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In Status and Culture — the hot, new nonfiction book that seems to be sitting atop many a creative executive’s nightstand — author W. David Marx surveys several thousand years of popular culture in pursuit of a cogent unifying theory of “why.” Why do certain things take off — a pop song, a jean cut, a movie genre — then fall out of fashion, only to mysteriously come back in vogue years later? Marx says the magic ingredient is status, that elusive social currency that Hollywood was built upon.
Much of the media coverage of the book has coalesced around the idea of “cultural stasis,” or that today’s culture — in all its forms and despite (or perhaps because of) the instantaneity of the internet — is in a slump. But that’s not quite what Marx is saying, as he explained in a lively Zoom discussion with The Outne Reporter from his home in Tokyo that touches on everything from selling out to superhero movies.
Your book is getting a lot of attention for trying to do something new: assign quantitative analysis to culture.
I was long frustrated that there wasn’t a particularly good explanation of why culture changes over time. There’s all these predictable behaviors in terms of fashion, and yet I was very intrigued by the mystery of why exactly these things happen. And if you study economics or all these other fields, you have pretty clear explanations for human behavior. And I felt like with culture it was all very abstract and very nonspecific.
I embarked upon trying to put all this stuff together, all these different theories and everything I had learned over the years. And in doing that I discovered the status part as the unifying thread that made sense of it all. I went to the library just trying to find the one book about status. And I found that there wasn’t really one authoritative text on how status works. So from there I realized that I could do a book that both explained how status works and how culture works and how they work together.
Status can be a lot of different things. So what’s your definition of status?
Status is your position in a hierarchy. And we are in all these different hierarchies in our lives. A local community, your school, your workplace, your family — you may have a place in the hierarchy. If you move up the hierarchy, you get more benefits, people treat you better and you have a better life. And if you move down, you have a worse life. Social psychologists have done lots of experiments and studies where they found that people’s well-being absolutely moves up the more that they have relative standing over their peers and it goes down if they have lower standing.
But what’s important about what I’m talking about in the book is not simply that people are all constantly demanding to move up, because that’s not necessarily true. It’s simply that even normal, what I call normal status, which is just being in a group and being a member of good standing, has benefits and feels good to be part of a community and people care about that. And simply caring about what other people think of them and the benefits they get from that is really the most important thing you understand for the creation and formation of culture.
Once you understand these principles of status seeking, you start to understand why these arbitrary behaviors — because culture is ultimately a set of arbitrary ways of doing certain activities — why we get so focused on certain ones at certain times and then it changes over time.
I always assumed culture has certain thought leaders that show the world something different that they didn’t know they wanted, that hits at exactly the right time, and then suddenly everyone follows them. Like Andy Warhol, David Bowie, people like that. So how does that fit into your thesis?
I talk about the role of status in inspiring artists in the book. I’m not saying artists all want social status and therefore they create. What I’m mostly talking about is within the artistic community, especially for, let’s say, something like avant garde art: If you create innovative forms of culture and you are not recognized as an artist, those ideas may not be recognized as art. So it’s really important that artists gain what I call “artist status,” which is that if they’re seen as artists, the work that they make [is deemed[ art and then people can have aesthetic experiences with that.
I would say David Bowie was someone who was pretty singularly obsessed with becoming a star and finally achieved it. Warhol was a commercial artist who desperately wanted to be a fine artist and in his case he decided to paint two different styles of art: abstract expressionism and then what became pop art. And he showed them around the different galleries and got feedback and then went into the pop art direction. And ended up, because he was in that cycle of artists, knowing what the future direction could be for art.
One of the things I’m trying to say about where new art comes from is it always comes from a very specific social context. Even if these people feel like geniuses, they’re reacting against what came before and the next wave of people will also react against what they did. But what motivates them, in a sense, is to create status for themselves as artists by negating the previous styles and creating space for themselves.
And also it sounds like having an innate sense of what is commercially viable or appealing to a mass audience.
I think that’s become increasingly important. But obviously someone like Marcel Duchamp, who was absolutely one of the most important artists of 20th century, did not care about commercialism at all. But he understood, I think, what would be the most radical negations of Picasso and Matisse and the art at the time that would get attention and devalue the art that came before. I think in the late 20th century we’re getting to a point where people have to be very commercially savvy, but it’s just knowing what is going to obviously get you attention as the next step in the narrative of the history of art and culture.
What about this notion that “selling out” doesn’t really exist anymore? That used to be a real big deal and now some people think that commercialism has become so prevalent that it doesn’t even exist as an artistic philosophy.
