Modern culture? Alan Moore agrees with the late Karen Carpenter that It’s Yesterday Once More.
The magnificent American paranoid Phillip K. Dick, while struggling to make sense of his hallucinatory ‘Valis’ experience, reached the conclusion that the Roman Empire “never ended”; had somehow extended itself through time so that our present day remained unwittingly in thrall to its oppressions. This, admittedly, sounds like the diet-pills talking and would be extremely difficult to argue or substantiate through rational debate, but how about the far less hazardous hypothesis that a more recent era has contrived by stealth to never end, to supernaturally sustain itself far past its sell-by date? In short, does anyone have any evidence – some fundamental shift in culture, economics, politics, or our relationship with the environment – that we’re not all still living in the 1980s? A popular American celebrity with weird hair and, conceivably, dementia is residing in the White House, wilfully refusing to accept that we have an environmental or an economic problem while endorsing nuclear confrontation with the East. In Downing Street we have what seems to be a Thatcher tribute act presiding over an increasingly destitute and divided nation, and didn’t I hear that Duran Duran were reforming? Cue appealing photographs of photogenic young royal couples and their babies. Cue catastrophes in education and the NHS. Cue intense discussions as to the identity of the new Doctor Who, or the quality of the last episode of Star Wars.
Western culture, the essential thing itself as opposed to the rapidly developing technologies of its dissemination, after hurrying through the science fiction stylings of the 50s to the 70s in its haste to reach a promised Jetsons future, would seem to have frozen on that future’s threshold as though paralysed with shock at the unprecedented new reality erupting everywhere about it. Seemingly unable or unwilling to move forward into this emergent (and often unnerving) landscape, culture marches on the spot: a great deal of contemporary art and literature seems only to exist in reference to bygone styles or sensibilities, and is apparently no longer capable of generating startling new schools of thought that are sufficient to their changing times in the same way that the Surrealists of the 1920s and Beat writers of the 1950s managed with such fiery panache. Our music, similarly, lacking a new mode or an attendant youth culture in the last quarter of a century, is evidently caught in the same Britpop loop of endless karaoke re-creations and reanimations. As for cinema, it’s here our stalled ambition is made most apparent, with the dead-horse franchises of our beloved 1900s still dragged out every few years and flogged relentlessly, the only innovations being technological rather than those of storytelling or of content. Reaching for a cinematic metaphor appropriate to our predicament, while Groundhog Day would seem the obvious choice it may be that Weekend at Bernie’s makes for a more apt comparison, with our mass culture wheeled out onto the veranda intermittently and made to wave, grotesquely, in the hope that nobody will notice the transparent rigor mortis.
If this is indeed the case – that we are seeking reassurance in the endlessly recycled entertainments of the past because of our reluctance to acknowledge our white-knuckled present, let alone our future – then we surely need to ask how this has happened. After all, human society has weathered cataclysmic shifts and changes previously, but always with a rapidly reacting and adapting culture as its lantern and its compass. The industrial revolution that abruptly morphed several millennia of agricultural landscape into something alien and unexpected was answered with art that spoke to the conditions of its day, with the radical spirituality of William Blake, with the speed and steam of J.M.W. Turner, and, in 1815, with industry’s most perfect metaphor and the resultant birth of science fiction in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. How is it that two hundred years ago the arts were capable of formulating a robust response to circumstances every bit as volatile and startling as our current situation, which today apparently elicits only stuttering repetition? Would it be provocative to speculate that with its lenses cataracted by intensive modern commerce, our vision has failed?
Vision, arguably the single greatest engine of humanity’s development since its tentative cave-wall origins, can neither be predicted nor smoothly commoditised. However much a vision changes or enriches the surrounding human world, the job description of the visionary has never entailed an assured commercial viability. More often, it assures the exact opposite. John Bunyan, crop-haired Roundhead revolutionary during England’s regicidal civil war, authored his blazing Pilgrim’s Progress as a blueprint for political and spiritual rebellion and spent the last decades of his life preaching on day-release from Bedford gaol. William Blake, who died in poverty and lies in a communal paupers’ grave at Bunhill Fields, received just one published review during his long career, describing him as “an unfortunate lunatic”. Going one better, the sublime pastoral ‘peasant poet’ John Clare spent most of his later life in an insane asylum, imagining that he was Byron, that he was Queen Victoria’s father, that he was a famous prize-fighter – basically, that he was anybody other than poor, luminous John Clare. Viewed as a profession, visionaries clearly don’t come with a business plan, and this indeed may be the reason why their presence is less than conspicuous and even possibly unwelcome in contemporary culture – or would be if we had one.
What we have instead is an insidiously persuasive ethos that is pretty much all business plan; a doctrine which insists that any work must be exploited in as many different media as possible in order to take full monetary advantage of its transient brand visibility, because why wouldn’t you? Thus we have novels that, transparently, are little more than pitches for high-concept television serials or movies. We have rock bands working with one eye on the eventual retrospective West End musical, reprising all the greatest hits within an uplifting dramatic narrative. We have fine artists who must learn to play the market before learning to express a personal vocabulary or aesthetic, and blockbuster cinema releases with ambitions, one day, to be t-shirts, greetings cards and lunch boxes: multiple platforms which provide the scaffolds necessary for this comprehensive public hanging.
Vision will always be rare, but we must take care not to engineer a situation where we breed it from our cultural stock entirely in our efforts to raise plumper cash-cows of increased commercial viability. Elusive and impossible to quantify yet clearly indispensible to our ongoing progress as a species, vision is the quality responsible for getting us thus far and is our best hope of resolving our contemporary dilemmas. The transforming insight that we’re waiting for, however, isn’t likely to be one with obvious revenue streams bubbling from it, and might even have no entertainment value whatsoever. It may turn out that our current model of society is unable to function with a randomly explosive element like vision in its mix, although historically our strain of higher primate seems unable to survive without it. In which case, perhaps we’d better call time on the 1980s and finally see the Empire ended. If only we had some way of imagining what we were going to put up in its place…