Marx posits cultural evolution as a sort of perpetual motion machine driven by people’s desire to ascend the social hierarchy. Artists innovate to gain status, and people unconsciously adjust their tastes to either signal their status tier or move up to a new one. As he writes in the introduction, “Status struggles fuel cultural creativity in three important realms: competition between socioeconomic classes, the formation of subcultures and countercultures, and artists’ internecine battles.”Marx uses the rise of avant-garde compose John Cage after his first major orchestral piece premiered at Lincoln Center in 1964, as an example the introduction of a radical new perspective that would most likely be impossible today.
“There was a virtuous cycle for Cage: His originality, mystery and influence provided him artist status; this encouraged serious institutions to explore his work; the frequent engagement with his work imbued Cage with cachet among the public, who then received a status boost for taking his work seriously,” writes Marx. For Marx, this isn’t a matter of pretension. Cachet, he writes, “opens minds to radical propositions of what art can be and how we should perceive it.”
The internet, Marx writes in his book’s closing section, changes this dynamic. With so much content out there, the chance that others will recognize the meaning of any obscure cultural signal declines. Challenging art loses its prestige. Besides, in the age of the internet, taste tells you less about a person. You don’t need to make your way into any social world to develop a familiarity with Cage — or, for that matter, with underground hip-hop, weird performance art, or rare sneakers.
...people are, obviously, no less obsessed with their own status today than they were during times of fecund cultural production. It’s just that the markers of high social rank have become more philistine...When the value of cultural capital is debased, it makes “popularity and economic capital even more central in marking status...there’s “less incentive for individuals to both create and celebrate culture with high symbolic complexity.” ...We live in a time of rapid and disorienting shifts in gender, religion and technology. Aesthetically, thanks to the internet, it’s all quite dull.