Enough of the Cultural Pessimism

Pessimism denies the wonders and achievements of modernity

Art, Pessimism,

“We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

Many readers would nod their head in agreement to this damning statement. And who can blame them? In an era whose cultural offerings include The X Factor and Keeping Up with the Kardashians; an age typified by cheap gratification and novelty, is it any wonder why those concerned with the preservation of art, music and literature would feel compelled to make these types of statements?

Except that’s not a statement about manufactured pop acts, vapid reality TV stars or anything else synonymous with 21st century popular culture. In fact, that was a critique made by the great T. S. Eliot in 1948. But I bet I had you fooled.

The tendency for critics to bemoan the decline of culture, a phenomenon known as “cultural pessimism”, is not unique to any particular human epoch and has been occurring for thousands of years. Plato was overtly critical towards the arts, advocating for the censorship of artistic works and the implementation of cultural stasis. Writing in the 18th century, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, believed that the successes of modernity could never surpass the achievements of antiquity. And speaking only this year, the revered pianist, organist and composer Larry Goldings was disparaging in his remarks towards the film La La Land and its “jazz” soundtrack, stating:

“We’re living in a culture of severely lowered standards.”

As both a professional musician and lecturer, I am particularly familiar with these arguments surrounding art and culture, and how often pessimistic views are espoused both by students and peers. Cries of “where have all the great artists gone?” are all too common, and I can’t tell you how frequently students have – without a hint of irony – said to me, “I like all music up until [insert year]. After that it’s all rubbish.”

These negative comments, however, provoke a genuinely intriguing question: Where does this innate propensity to criticise the present while revering the past come from?

There are a variety of theories surrounding cultural pessimism and its roots, with the polymath Tyler Cowen suggesting these critics are under a cognitive illusion. This hypothesis invokes probability, proposing that previous decades are more likely to contain greater works of art than the current decade for the simple reason that there are more of them. Additionally, older works have the benefit of being put through the so-called “Test of Time”; a principle most often associated with philosopher David Hume, which dictates that great artistic works always endure despite changes in time, place and culture. Admired works of the past are therefore a kind of “greatest hits”, allowing us to enjoy the Nirvanas and disregard the Tads, celebrate the Mozarts and forget the Salieris. Given the intrinsic difficultly in deciphering greatness in newer artists and burgeoning art forms, contemporary works will forever be disadvantaged in this respect. Readers may find it surprising to learn, for example, that eighteenth century music critics did not understand the distinctions between Mozart and his contemporaries, and the only reason the young Salzberger was chosen by the nobility of Bohemia to compose the music for La Clemenza di Tito was the fact that Salieri was too busy. Similar instances of these baffling errors of judgement can be found throughout history.

An interesting characteristic of cultural pessimism is that it’s not merely social commentators or cultural critics that subscribe to it. Artists too can be seduced; highlighting that even the more liberal members of a society can be aesthetically conservative. Yet to some, creatives indulging in these kinds of critiques reveals something else: their admiration of the past is a subtle way of belittling their artistic rivals in the present. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes perhaps best summed this up when asserting:

“Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead.”

This innate, competitive instinct is presumably one of the reasons Richard Wagner rarely offered any praise to other musicians, particularly if they were still alive (though he made an exception for piano virtuoso Franz Liszt).

Recent studies coming out of the field of Psychology could also provide some clues as to why cultural pessimism persists. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom suggests our tastes in music begin to harden around the age of 20, with other studies placing the age closer to 14. This is thought to occur due to musical preference being “linked to the time of life where you affiliate yourself with a certain social group.” Besides music, other areas such as food can also experience a “taste freeze”, and once our preferences solidify in these formative years it becomes increasingly difficult to remain open to new experiences. Could these findings partly explain the cynical comments repeatedly heard from older generations when critiquing nascent art forms?

Of course, this isn’t to say that criticism serves no purpose in the arts – quite the contrary. As the philosopher Denis Dutton highlights, criticism is a universal, cross-cultural feature of art, and many consider it essential in maintaining high artistic standards. Without judgements on modern cultural items, how else are we to decipher good from bad? Overly optimistic or uncritical stances on recent works would surely diminish their quality and have a detrimental impact on our cultural output.

But though it is necessary to strike a balance between both cultural optimism and cultural pessimism, we must recognise that this reverence of the past stems largely from cognitive trickery, the passage of time and its capacity to illuminate truly magnificent artistic works, and our inbuilt competitive nature. Furthermore, this pessimism can deny the wonders and achievements of modernity, blinding us to exciting artistic developments and rendering us deaf to innovative musical sounds. So while we draw immense pleasure in revisiting celebrated works of the past, let us too embrace the present with a similar enthusiasm.

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