The Supply and Demand of Culture

January 21, 2016

(I was asked by Martin Mervel of Studio/ SLAB Architects to write a piece for his TIMEless Exhibition that ran from May through August 2011 at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California. This is what I wrote. I post it now for review as we mark the passage of time.)

The American Heritage Dictionary defines culture as: The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. This is a very depressing thought, if I may say so. I grew up in a time when films were made by studios whose chiefs were from the Old Country and were dead-set on demonstrating by way of their product that they were of an elevated class--that they had class. These studios produced stars like William Powell, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Myrna Loy, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner to name a few in no particular order. Some of the best roles for women were created during their reign. There is no equivalent of Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn in the iconography of today's Hollywood. Has anyone filled Cary Grant's shoes in the movies or in our culture? Charm and stature have gone by the boards as valuable commodities, it would appear.

Having myself run a "movie studio" in the form of a repertory company for film and television with an average of a hundred actors, writers and directors in the organization at any given moment from about 1980 until 2001, I feel I understand the process of making movies. I know, for example, that one can choose to create a demand or supply a demand. The latter is perhaps the easier approach but it leads us to the current state of affairs--a dwindling spiral absent intellectual discourse and inspiration in the culture and movies and television shows that do all they can to make ignorance and coarseness acceptable and even laudable.

In the past, movies were aimed at adults. They were the dominant age group and thus the primary clientele at the box office. More recently, the age of the clientele has shifted and fourteen to eighteen year-olds are the prime audience. This explains why two films dealing with the same subject but made to suit a differing clientele are so at odds with one another. To wit: Tora! Tora! Tora! and Pearl Harbor.

One begins to realize that culture--whether in the movies, architecture, painting, dance or music--is a factor of what one can sell in a commercial transaction. It was ever thus, I suspect. Therefore, something other than commercialism has had an impact on what I see as the decline of our culture. I think I know what it might be.

I believe that the culprit is the bell curve used in the educational system also known as grading on the curve which, according to Wikipedia, is designed to yield a predetermined distribution of grades among the students in a class. Let us consider that for a moment. The system has designed a method of ensuring that the bulk of subject understanding on the part of students will be at the level of seventy percent. Social engineers intent on returning us to the Dark Ages could do worse than adopting the bell curve. As an aside, when was the last time you heard someone--a college graduate particularly--use the subjunctive case properly? When was the last time anyone had to learn a dance step?

How does one appreciate Mozart, Neutra, Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse, Billy Wilder, Cole Porter, Django Reinhardt or Miles Davis at a comprehension rate of seventy percent? Inadvertently, we have created a demand from that bulk of people in the middle of the predetermined distribution of grades for material that is less nuanced, more elemental and easier to grasp or, in the extreme, requires no understanding. For commercial reasons, the demand is being supplied.

I prefer that we begin to create a demand for more exacting standards of excellence in all areas of our culture. In my film school, we didn't grade on the curve. A student moved to Lesson Two only after understanding and mastering Lesson One. We could educate rather than process students. Would taking this approach mean that some would have a longer stay in the academic world than others? Yes, it would. It would also mean, I believe, that they would have a more fulfilling experience with the lives they lead subsequently in the real world and would imbue our culture with a demand for better, more nuanced offerings in thought, music, politics and every other facet of the thing we refer to as culture.