Whatever happened to the television test pattern? No more than 20 years ago, most TV stations routinely signed off the air for at least a few hours a day. At the end of their broadcast period, stations would slap a test pattern up on the screen until the next morning’s programming began. The test pattern—occasionally an absurd drawing of a Native American but more often a simple geometric shape adorned with call letters—was a great symbol of cultural dead space, of a moment when nothing was happening, when nothing was being transmitted, save perhaps for a monotonous electronic hum.
While some stations still do sign off, they are increasingly rare in a hyperkinetic, always-open America that has shifted fully into 24-7 mode (indeed, one promise of much-hyped digital TV is that it will allow an individual channel to subdivide itself four or more times). If the test pattern symbolized a moment of silence in the cultural process, then it’s only fitting that its long run has effectively been canceled.
Similar developments range far beyond the small screen. During the past few decades, we have been experiencing what can aptly be called a “culture boom”: a massive and prolonged increase in art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression. Everywhere we look, the cultural marketplace is open and ready for business: The number of places where you can buy books has more than doubled during the past 20 years, while the number of libraries has increased by about 17 percent (to a total of almost 37,000). More than 25,000 video rental stores are scattered across the United States, effectively functioning as second-run theaters and art houses even in the most remote backwaters (a few years back, I was able to rent the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel while visiting friends who lived five miles outside a town of 3,000 people in rural Ohio).
More than 110 symphony orchestras have been founded since 1980, reports The Wall Street Journal, which also notes that the national 1997–98 theatrical season “raked in a record $1.3 billion in ticket sales.” About 3,500 commercial radio stations and 670 commercial television stations have come on the air since 1970; during the same period, cable viewership has quadrupled, while niche channels such as American Movie Classics and the Independent Film Channel have become more and more common.
The increasingly important World Wide Web has provided space for all sorts of commercial and noncommercial culture, ranging from authorized sites for the Louvre (featuring a virtual tour) to a reader-compiled database of more than 180,000 movies to translations of Dante’s sonnets to fan-generated art about the cartoon Josie and the Pussycats. Especially in video and music production, where equipment costs were once prohibitive enough to seriously limit access, there is a flourishing, self-conscious “do-it-yourself” movement that has taken great advantage of cheaper technology and distribution methods.
In an important sense, such cultural proliferation is nothing new. It’s part of a broad-based, centuries-old trend that also includes generally longer lives, increased wealth, and the greater personal autonomy that accompanies such developments. But there’s also a sense that we’ve reached a tipping point, or at least turned a corner, in the past few years. More and more, people are not merely consuming culture but creating it as well.
In fact, in a world of $100 VCRs, bargain-basement PCs, CD- rewritable drives, and other technologies that allow users to copy and manipulate images, words, and sound in ever-new and seamless ways, even the sharp distinction between producer and consumer seems increasingly blurred. In economic terms, the opportunity costs of both making and enjoying culture have dropped through the floor; it keeps getting cheaper and cheaper both to produce and to consume culture under increasingly diverse circumstances. One predictable—and positive—result: more and more of everything.
Here’s another: Gone for good are the days when serious cultural critics, whether on the right or the left (and whether rightly or wrongly), could nod toward Tocqueville and Mrs. Trollope and bemoan a scarcity of “culture” in America. Instead, the contemporary descendants of such folks are more likely to make the sort of claim Slate’s Jacob Weisberg did recently in a review of economist Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture. After granting that the United States does in fact offer a dizzying array of cultural opportunities, Weisberg complains: “What we lack is a flourishing common, or national, culture. Contemporary classical music goes unperformed, foreign films have no audience, and hardly anyone reads contemporary poetry. Meanwhile, pap abounds.”
Though such an argument is not particularly convincing—there are, in fact, healthy, if small, markets for the fare Weisberg prefers—the shift in emphasis is noteworthy. It underscores a recognition that the problem isn’t a lack of choice in cultural matters: You want Mozart, Mingus, and Marilyn Manson? No problem—they’re all available (and probably at a discount). Rather, the issue is precisely a profusion of choice in cultural matters: You want Mozart, Mingus—and Marilyn Manson?
The difference in inflection is no small matter. In an increasingly wealthy and educated society where the overwhelming majority of people have concerns about food, clothing, and shelter pretty well covered, culture takes on more and more meaning as the medium through which we articulate our identities, dreams, fears, aspirations, and values. Little wonder, then, that stories about the “culture wars” have been burning up the pages of newspapers, magazines, and intellectual journals for the past few years: There’s so much more to fight about these days.
While such battles are typically waged in apocalyptic—and apoplectic—terms, we should be clear about one thing: The very fact that there are culture wars is cause for celebration. They’re a flashing neon sign that more and more people are able to express and enjoy themselves on something like their own terms: One man’s “pap,” after all, is another man’s Proust—and we’ve entered a phase where people are increasingly willing to argue the point. Proclamations of artistic or social value can no longer be issued ex cathedra but must now be submitted before a skeptical audience.
The same decentralization of the cultural process that lets more and more people participate also allows them to opt out of someone else’s cultural value system, whether they prefer Ally McBeal or À la recherche du temps perdu. In essence, the culture boom grants individuals what economists Albert O. Hirschman and Nobel laureate James Buchanan would recognize as a right of “exit” from a given cultural system: People are freer now to look elsewhere, to pursue their own interests to their own ends. Such a development hardly means that cultural standards have been obliterated, any more than freedom of religion means that theological standards have disappeared. Rather, in both instances, standards have been vastly multiplied and, as a result, are more likely to clash. In this sense, the culture wars, like competition in economics or politics, are a marker of a healthy, diverse, engaged society.
To be sure, the culture boom is bad news for a “common” or “national” culture, if one conceives of such a thing as a set of relatively fixed artifacts and received interpretations that should not change over time; it certainly spells trouble for commissars, whether conservative or progressive, who argue that culture should be didactic and instructive toward a single set of desired ends, and it similarly makes things more competitive for producers and aesthetic movements alike, who must work harder than ever to gain and hold an audience.
But the effective deregulation of cultural markets is very good news for both individuals and the society comprising them. The most vibrant cultures, like the most vibrant economies and political systems, are ones in which people are as free as possible to define and choose what is valuable and meaningful to them. Ironically, such a viewpoint is hardly controversial when applied to most aspects of American life. Indeed, it is even seen as the embodiment of America’s mythic national identity, which is paradoxically predicated upon the pursuit and fulfillment of individual desire. If we recognize heated political debates and loud marketplace haggling as quintessentially American, then we should do the same for cultural proliferation—and the contentious culture wars it inspires.