of the time, despite their more iconic work being long since past, and where we are just about celebrating (if that's the word) two decades of Harry Potter. The cinema of this new century is predicated on franchises that were nurtured in the last - either film ones such as the Star Wars universe - or from that glory of post-war American culture, the comic book superhero. Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Theresa May will all be aware of Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman and Planet of the Apes - even if Ghostbusters and Star Wars are aimed more squarely at my generation.

It seems that the speed at which modern cultural consumption takes place now puts demands on its producers; so that the boxset serial is now an industrial product running for between five and ten years. In this landscape a single book, or a nascent poetry scene, or an emerging art style, find it hard to find traction. I suspect in twenty years time there will be celebrations of artists, writers and musicians that we are missing as we speak, simply because of the over-production of cultural artefacts.

With Manchester International Festival starting on Thursday for just over two weeks, this biennial is now old enough to have its own history, and has certainly changed the cultural landscape of the city, though whether it has had as much impact culturally as economically is another question. There are a series of debates at this year's festival, but they are primarily about the world, not this small part of it: yet surely there is a time for some cultural reflection on our blockbuster culture, of which MIF is now part? Have any of the shows that it has put on lifted themselves into some kind of cultural status? I'm not so sure...rather it seems that this is the new travelling circus, rocking up in a new city every couple of years, and putting on an extravaganza that we are unable to match when it's not here. Glastonbury, that doyenne of festivals, has the same sense of itself as cultural event. But looking back historically, festivals and Expos and the like were always about the potential to create change, rather than simply replicate themselves: so Monterey and then Woodstock are iconic showcases of sixties music; or the Armoury Show was when European modern art exploded into Britain. Perhaps our very connectedness mitigates against that these days? I will look for signs of cultural seeds taking root over the coming weeks.

So if there is a book on, say, 90s poetry, or first decade or art, or the novel in the internet age, I'm yet to read it. Perhaps Fukuyama was expecting too much of humanity's political and economic elites, and should have addressed his argument at a more socio-cultural level. It may not seem to be an imperative that we "fix" this lack, but without the commentary, without the critical culture, without the sense of unseating icons, or making the case for new ones, the culture itself stultifies, into mere commodity.

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