“Poptimism” was a critical movement in the early 2000s that more or less said, “Why are we so focused on innovation in indie rock when rock is a pretty stale form and most of the really cool production and interesting ideas are happening in R&B, hip hop and those fields?” That initial poptimism, which was a really, I think, an egalitarian look at, “let’s try to weigh all culture in the same way and give it attention, even if it’s popular, if it’s indie,” I think that has now moved to a sense that things that are gigantic blockbusters need our attention more than things that are underground because they matter to more people and that’s where our attention should be. So it’s kind of a somewhat of an ultra democratic impulse, but it also is, I think, crowding out some of the time and attention that used to go to indie culture.
You’ve mentioned the “b” word — blockbuster — so let’s move into movies. What’s your assessment of where Hollywood is right now when it comes to movies?
All creative industries are faced with a major problem, which is that you can’t predict demand for your specific products. It is nearly impossible to predict what will be a hit and what won’t. And what you do is you try to use a bunch of techniques in order to better predict demand and to create products that are much more reliable, in terms of success in the commercial market.
I think the question for today is not why are big studios making sequels and really ultra-safe movies, because that is the economic imperative that they have. I think it’s instead: Why is there no pressure from auteurs or indie creators — who in some ways devalue what’s going on in the mass market — so that the big studios have to respond. Something has changed with the internet and with our economy right now, that either those indie creators are co-opted, or that their message, or the assault that they have on mass-market tastes, has been blunted.
So is that all to say that we’re in a moment of stagnation or a less creative moment?
That’s certainly what people are feeling. And I think there are some measures of this. The reason people bring up that there’s so many sequels, there’s been so many Spider-Man films, is because that does seem like a sign of stagnation. And if you grew up in the 1990s, which people who were over 40 did, they just remember Pulp Fiction and they remember Clerks and they remember Good Will Hunting.
I think some of this is a little bit glossy nostalgia in the sense that there was no internet video when we were kids and our lives were transformed by these things and we wished to be inspired by these kind of films. Again, young people, people under 25, maybe so transfixed with what’s on TikTok all the time that maybe they don’t necessarily worry about the stagnation issue.
But by the measure of 20th century, in terms of what are the big films and who are the musicians, then the amount of change that we’re seeing, the amount of tweaks to the conventions of the art forms, seems to be moving in a slower pace. I don’t think that stagnation necessarily means that people are all bored or that everybody is upset about it. But if you are a cultural critic and your entire way of thinking about the health of the culture is the pace at which conventions of these fields change, and they feel like they’re moving forward in new interesting directions, people have tended to be disappointed in the last 20 years.
But then if you look at TV, there’s just this glut of streaming content that is very creative and out of the box.
I do think that’s where people’s attention has gone. But I think there’s also become a formula for this kind of TV creation. There’s a cadence to the way these streaming TV shows are made and the way that the cliffhangers are given at the end, so you keep clicking, I think we’re growing a little bit tired of. So I think the health of that ecosystem in the last five years can’t predict necessarily what the next five years will be.
My whole contribution in the book to this debate of “cultural statis,” is not necessarily that there’s not good things being made. It’s just that when you have so much of it and it moves so quickly, we don’t necessarily form the bonds to it and it does not become representative of people’s identities the same way that culture used to in the past. If you’re just in a world of infinite content, it is really depleting the social meaning of the things that we consume.
At the same time, I feel like there is a lot of great culture happening right now. The films coming out of the festivals this year look very exciting to me and nothing I’ve seen before. And then people do rally around certain TV shows, like the fourth season of Stranger Things. And it really dominated all summer and then revived Kate Bush’s career in a way, or made her bigger than she ever was. The Squid Game phenomenon, these phenomena still occur.
Absolutely. Culture still exists. Culture is still an ecosystem that moves — but I think the fear is that it’s just not moving as much. Is there new culture that’s entertaining people? Absolutely. Is there really interesting stuff still going on? Yes. The Rehearsal was an incredible TV show unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And people talked about it in that sense. And so this is not at all to say that nothing’s interesting anymore. It’s simply, at a macro scale, people feel like they’re not getting the kind of innovation that will make them inspired anymore — but this may have to do with our perception as much as it has to do with the actual reality on the ground.
I think a big part of it is that people are getting annoyed with just the number of comic book movies the studios produce.
Which is funny, because you just don’t have to watch them.
I have the Criterion channel. I have not watched all the films on the Criterion Channel. If I’m really bored with the Marvel movies, I can just watch those instead. But the entire dialogue gets sucked into these blockbusters. And so we feel like we have to have an opinion on them and that people may be resentful of that.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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