A future of fads, and constantly fading beauty

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A Common View

The Great Artists have endured time because they are beautiful, because of their strength and universal appeal. Very little art or music made in recent years will endure in the same way, because it is less beautiful.

The Point:

As individuals and small groups gain a larger share in determining a generation's canon of beautiful things, fads will become more common in society because only large institutions have the inertia (and resistance to change) to carry one generations's canon into the future.

The Angle:

I was at dinner with some fascinating people* and Howie the composer was a big fan of emphasizing experiential universals (and therefore universal reactions to music (and therefore an argument for universal beauty, or at least universal communication through music)). By universal I only mean human, but all humans, builtin sense of beauty. His opinions seemed to be mostly a reaction to the excessive relativism of the last century. I lean more towards relativism, but I was listening.

One assumption he was making was that The Greats have lasted because they are beautiful, because of their strength and universal appeal. He expressed doubt that any art or music made in recent years will weather the centuries that the late great composers have. I agree, but …

A confound occurred to me, one worth investigating (if investigable). Institutions carry ideas and traditions through generations. Their size influences their resistance to change and their ability to carry art through human time. There is no arguing that this will be a factor (in addition to Beauty) that carries art forward through generations and lends a sense of universality and concensus to such cultural artifacts. By this mechanism 'lost artists', are artists that got dropped by institutions and rediscovered only by research. Presumably such artist's work didn't 'speaks' to its birth culture and didn't get in the canon.

This culture is seeing an interesting trend due in large part to technology. Large institutions get larger and Small ones get smaller and more numerous (Analogously, designers have noticed that Photoshop has made good design better and bad design worse). Since any institution, large and small, can only carry a finite (and small) number of cultural artifacts forward as canonical, the number of cultural artifacts carried forward by large institutions will be small relative to the number of artifacts carried forward by small institutions and the total number of artifacts. I will put my focus on the role of small institutions in carrying work forward.

Individuals are more empowered than ever before. Small institutions are gaining an larger stake/share in selecting the contents of collective conciousness. But small institutions don't last. They have limited power to carry cultural artifacts through the vast stretches of time necessary to lend such work an air of universal appeal.

Fads are works that don't stay relevant beyond a generation. Perhaps (and is there even a circumstantial way to test this?) as people get more empowered and large traditional institutions contribute a smaller share of those artifacts which a culture finds relevant, fads will become more the norm. This will happen because of how ideas get passed on through time, not because today's culture isn't producing sufficient beauty or sufficiently universal beauty.

An interesting implication is that we can't use the ephemerality of fads as evidence of their lack of 'substance'. I don't think Howie will like that, but an important caveat in any talk of culture is that no cause is THE cause, and I am only putting this forward as a factor in the mess of factors that makes society into the complicated beast that society is.


There is evidence in support of this already (though falsifiability is what we are after). I wonder if there is any way to test the aforementioned hypothesis. A Model?

*notes to self

  • Howie = Howard Frazin (composers in red sneakers) and Anna = Anna Willieme. Mother has no pictures of Anna's dream book. Strange; Internet should not have failed.
  • Much restraint to not use the word 'meme', which is still too arcane for non-obnoxious use in discourse. Atleast for me.