In the contemporary era, with our record levels of wealth, technological advancement and scientific understanding, it follows that our culture should be as groundbreaking as everything else. We should be composing the best ever music, building the best ever buildings, and painting the best ever art. Yet in most ways, the culture of the past was more sophisticated and refined. Why?
Modern culture often values function over form. Take mosques for example. If you go to countries like Iran or Turkey, the oldest mosques are utterly sublime: the attention to detail is breathtaking. Go to any mosques built within the last half a century, and although the engineering skills have increased, the mosques no longer demonstrate the same intricacy or craftsmanship. The same could be said of churches, or most buildings with a medieval and a modern equivalent. We just want thinks to work well, and care less for the effort put into it. Minimalism is elevated, and ‘fussiness’ deplored. But perhaps we have lost something.
Mass production has deprived manufactured products of their personality. Which is more beautiful, the handmade dress or one made in a third-world sweatshop? Which employs more skill, the plate made by hand in a pottery, or one churned out in a ceramic factory? By making things in bulk and on the cheap, we lose the diverse identities and talents of the individual. Marx noticed this in what he called the alienation of labour from its products. Unlike Marx, I’m not calling for capitalism to be replaced. But perhaps the efficiency of capitalism is also its ugliness. Just as significantly, perhaps the globalisation of capitalism has caused the different cultures of the world to become more similar, just as the nature of our economies has converged.
Conservatives are generally the ones who deplore modern culture the most. They argue the decline of culture is a result of the decline of traditional morality. Look at how much sex and mindless violence there is in culture nowadays. Would a moral and truly religious society permit that? Equally, culture has become derivative in its endless pursuit of being anti-establishment, anti-tradition and often overtly left wing. Trying to be edgy or countercultural is no longer profound when counterculture is the culture.
Culture has fallen victim to the desire for everything to be quick and easy. Fast food may not taste very nice, and may be bad for you, but its easily made and everyone knows what they’re getting. Modern pop music uses a familiar song structure, simple melodies, predictable chord sequences and is virtually always in 4/4 time. But it’s catchy, short enough to be played on the radio and easy to make, so it catches on. In the age of convenience, culture which values time, effort, and acquired tastes, is sidelined.
But for most younger people, modern culture isn’t so bad. There is plenty of good art, music, films, literature, food and architecture out there- you just have to know where to look. Globalisation has given rise to new forms of culture, such as Tex-Mex food, Korean pop or Nigerian cinema. Moreover, they decry critics of modern culture as being socially conservative reactionaries, overly nostalgic for a golden age which never existed, and who view good taste from a parochial, Western viewpoint. Ultimately, the desire to assess culture in a hierarchical fashion is a nonsense when you consider that it is social construct, good taste is entirely subjective, and everything is constantly evolving. Those who wish to wear three-piece suits and tailcoats, listen to Renaissance or Baroque music and read Chaucer are perfectly free to do so. The rest of us will move on happily.