If “culture” means new books, new exhibitions, new music and cinema and so on, 2020 was a good year for culture. Defined almost any other way, 2020 was a terrible year for culture — as it was for pretty much everything else. As I think about 2020, what I immediately remember about the last 346 days isn’t culture at all. Somehow, I doubt I’m the only one.
When I’ve talked about the quarantine with my friends, the one thing we’ve all agreed on is that time worked differently: This has been the longest year of our lives, and also one of the shortest. “Don’t think of it as waiting!” someone told me long ago. This was good advice at the time (our ride was late), but how else was I supposed to think of “it” this year? I waited to buy food, I waited to send mail, I waited hours to get tested for a cureless disease and then I waited weeks to get the results of my test. I waited in lines and read or pretended to read; one time I sneezed and people reacted as if a bomb had gone off. I refreshed my phone to death waiting to find out how blue the #bluewave was. I bought crap I didn’t need and waited for an order confirmation to appear on my laptop screen, vaguely aware that seeing the order confirmation was the most happiness I’d get out of whatever crap I’d just bought. No matter what else I happened to be doing, I was waiting.
If I seem to be beating a dead horse so far, it’s because I think any end-of-2020 survey has to begin by acknowledging that lately our attentions have been, at best, divided, and this has had no small effect on what we’ve chosen to read and watch and listen to. In late March, finding it impossible to concentrate on any book or movie for more than five pages or five minutes, respectively, I started watching “Succession,” the show à clef about the Murdochs, renamed the Roys to save HBO from a lawsuit. I don’t watch much television (to give you some idea, the last program I watched from start to finish without missing an episode went off the air seven years ago), but “Succession” struck me as skillfully, heroically average in nearly every way; i.e., it confirmed my sense of “prestige TV.”
Plenty of intelligent, tasteful people have assured me that “Succession” is the best thing on cable (season 3 is set for 2021), and for all I know they’re right. Its winning formula would seem to be: give a bunch of charismatic actors a whatever script, shoot them in a bland, self-consciously “cinematic” style; sprinkle with Shakespeare “allusions” that require no knowledge of Shakespeare (“‘Roy’ means king—aha!”) and just enough political incorrectness to get people tweeting; remind the audience what’s going on every 20 minutes or so in case they’re fiddling with their phones; and wait for the Emmys to roll in.
Like a lot of recent middlebrow behemoths, “Succession” is more fun to argue over than to watch — see the hundreds of articles about whether it celebrates or condemns the one percent, averaging out to a resounding Who the hell cares? After a while, I started skimming the show for tasty morsels — and there were some — like a kid fishing the marshmallows out of a bowl of Lucky Charms. In March 2020, this was just the pastime I needed.
Recently the philosopher-cum-Substacker Justin E.H. Smith wrote that most TV is “opium for the masses, churned out by rapacious mega-corporations that do not care about society or about art.” Sounds about right to me, though his analogy may need an update. When Marx called religion “the opium of the people” (sometimes translated as “the opiate of the masses”), he had in mind a drug so powerful it could incapacitate for days. Nearly 100 years later, Herbert Marcuse argued that bourgeois entertainment served a similar function for those who didn’t believe in a higher power: it soothed the mind, creating a passive, obedient society that would sooner die than rebel. A good portion of modern media criticism, from James Baldwin to Adam Curtis, from Guy Debord to Noam Chomsky, more or less agrees with this premise. But what happens when mass entertainment isn’t overpowering, or even particularly entertaining? What if, instead of bread and circuses, we get one clown and a fistful of breadcrumbs?
“One clown and a fistful of breadcrumbs” is, I think, a pretty fair description of pop culture in the year 2020. Most of it doesn’t have the decency to be really, absorbingly excellent — at best it’s a distraction, at worst it’s the only show in town. It’s entertaining only insofar as you’re too anxious or tired to concentrate on much else. Another way of putting this is that the corporations behind “The Mandalorian” and “Succession” and “Queen’s Gambit” want everyone feeling the way I felt at the beginning of the global pandemic—all the time. If this smacks of conspiracy, I submit that it’s the commonest of common sense.
Since March, Netflix, HBO Go, Disney+ and the rest have broken and re-broken subscription records, thanks to a sudden lack of competition from movie theaters, arenas, bars, restaurants, arcades, strip clubs, libraries, in-the-flesh human beings, and so on. Reed Hastings would need a heart of stone not to celebrate such a spike — or secretly hope for another. In a recent, tuchus-lecking interview with the New York Times Book Review, Hastings was asked to name a book he’d like to see adapted for the screen. His answer was J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” a book that Ron Howard was already adapting for Netflix. I mention this to give some sense of the taste and imagination of the man who, more than any single person I know of, controls the future of cinema.
