“In movies, the balance between art and business has always been precarious, with business outweighing art, but the business was, at least, in the hands of businessmen who loved movies. As popular entertainment, movies need something of what the vulgarian moguls had — zest, a belief in their own instincts, a sentimental dedication to producing pictures that would make their country proud of their contribution, a respect for quality, and the biggest thing: a willingness to take chances. The cool managerial sharks don’t have that; neither do the academics. But the vulgarians also did more than their share of damage, and they’re gone forever anyway. They were part of a different America. They were, more often than not, men who paid only lip service to high ideals, while gouging everyone for profits. The big change in the country is reflected in the fact that people in the movie business no longer feel it necessary to talk about principles at all.”
- Pauline Kael
It is enormously common to poo-poo the 1950’s. And there’s no doubt that there was an enormous amount to poo-poo. We were a country segregated beyond belief in ways that we don’t even document. Leave alone the fact that tens of millions of blacks lived in fear and poverty, and simply ask yourselves what it must have meant to live as most of our grandparents did in a prosperous society in which so much conformity was expected from so many people who might have been gay, irreligious, trapped in bad marriages, and sacrificing their purest happinesses for a future happiness that would never come. In all these ways and many more, the 1950’s was an era as pre-modern as any era that came before it. Even the white males who should have most benefited from living in it all too frequently lived lives of quiet desperation. And if the world was ever going to do better, then the ersatz well-being of the 1950’s had to be brought to as ignominious an end as possible.
But the 1950’s and early 60’s brought us Brown vs. Board of Education, Civil Rights, and mass desegregation, the enactment of the Marshall Plan, the widespread and America-enforced dissolution of the European empires, unprecedented prosperity and (still) unprecedented equality of wealth distribution, the polio vaccine and the double helix, the seatbelt and radial tires, color TV and credit cards, Peanuts Cartoons and Dr. Seuss, Playboy and the Pill, the modem and the microchip… and let’s not even talk about the death of Stalin and the Soviet Thaw. This was the era that brought us Invisible Man and Catcher in the Rye, West Side Story and Gypsy, Kind of Blue and Ah Um, the golden periods of Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, James Brown/Ray Charles and R&B, Chuck Berry/Elvis Presley and Rock’n Roll.
Yes, there was far too much conformity, but conformity has its advantages too. Then as now, there were only two consequential political parties in America: one the party of liberalism, the other the party of moderate liberalism. There were only three consequential TV networks, all of whom commissioned the best playwrights in America to write shows for them watched by the same tens of millions who watched crappy police procedurals and gameshows. There were only two major record labels, both of whom used the profits from their bestsellers to make sure that more obscure music which lost money in sales would nevertheless be made available. This America was not yet divided into highbrow and lowbrow, rightbrow and leftbrow, youngbrow and oldbrow. Rather, a great middlebrow stew was concocted in which everybody was forced to appreciate the classics and college football in the same Sunday afternoon - and anyone who did not was an outcast. Because everyone was so alike - with the same cultural references, the same political views, the same aesthetic tastes, the same frame of ethics - it was impossible for the great majority of Americans to view one another as enemies. And within that middlebrow was an upper-middlebrow of more than 20 million Americans spread throughout the whole country - small towns as much as cities - who believed in civic engagement, patronage of the arts, community betterment, and self-improvement through lifelong education. It may yet turn out that the 1950’s and early 60’s, horrible as it was, is the best America was ever going to do. By any objective standard, our time is the more prosperous and advantageous. No sane person should prefer to live in 1950’s America to 2013 America. But spiritually, we are completely impoverished by comparison. The 1950’s was our Golden Age, not because of the material welfare it offered us, but for the hope for a still greater future which it engendered.
The brighter future the 1950’s predicted and endowed is now upon us, and what a disappointment it is. We traded the stifling collectivism of the 1950’s for the unvarnished individualism of the 60’s, and whether all of us realize it or not, the whole country has kept with the 60’s ethos ever since. But what was the price of being able to feel like ourselves? In comparison to that former era, we cannot offer even the slightest hope that America will be a better place for our grandchildren that our grandparents had for us. Our grandparents experienced America in the high Midsummer of its prosperity. It seems ever more likely that we’ll experience the USA which living memory has always known in the grey autumn of its decline and fall.
