Asked on twitter whether we'd know if we were living through a golden age....
I was thinking about this with all the Thatcher-fanfare. I grew up with a wealth of cultural opportunities - I really did. NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror competed for my attention (lets not forget Smash Hits, Flexipop and Zig Zag among others). Post-punk, goth, new wave, new romantic, electro, rap, reggae, NWOBHM, industrial... a whole load of musical genres spoke of the fluidity of the age. This wasn't the downbeat message of Tory Britain or the legacy of the late 70s, this was a newness. I didn't think it was a golden age at the time, because I just assumed that there would always be that excitement...
Similarly, in film and TV: we had the launch of C4, and whole new strands of programming as a result, as well as the home video, which allowed us to sample all kinds of films, and record our favourite programmes for relistening. The 4-track recorder put recording tools in my 18 year old hands; and if we computing was still nascent, the iconography of the video game was already well established, so that TV shows like Max Headroom and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy seemed genuinely now. In fiction, not only Douglas Adams, but Iain Banks was creating a contemporary narrative that appealed. Stephen King was still at his best ("Christine", "Pet Sematary", "The Body"), and his earlier books were widely available. "Money" "Blood and Guts in High School" and "Cities of the Red Night" and "The Place of Dead Roads" came out just before I started University and I would read these classics not long after their publication.
I think the early 80s was a bit of a golden age - the explosion of creativity that came with punk leading to many different things - and new technology, from VHS to 4-track to early computers and affordable synthesizers bringing culture (and counter culture) even into a small art-free village twenty miles from Birmingham. None of this, of course, was helped by Thatcher or the Tories, much of it - low art, I guess - antithetical to their view of things. Or maybe, everyone's late teens is a golden age?
Did I at the time know it was a golden age? I don't think so - and, here's the rub, I was very much a consumer of it, rather than an active participant. There wasn't a lot of space in my University or in the wider world for suburban teenagers who thought they could write a bit. You had to be American or in London or in a whole different millieu to "make it." I scrubbed a way at fanzines and college magazines, at 4-track recordings, and handwritten poems, but without, I have to say, much in the way of a peer group.
That's what interests me about now - for if I said there's a clear distinction between the arts of then and now its that the internet in particular, but also the rise in participatory arts, has enabled a lot of writers, artists, musicians to go beyond their group of friends and put things out more publicly. Ironically, at the same time that this is happening, the mainstream media (and mainstream institutions: bookshops, HMV, universities) pretty much ignores what's going on. DIY culture may have begun as a web-infused space, but its now happening at a "pop up" near you. These scenes are rarely "public" because the one thing they haven't got is a marketing and publicity budget. It is word-of-mouth, or the networking of individuals that draws people in. But this is only as it should be. Kenneth Branagh in Macbeth may be the big sell at this year's Manchester International Festival, but its grassroots stuff such as the 247 Festival that surely create the cultural vibrancy...and if not leading to the next Shakespeare, may at least provide an opportunity on which the next Branagh can cut their teeth.
A "golden age" probably needs audience as well as practitioners - and perhaps, those few individuals who lift or get lifted above the scene which spawned them. That's yet to happen I think. Mainstream still looks to Oxbridge before it looks to the 3 Minute Theatre in Afflecks palace for instance. Chris McCabe's "Shad Thames, Broken Wharf" or Lars Ilyer's "Spurious" seem to me to have a better chance of being talked about in a decade than more mainstream works. Had we been going to literary nights in the Bowery with Kathy Acker and Dennis Johnson in the late seventies; fetching up at CBGBs to see Blondie and Television, would we have known that this was the golden age?
And I'm biased here of course: the literary works are odd things - happening in the oddest of places. "Scenes" are more closely allied with music or film - where you need different people to gather together. Yet there's something else as well, and this is perhaps where we are falling short, or yet to make the mark. There are plenty of good, competent books, plenty of nicely written short stories - but I'm not seeing that much in the way of the innovative, or the unusual. A "scene" has the advantage of drawing people in - even those outsiders whose work doesn't fit a prevailing mode - but it can also create a flattening; a desire to please, hoping for laughter, hoping for applause.
Artistically, I think these are good times, but there's still tinder here waiting for a spark - nostalgia too often rules - the old institutions are a bit impervious as ever, and nobody's got the money to build new ones; the audience is ourselves, and needs to be widened. Golden ages exist alongside humdrum times after all, and its not always easy to see where the one finishes and the other begins.
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