Culture has changed so immensely in recent times that it’s difficult for us to keep up. Thus, we often regress to the idea that music is limited to the less-than-great chart fodder of today, movies are nothing but remakes, superheroes, and sequels, while TV is a tacky reality world with the occasional crime gem, and you can’t even be funny anymore. Alas, that’s a lie that comes to the fore as a way of processing the bewildering bombardment that pop culture has become, and it glosses over a wealth of art, the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Now firstly, let me say that I delve into the rightfully lionised library of our cultural past as much as the next fellow. For instance, I have no problem asserting that 1971 is undoubtedly the greatest year in music history—if you Google the list of albums released that year, you’ll be greeted with a string of masterpieces that leave you questioning reality. However, when you pry at the stats behind many of those masterpieces, you’ll see that records like Velvet Underground’s Loaded completely failed to chart, Paul McCartney’s Ram was panned by critics, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue only peaked at 15 in the US.
This is partly indicative of a saturation of great music, but for the most part, it is proof that the mainstream isn’t always the best watermark for the cultural times. The same can be said for the current music industry. The times have changed and sadly the internet has made music less scene-defining. However, it has also provided a vast platform, and amid the slew of people making records, there are endless great outings in the welter. This much was apparent during lockdown when no doubt new artists came to the fore for you personally and offered up some escapist salvation.
So many amazing albums have been released in the last five years that have been widely underappreciated. You can bemoan that fact for all sorts of reasons, but it certainly isn’t indicative of a dearth in the cultural times. There is simply more on offer. The punk ethos of wrestling art away from the bourgeoise and making it more about having something to say has been a triumph that we are not merely still reeling from but grasping with more gratitude than ever. And with more people creating and producing art, there is not only a huge variety but a rapid evolution of form.
A paradigm for all of this was the recent Peter Jackson documentary The Beatles: Get Back. This oddity was a tricky thing to place in culture. For one, it was 468-minutes long. Documentaries aren’t meant to be like that, especially when they’re about a 35-minute album. In another era, the very notion would’ve been rendered insane. This led to some mixed reviews upon release, but many of these were viewing Get Back through a conventional lens. This was hugely understandable because the beauty of it was that it filled a new cultural void—ambient entertainment.
I use the phrase ambient entertainment to describe the sort of thing you watch which on paper is bordering on the boring, but it actually transfigures the term mind-numbing into an artistic compliment. Now, alongside conventional art forms, we have these nuanced areas cropping up all over the shop with things like wholesome experimental comedy, podcasts, and interactive platforms. And because the conventional mediums that still serve as gatekeepers have been slow in the uptake of how to deal with this rising tide of alternative art, they have remained under-credited.
The innovation of new artistic vagaries in itself is not what makes recent times a cultural triumph, but it is indicative of how the transition of art has created this weird reality, whereby we are forever consuming it, but often undervaluing it. Not a day goes by when I’m not being recommended something I’ve never even heard of; whether that be a movie, a book, a new series, a record or a podcast on the Chiang Mai embassy. It isn’t a stretch to say that this is happening to a more prevalent degree than ever before. In fact, the stats back it up.
And with more people engaging with art on any level, the better it is for breaking boundaries. It wasn’t really until painters like painters Georgia O’Keeffe or the sadly late Paula Rego that women were accepted on canvas. Now, art academies are made up of 90% female attendees, and that is a triumph in itself. Naturally, we still have a long way to go with increasing the diversity of cultural involvement, but the fact that strides are being made is a credit to the times and a celebration of the trailblazers of the past.
In short, sometimes it might not seem that culture is experiencing glory days on the surface, but there is simply so much surface these days that it’s tricky to comprehend. Nevertheless, it is a reality we ought to consider more often. After all, it’s a safe bet if you popped down to the cinema tomorrow that no matter what genre of film you favour you may well be able to enjoy a good movie. Likewise, you could find a random gig tomorrow night and come out thinking it was well worth the ticket price. And if you just have five minutes free time to kill then you can pop on a podcast, pick out a poem, or press play on a random segment of a near-500-minute documentary and be entertained in that capacity too.
If culture is the spice of life then there is more flavour about than ever before. As Broken Bells sing in the song below, “We see the darkness over light, But have we ever really lived in better times?”