Copyright © Larry Johnson 2019
Some years ago, I was privy to comments that standards once accepted by society had been lowered. The remark didn’t concern itself so much with the fact that agreed norms for the culture were being under-mined; but that the actual benchmarks were themselves being devalued. I concurred somewhat with the observations at the time, however I must confess to now being convinced beyond doubt. Everywhere and to everything one turns there is evinced evidence of this unfortunate development. Perhaps it would be prudent to study a few examples.
There was a time when the English language was, in general, competently applied by society. Authors exhibited a broad knowledge of the language and wove it into beautiful, picturesque phraseology. When I obtain a book of fiction in the modern day I cannot help but be struck by the blandness. Perhaps I have been unlucky, but it has come to point where I am very reluctant to purchase any fictional story written after 1950. I have always considered the reading of well written prose to be a learning experience as well as entry into the world of adventure and intrigue etc. I have made it usual practice to have with me a dictionary for the occasions when my knowledge is tested, and, where disposed, will from it happily refer. However in recent times society has appeared to be on a relentless campaign to ‘dumb down’ the language. Some years ago, in the organization where I worked, there was a memorandum instructing staff how to write an email. We were to use short sentences and avoid using long words. The former was, no doubt, to acknowledge the short attention span of the modern reader, and the latter recognizing the fact that the English language has now been reduced from literally thousands of words to a mere few hundred. A further development is the tendency to write, or speak for that matter, in shorthand. It is as if we can’t be bothered with the whole word anymore. This suggests malaise and apathy in our society in that we are not able to raise the effort to write or articulate in a reasonable way. Perhaps some will assert that it is fashionable, trendy, and the modern way. My hope is that it will become unfashionable and outdated as soon as possible.
This reduction of the English language is further illustrated by the constant use of a some words where other options exist. One of the foremost examples is the word ‘absolutely’. For many years it has seemed difficult for many to find an alternative but let me suggest a few: ‘most certainly’, ‘definitely’, or ‘of course’. There is an adage that refers to fact that people follow each other like sheep, and so we have. In the case of these ubiquitous words – Ah! There’s another. How convenient for ubiquitous to be so ubiquitous. I’ll try again. In the case of these pervasive words I move that they be struck from all dictionaries and all forms of speech for at least ten years. The masses will then be required to rise from their malaise and discover alternatives!
Music and art are also suffering from the deteriorating principles by which we now live. It began some time ago that usage of the word ‘vocalist’ became the customary term to describe those who in previous days were referred to as singers. Singing is one of the highest of the musical art forms; and as with any musical instrument requires much practice and skill to evoke moving and pleasant tones. In regard to popular music in our day, it is more than appropriate that the term vocalist is applied instead, as what we often hear is surely not singing. Certainly, the vocal cords are creating the sounds, but what we hear is in no way affecting or pleasing. Equally the standard of musical instrument prowess in popular music leaves much to be desired. Professional performers seem to be able to get away with ‘blue murder’, as their lack of skill is blatantly evident. However the mediocre vocalization and ordinary instrument playing combine to form a product that many of masses find enthralling: even to the point of claiming legendary status for the most pedestrian talent. Some time ago, the referred to musician would have not ‘got a look in’, and been encouraged by the majority to investigate some other occupation.
The fine arts are also problematical. We have traversed from the beautiful paintings of Constable, Turner and others a couple of hundred years ago, to artwork quite ugly. It seems anything goes as long as you have developed some deep meaning for it, sensible or not. I am told it is all about self-expression these days. I have to disagree with this determination as the proper purpose of the fine arts. Art should concern itself with the reflection of the beautiful, whether it is a person, landscape, seascape etc., and did so until the arrival of the abstract. One wonders whether abstract art is merely a conventional work gone amiss; and then presented as something intangible to the viewer with an explanation concocted and explained in words wrapped in academia. Nonetheless, it will transpire that some pundit will pay a fortune for the work.
We turn now to the profession of acting. Unfortunately for the modern world, a golden era was experienced from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Unfortunate for us in the modern era, as it provided a benchmark to which the profession today cannot rise. It must be said that the wheel began to wobble in the latter of this period i.e. 1960s, continuing to loosen and finally falling off in the current age. Our actors and actresses (I realise the latter is a politically incorrect term, but anything to stir the pot is worthwhile) it should be stated are wooden and quite unbelievable in the roles undertaken. I think therefore that this is a reason why the special effects genre has taken such a hold; their use distracting from the lack of ability of the cast. Moreover, we are bombarded with incessant blood and gore, atrocious language, the mandatory boring sex scenes that have now progressed into that of the pornographic, generally uninteresting scripts and largely insipid musical scores. Yet again, the masses pay to watch it all, either at the movies or via streaming or DVD. Nonetheless, many seem to feel that the fare is reasonable, so the proposal of ever descending standards is further confirmed. I have not undertaken a précis of the theatre as I haven’t attended for many years. Indeed, regarding musical theatre, it is my habit to hear the score before I pay the money to see the show. I have not heard a satisfactory one for many years, hence my absence.
Regarding these modes of art, from which many of the self-appointed intelligentsia emerge (a topic for another essay), I wonder whether the volume of participants is the cause of the issue. In the days when there were fewer acting roles, less art galleries, and less avenues for musicians to display their wares, competition was daunting. The mediocre found it difficult to break through unless there was some smart gimmickry forthcoming. For example, in this age we have a plethora of television channels, all needing to fill their schedule with whatever shows on which they can lay their hands. Good or bad the providers know that people will watch them, because many have tended towards dull-mindedness and aren’t really concerned with what they view, provided there is something to stare vaguely at to avoid doing anything constructive. I refer here to not the casual viewer that requires some temporary relaxation, but of the so called ‘binge viewer’.
We could examine other subjects, but the list would be large and would require the writing of a book; but for the moment the mere essay will have to suffice to assert my point. Notwithstanding, I would like briefly to consider the relationship between the decline in standards of the aforementioned categories and contemporary culture. I have long thought that there is a strong relationship between the two. There is no question in my mind that we are living in the most uncivilised of civilised times. Violence, rudeness, and a general degradation in order appear to have occurred in similitude with the descending quality of music, art and literature. Or could it be that the influence is converse? That the disorder of society has resulted in their degeneration? In any case, we have witnessed civility wane dramatically, certainly at an accelerated rate in the last forty to fifty years. Hitherto, the opportunity of entering the realm of social etiquette, manners and courtesies cannot be resisted. In particular, and ironically relating to the initial paragraph on the English language, society appears to have rescinded the use of three words – please, thank you and sorry (or excuse me). When at the mall and a child almost collides with me as a consequence of his or her penchant to race around willy-nilly, rather than receiving the warranted apology I’m granted a look as if to say, ‘why are you in my way’? I must question the upbringing of the child. We just don’t appear to be worried about manners anymore. Again, fellow members of the community will push past at the supermarket without a hint of ‘excuse me’ and continue their activities while I retrieve my head from the selection of breads in aisle three! No, it didn’t really occur, but it well may have and there would be little surprise if it did. Is the denigration in these touchstones leading society into primitive, unruly and uneducated habits? My answer is without doubt in affirmation. The certainty is that unless there is a reversal, our culture will continue the ever-dismal expedition into the mire of ever descending standards.