In an essay named "Economics Not Culture", my friend Steven Savage asserts that economic processes have replaced cultural ones. I agree, and I believe the problem is even worse than the way he describes it.
I admit this is not a new concept, or a particular profound one. But it has taken on a new and virulent form in the last few years. It is the idea that there is no better way to determine the worth of something culturally by how well it performs in the marketplace — and by that token, the only things worth producing are those which get mobbed on by enough people that no unusual efforts (aside from efforts of scale and scope) have to be made to sell it.
The idea of economics as a cultural force (at least as it is most relevant here) can be traced back to — who else? — Marx. His concern was that capital reduces the individual to an integer in a system that inevitably exploits him. That all had a germ of truth to it, but he missed several other things which severely undermined the predictive power of his work.
Most crucially, he ignored (or failed to comprehend) the way people do not conveniently inhabit one economic role exclusively. A worker is a capitalist the minute he enters a store he doesn't actually work in and buys something with his money. The owner of a business is said to work for himself, but he really works for the clients he has and the customers who buy his products; without them, he's just as hapless as anyone he would be allegedly exploiting.¹ Otherwise, economic boycotts would not have any power.
Out of any economy there can arise a cultural creed: the only things worth creating are the things worth selling. This by itself is not bad, but it grows ugly when compounded thus: the only things worth selling are the things worth selling to the biggest possible audience. Not the audience that is right for the material, whatever size it may be; just the biggest possible audience.
Like Steven, I am not against mindlessness. I'm against the way mindlessness drives out everything else from the marketplace. I've said before that it's not the fact of the success of The Avengers that bugs me, it's the fact that most every big movie from now on — that is, most every movie with a large budget, or a large marketing budget — is going to be a variation on that theme. (It has been for some time now, but this only cements it all the more.)
I've come to think of this not as a failure of creating, or even a failure of capital, but as a failure of marketing — or, rather, a triumph of the most technocratic aspects of marketing. When someone says about a particular thing, "We can't figure out a way to market this", chances are they really mean, "We aren't going to bother figuring out a way to market this, because there's other things we could sell for minimal effort that will get us orders of magnitude more money." The idea of getting behind something you give a damn about is jettisoned, and not just because everyone has to earn a living.
I admit, no business I know of would consider this to be defective thinking. But the problem with such an approach is that it impoverishes the culture all of us are forced to live with, and live in. When the only things left on the market are things that are so, well, marketable, then all the other possibilities vanish. The idea of art for art's sake (which has already gone impoverished for decades) doesn't even rate a footnote, except in a museum — and putting something in a museum is the fastest way to kill its cultural significance.²
What's ironic is how the very companies that can afford to spend the time and effort to market quirky things in the first place simply don't bother to do so. It's just not their job. Every minute they're not trying to sell the next Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Gray is, for them, wasted time (and thus wasted money). They might well be served better than they think by taking a small portion of the purse they reap from their blockbusters and setting that into a fund to help give a market to things that won't sell millions, but might well find a core audience of devotees. It would be, in essence, a version of the R&D departments at various technology companies that don't have to develop salable technologies, just interesting ones.
Here and there are signs this can happen. Labels like Shout! Factory and the Criterion Collection bring quality (and quirky) work to an audience that's just big enough to justify the investment, and make a tidy profit. But almost no big-box bookseller, movie studio, or record company considers such things worth their time, in part because nobody in the driver's seat at those places thinks twice about the consequences of creating a cultural environment where there is no genuine alternative to anything. Or if they do, it consists entirely of preserving pieces of the past rather than investing in new work for the future.
The long-term consequences of this cultural pollution are insidious and often invisible, like rising carbon dioxide levels. Its most visible symptom is the lackluster, lock-step, by-rote quality of so much of what is put out there, because it is bred to be that way from the beginning. Everything starts to look the same. Ennui sets in. The idea that a work of fantasy could be something other than a Tolkien clone, for instance, seems unthinkable. A whole generation of people grow up with the idea that things cannot be any different, or that the most we can hope for is variations on a theme. Nothing new under the sun, so why try?
I am not going to make the argument that there was once a time when things were better, so all we have to do is wind the clock back. Not only is that impossible, it explains nothing: it doesn't tell you why the current state of affairs is so problematic. There was never a time when Hollywood was not a business and its function was not to buy talent. But the way all this happens now — not just with the movies, but most everywhere — makes it all but impossible for work to exist without it having to pander to the largest possible audience and thus denature itself.
Some would be inclined to say, if folks can't compete, then it's their fault, isn't it? Sure, one grain of truth can be found there: many of the folks who are shoved out of the picture do not want to do the legwork needed to make themselves visible. But not all of them are like that. Some work very hard indeed, and find themselves confronted by the haplessness of marketers who are simply looking for the easiest possible way to do their job: by promoting variations on the already-successful themes.
Tempting as it is to say that's life in the big city, such a homily doesn't explain everything. It doesn't explain why there is such a push not only to find but to construct work that fits all the more readily into a commercial pipeline: e.g., the realms of how-to-get-your-screenplay-sold books, which mostly consist of advice on how to write exactly like every other screenwriter. It obscures the fact that the biggest customers for such work are not the "punters" as they say in the U.K. — the ticket-buyers and seat-fillers — but the pipelines themselves, the big-box chains, the exhibitors, the distributors, the Amazons and Costcos and Best Buys. They only have so many slots to fill, only so many inches of shelf space, only so much effort they're willing to put into promoting something, because of the sheer volume of stuff out there. Anything that isn't worth their time, or so they think, isn't going to be worth anyone else's, either.
The other day, in another forum, people were lamenting the way a lot of moviegoers seem to be ahistorical: they don't care about anything made before they were born (or even made before ten years ago, and to hell with anything in black and white). I doubt this is new, but I do believe, again, it is being exacerbated by current circumstances. It has become all the easier to be sealed into a bubble of one's own tastes, especially when those tastes are informed by what's readily available and popular.
The creators, too, become infected with the same ahistoricity: they don't have any incentive to study anything older than the last wave of goodies, because they don't imagine there's a point to such an exercise. We already know what works, they say to themselves, and then the soil gets that much more fallow for yet another generation. Kiss goodbye the idea that the creator should also be a scholar of the things he is creating.
The real danger of economic behaviors supplanting cultural ones is not merely that we are surrounded by movies with numbers at the end of the title. It is that we lose the power to wonder how, or why, any other state of affairs could exist. It is a failure of many things, but predominantly a failure of imagination, and a society without imagination is spiritually dead.
¹ None of this is to say that exploitation doesn't happen, only that it doesn't always map conveniently into the narratives we often use to explain or describe it.
² There are still places receptive to the idea that you can create something for the sake of creating it — the Creative Commons culture, for instance. But it seems they can exist only in contrast to commercially-oriented culture and cannot wholly replace it.