One of my internet highlight of the week is Tuesday Morning Quarterback, the ESPN football column by Gregg Easterbrook, who is a Brookings Institute scholar, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and an astute football fan who writes an entertaining pigskin screed that changed the way I watch the game. My buddy Mark has quoted TMQ before on his blog. I don’t blog about football much (how bout them Cowboys, Nicole?), but this aside he wrote was very pertinent regarding art now and 50 years ago:
In world news, there’s a harmonic convergence of golden anniversaries in progress. The upcoming 50th anniversary of Sputnik joins the 50th anniversaries of the Edsel, “West Side Story” and the publication of “Doctor Zhivago.” As the Sputnik anniversary arrives, bear in mind what a bucket of bolts the first artificial satellite was — little more than a radio transmitter, it looked like something a 16-year-old made in metal shop for a school play. America’s Explorer I, which followed Sputnik I into orbit a few months later, was also a bucket of bolts. Although even with its rudimentary instruments and vacuum tubes — remember, humanity landed on the moon before the invention of the pocket calculator — Explorer I discovered the Van Allen belts. And of course the Edsel was a bucket of bolts, an odd snoot being the least of its problems.
Although the great technical achievement of 1957 — the artificial satellite — and the main consumer-industrial product of that year — the Edsel — seem crude in retrospect, great artistic achievements of that same year, such as “West Side Story” and “Doctor Zhivago,” seem magnificent in retrospect. You have to know the history of Broadway musicals to understand what an original and significant work Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” was, although you need not know that history to appreciate the music, lyrics and dialogue. “Doctor Zhivago” numbers among the greatest books ever written, and that’s even if you can’t grasp how much better the poetry sounds in Russian, as Russian speakers assure us. Boris Pasternak summed up all his experiences in the dashed hopes of the Russian Revolution in the tragic story of a poet who loses his muse-love. Pasternak then declined the Nobel Prize for literature because, being a critic of the Kremlin, he knew he would never be allowed back into the Soviet Union if he went to Sweden to accept the prize. And, like Zhivago, he died too soon, passing away just two years after the book was published. “Doctor Zhivago” became an international bestseller — When was the last time the top-selling book of the year was great literature? — and was made into one of the last really good Hollywood movies, three hours long and actually faithful to the book! (On buying a book, Hollywood’s first move today is to alter everything except the title; Mel Gibson even altered the gospels and invented composite characters for his Jesus movie, Gibson figuring he had a better sense of story than God.)
Now think what has happened in technical and artistic trends in the 50 years since 1957. Scientific endeavors have made fantastic strides in quality, complexity and significance. Consumer product quality has increased dramatically — new cars are packed with features unknown in 1957 yet are far safer and more reliable, and the cell phone in your pocket and the computer you’re reading this on, to say nothing of the Internet it’s transmitted over, would have been viewed as supernatural by the engineers who built Explorer I. At the same time, the quality of art has plummeted. There hasn’t been a musical of artistic merit to open on Broadway in many moons — right now, it’s all vapid dreck. (In fact, I think the show “Vapid Dreck,” based on a remake of a remake, opens at the Brooks Atkinson soon.) And although good books are still written, what truly great novel has been produced in the past decade or two? Fifty years ago, technical stuff was buckets of bolts and art was splendid; now, the technical stuff is splendid and the art is in poor repair. This tells us something — I just wish I knew what.