Our Daily Bleg: Has Quality Declined or Is it Just My Old-Fogeyism?
Thanks to everyone for the incredible outpouring of comments in response to last week’s posting about 21st-century song lyrics. The responses will certainly be of some use for the next edition of The Yale Book of Quotations.
Sirdonic pointed out that my own comments were unnecessarily negative. His points were well taken. I apologize for the unnecessary negativism, which was motivated by feeble attempts at humor, a shameless desire to attain a total of 400 comments, and some frustration at the lack of memorable 21st-Century lyrics (I regret adding to the negativism with that last comment, I’m just trying to be honest).
For this week’s bleg, let me pose a more theoretical question. Are there any relatively objective criteria for comparing the quality of artistic or cultural productions from different eras? I and many of the posters in recent weeks seem to feel that there has been a substantial qualitative decline in film, popular music, and probably other arts as well. I like to call this “the Gladiator phenomenon.”
I believe that the film Spartacus was not viewed as much different from other epics of the period when it was released. The film Gladiator was a highly acclaimed Best Picture Oscar winner. Yet to me Spartacus is far superior, to the point that the worst scene in Spartacus is probably better than the best scene in Gladiator (which is also a highly derivative blend of Spartacus, Ben-Hur, and Braveheart). All this can be criticized as subjectivity, old-fogeyism, failure to appreciate contemporary culture, or a verdict that will be proven wrong by posterity. Yet I suspect that many share my opinions on Gladiator specifically and today’s arts generally.
The only relatively objective criterion I can think of for making inter-era comparisons is citation counting (how many books and articles on film cite each movie, and does the impact of the film endure in the long term?), but citation counting has many flaws as an index of quality and takes many years to provide meaningful data.
Are there any other ways to make comparisons that are defensible and go beyond inevitable era-ism?
Another question is: What is the role of professional critics and reviewers — whose livelihoods depend on their appreciating the art of their time and elevating some of it to a pantheon regardless of the merits — in such comparisons? Is The Godfather rated the second greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute and Raging Bull rated fourth because it would not look good for all the top films to come from the 1939 to 1942 period?