We’re All Bored of Culture

by William Deresiewicz | May 15, 2023

I’m bored; you’re bored; we’re all bored. By our books and movies and television shows, the endless blandness of the Netflix queue, by our music and theater and art. Culture now is strenuously cautious, nervously polite, earnestly worthy, ploddingly obvious, and above all, dismally predictable. It never dares to stray beyond the four corners of the already known. Robert Hughes spoke of the shock of the new, his phrase for modernism in the arts. Now there’s nothing that is shocking, and nothing that is new: irresponsible, dangerous; singular, original; the child of one weird, interesting brain. Decent we have, sometimes even good: well-made, professional, passing the time. But wild, indelible, commanding us without appeal to change our lives? I don’t think we even remember what that feels like.

What accounts for this? Wokeness, of course, to begin with. The commissars are enemies of beauty. I’m channeling Dave Hickey here: Beauty incites desire, and desire is destabilizing. Desire is anarchic, and the commissars are control freaks. They tell us what we ought to want. The body positivity movement seeks to convince us, against the evidence of our senses, that all bodies are equally arousing. Amia Srinivasan, our philosopher of sex du jour, instructs us to reform our lusts according to politically acceptable parameters. So it is in art. Cancel Woody Allen, destroy that painting of Emmett Till, shut down The Vagina Monologues, and whatever you do, don’t laugh at Dave Chapelle (don’t laugh at all, just clap).

But this is much older than wokeness. Hickey was writing in 1993 (the essay is “After the Great Tsunami,” in The Invisible Dragon). He was attacking what he called “the therapeutic institution,” that glob of bureaucracies—“a loose confederation of museums, universities, bureaus, foundations, publications, and endowments”—that had placed itself in charge of culture, taming art by telling us that it was “good for us”: “enriching,” redemptive, conducing both to civic virtue and to spiritual health. Hickey dates that transformation to the 1920s and ’30s, naming as his leading culprits Stalin, Goebbels, and Alfred Barr, the founder of the Museum of Modern Art, but that seems to me both too early and too clever. The institution-building of the “culture boom” did not begin in earnest until after World War II, when a rapidly expanding middle class began to feel the need, as it rose, for the trappings of taste—“classical” music, European art, the great books as peddled by Mortimer Adler—and a brigade of explainers, promoters, and organizational functionaries stepped forth to fill it.

But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the business grew urgent. The culture was getting out of hand. The children of that same middle class were threatening to burn the whole thing down. It is no coincidence, from that perspective, that the decade witnessed the creation of the NEA, the NEH, PBS, and, in 1970, NPR: organs designed to furnish the college-going class with an officially sanctioned consciousness. The same years saw the overhaul of admissions practices at elite colleges and universities, those bastions of the WASP aristocracy. Jewish quotas were removed, affirmative action was instituted, and the great unwashed—or, at least, their future leaders—were now to be initiated into the cultural folkways of high Protestantism. Meanwhile, the MFA, which had been invented in the 1920s, was proliferating. From 1940 to 1980, the number of institutions awarding graduate degrees in studio art increased from 11 to 147, with comparable numbers in creative writing. Artists became creatures of the university: produced there and more and more often employed there, which meant socialized and homogenized there.

Art, in short, was being normed. After a century or so, as Hickey explains, in which it had evaded institutional control—a century of Parisian bohemians, modernist vagabonds, and visionary wackjobs, of Rimbaud, van Gogh, Nijinsky, Cage, Gertrude Stein, et al.—art was being standardized and, more importantly, moralized. The audience, in other words, was being normed as well. Orthodox faith was declining, at least among the liberal elite. Art emerged as a substitute religion, but a religion in the old, persistent American mode. Into culture flowed the moral energies of Anglo-Calvinism, in all its joyless, witch-hunting glory.

Art emerged as a substitute religion, but a religion in the old, persistent American mode. Into culture flowed the moral energies of Anglo-Calvinism, in all its joyless, witch-hunting glory.

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