There are worse things than being a civilization in decline - death and dissolution to name the two most obvious - and decline offers some of the finest contributions of all. Decline is when all which is productive in a culture - be it civilizational or agricultural - is harvested; and in so many ways, America is doing the very best work it’s ever done. Nothing America ever offered the world is more miraculous than the internet or the home computer or email or HTML. We won the Cold War and even if we mismanaged the transition economically, we brought down the Soviet Union without a single shot fired. When Yugoslavia broke into civil war in its wake, we (and Britain) led the halting of the first democide of hundreds of thousands to happen on European soil since the death of Stalin. The American poltiical and economic model has spread to Western Europe with such successful vengeance that they now beat us at our own game, and dare to lecture us consistently on how we’re not meeting the humane standards which they’d never have dreamed of achieving without our grandparents’ unprecedented largesse. It is America which launched the Hubble Space Telescope, confirmed the existence of black holes, and an American who discovered the dwarf planet Eris. It was America which funded and fundamentally researched the entirety of the human genome and the Genographic Project. Culturally, it wasn’t half-bad either. We were never a nation who produced dozens of great novelists, but we’ve come up with dozens of amazing television serials like The Sopranos and The Simpsons which may yet supplant the novel as the entire world’s long-form artistic narrative of choice. This was the era of Spielberg’s and Scorsese’s maturity, Dylan’s and Springsteen's too. This is the era in which America spearheaded a golden age of international cuisine, and a completely unexpected golden age of non-fiction writing. We've had a 'silver age' revival of stand-up comedy with bizarre geniuses like Louis CK and Chris Rock; we've produced short, light newspaper comics of genius like Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes and darkly complex graphic novels by Alan Moore (admittedly an English immigrant like Hitchcock). But perhaps most importantly, it is this country and this era which will endow posterity with all sorts of miraculous cultural contributions of which we don’t yet know. Just as we now feast on the works of niche artists like Van Gogh, Kafka, Mahler, Nietzsche, Proust, Schiele, niche artists from the last generations of ‘Old Europe,’ who to a man experienced just a handful of their contemporaries appreciate them properly, so there are the modern Van Gogh’s and Kafka’s among us, waiting to be discovered for their true worth - and no doubt many Van Gogh’s and Kafka’s who never were discovered, and never will be.
To feel free to be yourself is as great a blessing as the world ever endows. But that blessing generally comes at the price of someone else’s curse. We have our own identities now, and our own infinities of choice lay out before us to an extent that would paralyze the strongest among us. And because we’re freer to be any self we want than ever before, few if any of us are free to be our best selves and be recognized for having done so. It’s hard to believe that the result does not ultimately limit our quality of life - aesthetically, intellectually, technologically, morally. And if not ours, then our grandchildren’s.
Is there any younger American filmmaker of eminence who can achieve in our generation what Spielberg did in our parents’? Is there any younger musician of fame who writes quality songs with the influence of Bob Dylan’s best (and yes, I’m not even an uncritical Dylan admirer)? More importantly, is there politician in Obama’s wake who can even speak sincerely as Obama once did about uniting the country? Will any politician follow him into the White House in our lifetime who can even calm the right wing’s worst urges as well as Obama has? I can’t swear to any of it, but I fear that all these questions are self-answering. The reason is all too simple - when a country is no longer united by mutual priorities, and virtually everybody has the ability for self-creation, each person is only exposed to what he wants to see. The entirety of human experience is far more difficult to sum up in a single achievement when there is no incentive to experience things alien to you. A person can have all the talent in the world, and perhaps so much freedom will lead geniuses, “great men”, and good people to finer achievements than they ever could achieve if they were not allowed so much individualism. But for better or worse, fame for having achieved so great a task is a large part of what spurs people to have ambition to achieve and appreciate great things. If talented people no longer have incentive to create greatness for a universal audience, then the aim of most people will necessarily be lower. And if that is the case, then this most ripened of American harvests which we bequeath to posterity will likely be someone else’s country’s to consume, and from which they, not us, will plant, sow, and reap the next great harvest.