Robert Hughes was, as usual, right when he said, “Most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power.” That was in 1980, two generations too early for “Succession” or “Hillbilly Elegy,” but if Hughes were alive today he wouldn’t need to change a word. The Muzak-ness of streamed entertainment — the way it makes life just barely tolerable enough to stave off insanity or revolution — was so obvious in 2020 that even some of its usual cheerleaders felt obliged to admit so. Last month, the New Yorker, the magazine that in recent years has oohed and aahed over “Succession,” “Billions” and other prestigious pap, published an article by Kyle Chayka that begins, “By the end of its second episode, I knew that Netflix’s new series ‘Emily in Paris’ was not a lighthearted romantic travelogue but an artifact of contemporary dystopia.”
“Ambient TV” is Chayka’s term for this dystopian artifact: gentle entertainment that encourages passivity in the face of apocalypse. Here, as with Hughes, the appropriate metaphor is that of a low, harmless hum.
Chayka would have you believe that “Emily in Paris” is bad entertainment, while something like “Succession” is good entertainment (throughout the article, he uses the phrase “prestige TV” without a drop of irony), but the truth is that they’re more similar than different. Chayka, seemingly operating under the assumption that the early 2010s were a creative golden age, claims that “When Netflix and other platforms began dumping entire seasons of shows at once, binge-ing became a byword for paying deep attention, as viewers gave themselves over to intricate drama or quirky comedy.”
“Quirky comedy” is lame enough (is Chayka writing criticism or press notes?), but what really grates is the assumption that Netflix subscribers were “paying deep attention” to “Master of None” all along — Chayka can’t knock one mediocrity without extolling another. Ambient TV isn’t new. Like much of what happened in 2020, it’s a gross new version of the same old stuff.
“But people like ambient TV!”, I can hear the Reed Hastings of the world saying, “and who are you to criticize us for giving people what they like?” This is some good, tried-and-true demagoguery: Give people a narrow, forced set of choices; wait for them to choose one; conclude that “the people” have spoken; accuse anyone who says different of being, ipso facto, against “the people.” Netflix subscribers will, of course, watch “Emily in Paris” and the like when they have no other options, but when more challenging, avant-garde fare is made available to them, they’ll watch that, too. (If this sounds naïve, it’s partly because entertainment conglomerates have been so successful in advancing their cynical estimates of what the average human being is capable of enjoying.
In the supposedly white-bread, know-nothing 1950s, it’s worth bearing in mind, “On the Road” was a number one bestseller and Jackson Pollock was on the cover of TIME — remember this the next time someone tries to tell you Marvel movies are “populist.”) Streaming giants may claim to offer an endless menu of vital options, but to me their typical customers seem more like the tourists in the trade fair scene from Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece “PlayTime” — puttering from one forgettable thing to another, not because they especially want to but because there isn’t much else to look at.
I revisited “PlayTime” recently. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a difficult film to summarize. There are scenarios but no plot, and people but no characters, except for the protagonist, Mr. Hulot, about whom we know almost nothing. The bulk of the action takes place in a gravestone-shaped skyscraper of the kind Le Corbusier and Paul Andreu were then scattering across Paris, and the camera most often takes the perspective of a master builder, studying twenty or thirty speck-sized people at a time. All of this makes Tati’s film a challenge to watch on a twelve-inch laptop screen, even when there isn’t a global pandemic. But I’m glad I did.
If pressed to say what “PlayTime” is about, I’d say it’s about how to survive in an ugly, anxious, mechanized world. Tati was sober enough to recognize that we’re unlikely to get rid of that world any time soon. He was also bold enough to suggest that people can, if they choose, get by just fine without it. Tati died too soon early to witness the horror of people voluntarily carrying distraction machines in their pockets, but I still think his point holds water. By choosing art that doesn’t insult our intelligence, that doesn’t treat us as so many algorithmic data points, we are in some sense choosing not to be data points.
It is traditional to end this kind of article with a “Best of” list, and — in the spirit of choosing art over opium — I’ve given in to that tradition. Below, in alphabetical order, are ten artworks, or groups of works, that brought me joy in 2020. A few of them were actually released in 2020:
“City Hall,” a film by Frederick Wiseman
“The Drunken Silenus,” an essay by Morgan Meis
John Ford’s films, a dozen or so of which I watched with my friend and then grappled with, argued over, laughed about, and fell in love with
“Magic Oneohtrix Point Never,” an album by Oneohtrix Point Never
“Marrow and Bone,” a novel by Walter Kempowski, trans. Charlotte Collins
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a film by Nagisa Ōshima
“Taste of Cherry,” a film by Abbas Kiarostami
“Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945,” an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art
“Wayward Heroes,” a novel by Halldór Laxness, translated by Philip Roughton
Jackson Arn is The Forward’s contributing art critic.