Monday, December 10, 2007

What Will Last

In an interview once, Charles Murray said:
I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive -- and then ask, "Seriously?" Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the "Seriously?" question.
One blogger offers a few suggestions of what might last here. Another forum on the subject can be found here, and among many comments, I found this one most amusing:
"We Will Rock You" by Queen will be the only rock song remembered because it has the word "rock" in it and thus can be used as an exemplar of the rock era and lastly it can be sung by a mob.
As for myself, as much as I enjoy making lists and airing my opinion, ideally both at once -- I think it's the Y chromosome -- the addition of historical considerations throws me for a loop. The words "care about" don't exactly help, either. I mean, surely there are many things since 1950 that historians will care about, but does Murray mean that individuals will care about them the way 16-year-olds currently care about Fall Out Boy? If the latter, I think very few things survive 200 years with the ability to inspire that kind of devotion. It will be another 66 years before even Anna Karenina can be judged this way. (I like its chances of maintaining prominence, of course, but I'm just trying to establish the kind of temporal challenge we're discussing.)

I've often said that one of the best, most indicative cultural creations since World War II is The Simpsons, which, for those playing at home, is not a novel, painting, or song. And it's comedy, which probably has the least likely chance to age well. But because its best moments satirize universal human behavior, current cultural behavior, and its own medium (TV), I honestly think it has a chance of surviving if there is enough interest 200 years from now in any of the following: human foibles, late-20th century America, satire, television. I would not take interest in any of those things in 2207 for granted. I would just as easily believe that two centuries hence people will fundamentally differ from what they are today -- at the most, perhaps they'll have synthetically progressed (if that's the word) to resemble the kissing robots in Bjork's great video; at the least, decades of reading little more than the troglodytic comments on YouTube will have left us with all the cultural savvy (and memory) of a possum.

Well, assuming the best, I also believe these things have a shot: Atonement by Ian McEwan, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, the best of The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke. Murray left out movies, which seems smart -- picking which of those will survive seems particularly difficult, given the relative youth of the medium. But I'll go out on a limb and say no one will care about anything from Pauly Shore's oeuvre.

(And, oops -- this is via 2 Blowhards, which I forgot to mention originally. This omission is doubly inappropriate because I unwittingly stole their headline for the post, too; though my lack of a question mark is intentional, which ... oh, forget it.)

4 Comments:

Anonymous Leontes said...

Since 1950? I'd second "Kind of Blue" and Aretha Franklin. The quest to write The Great American Novel officially ended in 1953, when Saul Bellow wrote "The Adventures of Augie March". This blog's title comes from a poet who certainly ranks with the best Anglophones.

Visual art is a dicier game: Turner seemed radical at the time but now his paintings belong in dentist's offices. I stand amazed before Rothko and Pollock, and think they have as good a shot as anyone at holding up.

And he's not my cup of tea, but Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea" in 1953.

Finally, need I add that Charles Murray is a dunderheaded, blithering old bigot, and while most works of art will indeed be forgotten in 200 years, his work won't last 20?

2:46 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Yeah, I didn't mean to endorse Murray, but that can of worms seemed best left unopened.

I like Rothko and Pollock, too (Rothko more), but I have serious doubts about how much modern art will "last."

And I like Turner. Take that.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Wombat Lord said...

Wow, John, I'm surprised you value "Atonement" so highly. I thought it was a bit arid. "Impeccable" actually--that's the word I use. And I mean that in a pejorative sense. (If that's possible). Maybe I need to reread it.

Otherwise, I'd second all of your nominations and add a few of my own: Bob Dylan will survive. Donald Barthelme will survive. Samuel Beckett will survive. Leaving out movies makes it a little easier, and you're right that comedy, as a genre, doesn't age as well as others. But I'd guess that "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" will both survive too--if for nothing else than their historical interest.

4:06 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

wombat lord,

I tend to like impeccable. That said, it helps when it's also moving, and I found Atonement very moving on a few levels that we can discuss over absinthe sometime.

I like the people you name, but I'm not sure they'll last. Barring medical breakthroughs that I'm not even sure I'd want, we won't be around to find out, but Dylan, Barthelme, and Beckett all represent postmodernism to me (in some sense), and that branch of things might have the toughest time surviving. It's an interesting discussion, anyway. I named Atonement partly because it feels classical in a way, and that still seems like the safest way to survive. I'm probably wrong.

6:44 PM  

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