Why the 2020s Don’t Have a Style.
Can our society depraved of cultural coherence find a style identity? Searching for a signal of Zeitgeist.
You could have a view that for the most part of human history culture was a centralized phenomenon, and that view would mostly be right. From the popes and church masters of the baroque Europe to film studios of the 1950s Hollywood, few men and women (but mostly men) owned the distribution channels of culture, deciding which acts of creation rise to fame and which turn to dust. One pope’s amicable decision and an artist’s name would be forever imprinted on the Sistine chapel. That sort of thing.
In this world order, making friends and navigating social cues was decisive. It made all the difference between a genius wasted and the dazzling lights of fame. First slowly, but then rapidly, the platform revolution has deconstructed this order of top-down selection by few. Over the span of the last 10–15 years, culture has become a multichannel stream of everything to everyone.
Culture via Platforms.
It is hard to argue with the basic premise that this democratization by tech allowed many more people to have a go at art or any other creative activity for that matter. It is far from ideal. People still get their dreams crushed, only now it is by a cold algorithm, but, regardless, the number of creators that can be heard, seen or read has grown exponentially. (The Sad Choice between Corporate Jazz and Algorithmic Racism.)
Although, you could say that the centralization had its merits too. In today’s world, whether a creator succeeds or not is a combination of 1. her ability to play the algorithm, and 2. what the broad public wants. The 2. can lead to appalling outcomes, like a boy filming himself eating his way into grotesque proportions for the amusement of masses — clearly a step back on the path of human evolution by any measure.
If for no other reason then to not be held accountable, the top-down model upheld basic standards of decency. Because the culture was selected by few, it had a natural tendency towards coherence. The generally held view is that design, architecture, fashion, living trends, in short, the human context in a defined time period, are all linked together, mutually dependent and organically evolving. Here I would add that the selection by few is what gives the culture a coherent face.
Selection by Few.
A small, relatively socially equal group of people is likely to influence each other and share a similar understanding of what is or isn’t beautiful. This is not limited to one country. Cultural elites influenced each other across the world and they have done so with much more inferior communication channels, albeit with a time delay and a certain deformation of the ideal.
There was, you could say, a recognizable schema of fashions, trends and (at a most primitive level) shapes that were considered acceptable and beautiful for every era — the defining aesthetic of the time, or a cultural Zeitgeist, if you will. Cars, clothes, music, films of the 1960s looked, sounded and felt like one entity, as did those of the 1970s or the 1980s. In the 1960s, flowers, peace, mini skirts and colored uniforms, long curvaceous uncompromising sports cars and British flags were all swinging in the rhythm of the British boy-bands invasion.
The pattern of cultural selection gets very clear the further into the past one goes. It is self-evident why during renaissance, Dutch masters painted rich merchants in their rich homes, glorifying items of science, knowledge, and generally the emancipation from the secular. Money paid for what culture was. This is more blurred, but still discernible as one approaches the 20th century.
The neons, garish swirling graphics, mullet hairstyles, plastic colors and sharp-edged shapes of the 1980s are instantly recognizable. A great VOX video tells a story of how the aesthetics of the 1980s came to be, essentially formed by the Italian architectural studio of Ettore Sottsass. Their designs were first introduced to the world during 1981 Milan design fair (1981 Salone del Mobile Milan).
The public response was immense. The traffic in Milan got so bad that some thought there was a terrorist attack. This is similar to how Bauhaus and the leading figures of the school like Mies defined modernism in architecture and design in the 1930s. (In almost every possible way, this modernism shapes our taste until today. We still think of sophisticated luxury in terms of concrete & glass houses.)
But their defining designs caught up because they were picked up by the cultural distribution channels of the day. The adoption of Sottsass’ striking design school elements by MTV coincided with its very own launch (in 1-Aug, 1981, with the broadcast of “Video Killed the Radio Star”) and its astronomical rise in popularity. Understand that MTV in 1980s was the Instagram in 2010s, was the TikTok in 2020s. A new cultural stream that pervaded society — the format of music in video that propelled many artists to superstardom.
Similarly, Mies and a generation of European modernist architects were popularized amongst the higher echelons through a 1932 MoMA exhibition. Due to the war, many have fled into the U.S. to teach at universities and they have been asked by the rich & powerful to design their homes.
For very obvious, mechanical reasons this is no longer as true in today’s world. Cultural idols no longer emerge from the top-down centralized cultural channels of the past. We live in the world of hundreds of thousands of micro creators for micro audiences. This has quite naturally killed the cultural coherence.
But you could say that this has also killed any sense of direction in cultural discipline. By and large, we are recycling cultural idols of the past in short-form often ironic, meme’d version. This holds true for films, music, architecture, anything really. Has everything been done already? Clearly, no. Form has no limits.
I don’t know what it says about us, but one of the most potent cultural phenomenons of the 2020s are the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs released by Yuga Labs in 2021. I say potent because BAYC grabbed and unified widespread attention in recognition of a new stream of aesthetics.
Art and culture is always a reflection. That 1980s aesthetics that we have talked about reveled in a madness of forms as a symbol of excess and a lack of respect. The reasons were not only sociological (the rise of yuppie money culture) but also material. This was the time of microchips and personal computers.
The implicit fashion of the day was that the mechanical no longer matters. A designer can cover up the micro-technology in any way she likes. Because of this new minimization, the dependancies between material, technology, form and function were thought to be lost*. The design was ironic. The material was secondary.
Think interiors with columns that carried nothing, upside down arches and pediments used as symbols to conjure an impression of a temple. The same madness was present on the outside. After all this was the decade of Venturi.
Today is different. There is no signal of where the society is heading, no sense of excitement for the new, only a bordel of contradictory streams in an information overdose. Using a form first popularized by cryptopunks, a four 30-ish year olds hit the perfect point in time, popular interest and hype, when they launched a collection of 10,000 computer generated monkey images.
A few months after the first was issued (23-Apr, 2021, around 9:56:11 pm UTC), the images were picked up by celebrities and new-gen collectors and their prices began rising to unexpected levels amid media frenzy in recognition of a new social status symbol. From their very inception to their method of success, BAYC encapsulated the speculative, degen-celebrating, “where lambo” spirit of the age.
But they also carry an evolutionary answer to societal change — at time when more of our identity resides in the digital space, we need better tools to create, collect and identify with items there. A censorship-resistant record of purchase is transformative, if you believe in the premise of web3 future, where money and legal and other socio-economic structures become software.
Emerging out of nowhere, BAYC captured the widespread attention and became a cultural stream, soon launching a coin and a DAO to oversee how the new cultural idol will be used. The apes are fast becoming stars of movies, books, albums and shows and their owners are cashing in. (On ApeCoin or a critical look at crypto’s regulatory evasion.)
A friend challenged me over a glass of wine that the distinctive cultural elements that define a period are only visible with a hindsight. Not everyone wore a mullet and neon shirt in the 1980s. We just put these strong statements of cultural identity next to each other to make a mental image of times past.
That may well be true, but walking home from cinema after 2 hours of Top Gun, I cannot help but think that the only signal of style that I can identify in 2020s are the damn monkeys.
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*Tuncel, Didem & Bedük Tuncel, Didem. (2015). THE EFFECT OF MTV ON INTERIORS.