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Arts and Culture

On Art and Politics: A Letter to the Millennials

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Posted on Aug 26, 2014

By Jonathan Taplin

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Editor’s note: This essay is an address to students by Jonathan Taplin, clinical professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. It was first published on Medium.

So we are about to embark on a sixteen-week exploration of innovation, entertainment, and the arts. This course is going to be about all three, but I’m going to start with the “art” part—because without the art, no amount of technological innovation or entertainment marketing savvy is going to get you to go to the movie theater.

However, I think there’s also a deeper, more controversial claim to be made along these same lines: Without the art, none of the innovation matters—and indeed, it may be impossible—because the art is what gives us vision, and what grounds us to the human element in all of this. Although there will be lectures, during which I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned about the way innovation, entertainment and the arts fit together, the most crucial part of the class is the dialogue between us, and specifically the insights coming from you as you teach me about your culture and your ideals.

The bottom line is that the world has come a long way, but from my perspective, we’re also living in uniquely worrisome times. My generation had dreams of how to make a better life that have remained woefully unfulfilled (leaving many of us cynical and disillusioned), but at the same time your generation has been saddled with the wreckage of our attempts and are now facing what may seem to be insurmountable odds.

I’m writing this letter in the hopes that it will help set the stage for a truly cross-generational dialogue over the next sixteen weeks, in which I help you understand the contexts and choices that have brought us where we are today, and in which you help me, and one another, figure out the best way to move forward from here.

When I was your age, I had my heart broken and my idealism challenged multiple times by the assassinations of my political heroes: namely, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Many in my generation turned away from politics and found our solace in works of art and entertainment. So one of the things I want to teach you about is a time from 1965–1980 when the artists really ruled both the music and the film industries. Some said “the lunatics had taken over the asylum” (and, amusingly enough, David Geffen named his record company Asylum), but if you look at the quality of work that was produced, it was extraordinary; in fact, most of it is still watched and listened to today. Moreover, in that period the most artistic work also sold the best: The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and “The Godfather” was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit.

That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is. I want to explore, with you, what the implications of this shift might be, and whether this represents a problem. It may be that those fifteen years your parents and I were lucky enough to experience was one of those renaissance moments that only come along once every century, so perhaps it’s asking too much to expect that I’ll see it occur again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I do hope it happens at least once in yours.

I spoke of the heartbreak of political murder that has permanently marked me and my peers, but we have also been profoundly disappointed by politics’ failure to improve the lives of the average citizen. In 1969, the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today, it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a “Great Stagnation,” bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy (and, along the way, shattering our faith in the “American Dream”). The Reagan-era notion that what benefited the 1%—“the establishment”—would benefit everyone has by now been thoroughly discredited, yet it seems that we are still struggling to pick up the pieces after this failed experiment.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Stephen Kinzer wrote about those in power during the 1950s, “Exceptionalism—the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations—was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined. The second principle of the establishment was that “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats’ efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the track record of Clinton’s treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers (specifically, their zealous efforts to kill the Glass-Steagall Act and deregulate the big banks and the commodities markets), to see that both major parties are guilty of sucking up to money; apparently, the establishment rules no matter who is in power.

Was it any surprise, then, that Obama appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Timothy Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused? Was it any surprise that they failed? Was it any surprise that establishment ideas about the surveillance state were not challenged by Obama? The good news is that, as a nation, we have grown tired of being the world’s unpaid cop, and we are tired of dancing to Wall Street’s tune. Slowly, we are learning that these policies may benefit the 1%, but they don’t benefit the people as a whole. My guess is the 2016 election may be fought on this ground, and we may finally begin to see real change, but the fact remains that we—both your generation and mine—are right now deeply mired in the fallout of unfulfilled promises and the failures of the political system.


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