I’m very fond of quoting from Roman Jakobson’s 1935 essay “The Dominant”. Lately I’ve been thinking about this passage in particular:
We may seek a dominant not only in the poetic work of an individual artist and not only in the poetic canon, but also in the art of a given epoch, viewed as a particular whole. For example, it is evident that in Renaissance art such a dominant, such an acme of the aesthetic criteria of the time, was represented by the visual arts. Other arts oriented themselves toward the visual arts and were valued according to the degree of their closeness to the latter. On the other hand, in Romantic art the supreme value was assigned to music. Thus, Romantic art oriented itself toward music: its verse is musically focused; its verse intonation imitates musical melody. This focusing on a dominant which is in fact external to the poetic work substantially changes the poem’s structure with regard to sound texture, syntactic structure, and imagery; it alters the poem’s metrical and strophical criteria and its composition. In Realist aesthetics the dominant was verbal art, and the hierarchy of poetic values was modified accordingly.
I think we can at least agree that some mediums resonate more strongly in the culture, in a given time and place, than others. Opera and ballet no longer have the cultural influence they once did—nor does painting. And neither does literature, not since the very early 1900s. They were all supplanted in the 20th Century by radio, then cinema. (In this post from yesterday, I was exploring some of the influence that cinema, being a dominant medium, has had on the culture.)
Some have argued that cinema started losing its dominance in the 50s or 60s or 70s, being supplanted by television (which has, since the 90s or the 00s, been supplanted by the internet). I find argument that very plausible; even the major film studios have acknowledged by this point that theatrical film releases are essentially ads for later DVD releases (multiple DVD releases).
This morning, I found a nice contemporary illustration of this idea of television as the dominant medium of our time—or at least of the 70s through 90s: David Foster Wallace discussing the dominance of television while on television (and now on the internet):
A few passages worth noting:
I think, in a weird way, the condition, sort of commercially for fiction, has—bears a little bit on the aesthetics of writing right now, because, at least, at least the generation I think of myself as part of right now, was raised on television, which means that, at least I was raised to think of television as my main artistic snorkel to the universe. And I think that television, which is a commercial art, that’s a lot of fun, that requires very little of the recipient of the art, I think, affects what—affects what people are looking for in various kinds of art. And I think, um, can make the sort of fiction, which—if I can lump a bit, which I think all three of us do—stuff that’s at harder than average, weird, requires some work to read.
Wallace’s response is to oppose that (at least to some extent):
The thing that, the thing that interests me in a lot of the stuff that I think I do, has to do with a lot—commercial entertainment, its efficiency, its sheer—its sheer ability to deliver pleasue in large doses, changes people’s, changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment. It changes what what an audience is looking for. I would argue it changes us in deeper ways than that. And that some of the way that commercial culture and commercial entertainment affects human beings is one of the things that I sort of think serious art and fiction ought to be doing right now.
Note, too, his complaint against the (then-)contemporary avant-garde (although I’d argue it still largely applies):
Ten years ago, I was reading a lot more avant-garde stuff, and I thought it was very cool. Um. One of my complaints right now, um, is that, because I think commercial entertainment has conditioned readers to want, um, kind of more easy fun, I think avant-garde and art fiction has sort of relinquished the field, and is now—Basically, I don’t read much contemporary avant-garde stuff because it’s hellaciously unfun.
It is, as he notes, a double-edged sword. Luckily (and Wallace alludes to this), Roland Barthes has given us at least one solution to the problem. Literature’s pleasure is not television’s pleasure—and yet it must respond to television’s widespread and easy pleasure, and to audiences expecting that pleasure. (I personally don’t despair too much about it, because that’s a great tension, and great art requires great tension.)