A few months ago, I was browsing the internet, as you do when you’re bored, and per usual the news was disheartening and infuriating, Instagram was full of the same pictures of people’s food and their new clothes or the photoshoot they staged in front the Louvre and everyone was warring on Facebook and Twitter. So I tried to read a new book, but quickly grew bored. I tried to watch a new movie and maybe I wasn’t bored but it was a remake of something old and I suddenly became acutely aware of the stale air permeating everything both informative and creative and I grew ravenous for something fresh.
And so I did something contrary to what you might assume of someone who was hungry for something fresh and new and I dug backwards through history to sink my teeth into something old.
I started rereading the classics, I watched classic movies and I listened to classic rock and also Mozart and I felt like I started to come alive again. I was interested in that phenomenon. How could something like Wuthering Heights, something I’ve read several times before and something written over 170 years ago, feel fresh?
Why would going to see a Shakespeare play, set in a circular open air replica of the Globe theatre, feel new and exciting? Why would listening to Def Leopard and watching Hello Dolly and staring at ancient art feel like the new “it” thing?
And I think the answer is actually quite simple. This was art when it still felt genuinely human. Before it was made up of plastic and code and created using a template rather than a muse. Back before it was only considered successful if it could be turned into a funko pop, put on a t shirt or stripped down to a barely there outfit and made to dance on stage, in full hair and makeup.
Bottom line? In today’s world a starving artist, no matter how genius, is just a drain nobody has time for whereas a successful artist makes somebody rich, fast. (Never mind you, Emily Bronte and Vincent Van Gogh. Go sit back down.) And successful artists have become an easy thing to mass produce (and all things mass produced are easy things to dispose, but reality is such a drag. I shouldn’t bring it up.)
That’s not to say book deals and recording contracts are new things. Money and art have long had a complicated relationship with one another. After all, a starving artist would always rather be a rich artist and history reflects that too. A book deal is arguably what drove F Scott Fitzgerald to alcholism and near ruin. (Well, that and Zelda.) Paintings were commissioned at a high price (what’s up Leonardo?), and movie stars were rich and 80s hair bands did strip down to barely any clothes and dance on stage in full hair and makeup to make millions. P Diddy actually made no bones about it being “All About the Benjamins.” But even so, something about the art of old speaks to a part of me that lights up and I’m pretty sure it’s because it feels like it was made by a human being.
In other words, I still sense that it was art for the sake of being art. Expression. Talent. It was created by a person with a story to tell. It was painted by a person who was always pushing beyond their ability and looking for new techniques. It was sung by people who were not the best looking, or the had to most potential to sell merchandise, but people who could write kick ass lyrics and pair them with music that rang out of their souls and spoke to humanity—not the latest drama in a career-long streak of drama.
The movies didn’t have to have a billion dollars worth of special effects to be interesting, because the talent and the writing and the story itself, was interesting. The music didn’t have to be attractive. It just had to be something you could dance to, sing to, or cry to. The books didn’t have to meet some distinctive formula composed of intros, and stakes and midpoints and pinch points. They just had to have characters that felt like real people with real human issues and sometimes they got resolved in the end and sometimes they didn’t because just like in real life, not every character is going to show growth. Some are going to die miserable and mired in their same old miserable ick.
If you feel this same sense of disenchantment with the way things are, but maybe need proof that you’re not just you feeling jaded, pick up any recent book on writing and see how they instruct the reader to write a novel and then use what they teach to dissect anything recent you’ve read and any movie you’ve recently seen. It is so formulaic you’ll forget you’re looking at something that’s supposed to be art, and wonder if you’re in some weird story-generating laboratory. Look up the current most popular pop stars and listen to their music and look at their image, then look away and see if you can remember who’s who. Pull up this Youtube video and see just how country music is being created in Nashville. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY8SwIvxj8o
Whats more, this same overly curated, consumer driven, hyper focus on image and formulas and what sells or garners interest, has infiltrated everything. It’s no longer limited to entertainment and art. The same flavorless theme is saturating behavior in general society too. People used to travel for the sake of going to experience something enlightening or educational or inspirational, and now they travel for the instagram photo. The next time you are somewhere interesting, take a look at how many people are looking at everything they see, through the camera lens of their phone. They will quite literally, albeit accidentally, fall off a cliff for the sake of getting a thumbs up.
People used to throw baby showers and birthday parties because they loved the people for whom they were throwing the party. Now the party, itself, is the important thing and it needs to be larger than life and photogenic and posted on every social media site possible and now all the people at the party are on their phones, taking and posting selfies and the person of honor is … well, who again?
The world has gone bloody mad and it’s all got me longing for the days when people were just real. They wrote what burned within them, sang the song that moved them, painted the feeling they couldn’t shake, visited the place that spoke to them, and didn’t just throw the party for a person but threw a party for the person. They were humans connected to other humans and the evidence of it was in their art, their photographs, the way they acted at parties and the many tacky thimbles on display in their living room, from that time they collected them on a road trip out west.
I understand there are no new problems. While the human condition advances from generation to generation, humanity has stubbornly remained very much the same. Artists have always hoped to sell their art so they could make a living doing what they love with their God given talents instead of relegating it to a side hustle and people have always been eager exploit one another if it meant more money in their own pockets. It’s human nature to want to be liked and to have people recognize you for being pretty or having something cool or throwing a great party. So new? No. It’s not at all.
We’ve just gotten really good at its production. We know what sells. It’s easy to make was sells. And so why take a chance on talent that doesn’t check all the boxes of what sells, when you can safely draft this kid off the street and turn her into what sells? We know how to curate and package and publish a lifestyle on instagram that farms a lot of likes and maybe even enough likes to get paid by affiliates. Society wants to buy it, it’s easy to produce it, and as long as people keep consuming, this will be one of the many challenges to humanity in the upcoming 2020s. A paradox of cheap entertainment that pays back in the millions, even though it’s all bland. It’s all the same and we’re all bored and they’re all rich but everything is disposable and forgettable and nobody is really feels anything anymore.
And long story short (ha. right.) that brings me to what I’m doing here. I want to reconnect with the world in meaningful ways. I’m looking for the stories that make people and places and books and music and food and art interesting again.
I know I can look through the archives of history to find the interesting things. And I’m hoping I can find some diamonds in the rough of the contemporary. To find new ways to connect with it too. If for no other reason than to reassure myself that there is still life out there that looks like real life. That it’s not all part of a factory or huge money printing machine.
I’m hoping you’ll help too. That we can be a community of hunter-gatherers who scour the earth for the things that are lovely and then bring them back here so we can all feast upon them in a nourishing way. I’m hoping we can reconnect. To one another. To the world around us. To ourselves—which are so easily misplaced in this chaotic and gluttonous environment. And I’m hoping through all of that, that maybe we can be changed. Not because we need to show growth in some mechanical formulaic way. But because we should show growth in the most organic and natural of ways. Through human connectivity and expression. Changed from the inside out. As history has always reflected and art has always intended.
I believe it still exists so let’s go find it. And we can post our discoveries to social media, just to be cheeky.