The idea of progress in America is so deeply ingrained in the national culture that even when, in recent years, there is clear evidence that it is not occurring, e.g., wages have been stagnant for over twenty years adjusted for inflation — may believe it is only temporary.
Maybe an application of reality to this theme of progress will encourage more examination instead of wishful thinking. How about the following occupations — architects, financial advisers, musicians and writers of fiction?
Architects have to be privately embarrassed. The best work of their profession lies in past generations and centuries. Ask any tourist to Europe’s cities what they like most about these cities and they’ll tell you all about what was built in the 14th, 16th and 19th centuries and in between. Today’s glass box buildings in Washington, D.C. mock the architect’s trade, when compared with the buildings constructed in the first four decades there.
It is not just the preference for parks then and parking lots now. It is not just the dimension of aesthetics or beauty. Even in the area of energy conservation and functional repairs, today’s buildings can’t hold a candle to the candle — era edifices. From the Pantheon to the Alhambra to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the old architects were masters compared to today’s trade. The old New England homes and the houses of Frank Lloyd-Wright have no modern peers but only modern awe-struck architects mumbling excuses about budgets.
Financial advisers have reached new lows. While their predecessors had their share of greed, the new ones are much more creatively complex with avarice. Today, these so-called experts can even seriously mess up a short term government bond fund for their trusting, conservative investors. Bad financial advice on pension investments is epidemic. And the Wall Street Journal’s regular feature shows that dart throwers do about as well picking stocks as the sophisticated Wall Street gurus using the latest computer charts. Imagine a profession outdone by dart throwers at the stock pages.
Next on the declining block is popular music. Oh, you say, this is going too far. Music is a matter of taste. Yes and as such, also a matter of bad taste. Music can also become noise or just a profitable tool for outlandish publicity.
In her new book “Hole in Soul”, music analyst, Martha Bayles, writes about the “loss of beauty and meaning in American popular music. Comparing one of her favorites — Afro-American jazz earlier in the century, she decries the decline of pop music into what she depicts as Madonna’s “headline-grabbing jokes,” into the gangsta rapper Ice Cube’s song about “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate,” into “hard-core rockers’ graphic accounts of rape, mutilation, serial murder, cannibalism and necrophilia.”
Just capitalist realism, you may shrug. But there are enduring classical qualities in earlier popular music. Which is why the “golden oldies” are selling year in and year out. As for the truly classical music of past centuries and early into this century, there seems to not even be pretenders to the throne now.
Then there are the fiction writers. Here the decline compared to past novelists and short story writers is precipitous. Indeed, is there anyone in today’s America who can even be called a “great novelist” whether by the professional critics or the readers themselves?
Consider, Washington Post cultural writer, Jonathan Yardley’s commentary on the New Yorker’s recent “special” fiction issue -mostly “limp, airless and unengaging.” “Literary fiction” Yardley laments, “is dying, the victim of mass indifference that is scarcely alleviated by its own narrow solipsism.”
Veteran novelist, Saul Bellow, observed that “There obviously are periods of prosperity and periods of decline. Clearly, we are now in a period of decline, because it’s really hard to think of people at the moment we would put on a level with the 19th and early 20th century greats.”
Still, there are many more people today than yesterday, more formally educated, better traveled, more aware people in societies that provide high velocity grist for creativity, more technological tools, more ways to learn from the skills of others, more techniques to communicate knowledge and stimulation.
What are the problems? What are the answers? What are the questions? We won’t get to any of these inquiries if we stay with the illusions of progress as defined by others.