In a Christmas Day review, film critic A.O. Scott wondered what “future archaeologists, digging through the digital and physical rubble of our long-gone civilization in search of reasons for its collapse,” would make of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the new Scorcese-DiCaprio “bacchanal of sex, drugs and conspicuous consumption.” Is the film a “diagnosis” of our pathology or “an especially florid” example of it?
Trying to understand what a work of art tells us about its times is a task not only of art critics, but also of historical scholars. If a historian a century or two from now examined the cultural artifacts of the last several years – say, Beyonce’s latest release, a Twilight Saga movie, a pulp thriller about a serial killer, performance art in museums, reruns of Friends, a major Broadway production, or “Wolf” – how well could he or she describe the lives of average Americans today?
We can ask a similar question looking from our own time back to the 19th or 18th century. While a future historian will have all sorts of “hard” data about our era – business transactions, traffic records, news databases, government statistics, polls on what Americans think, maybe even NSA files, etc. – little material like that is available to describe Americans’ experiences before about the 1920s or so. We do, however, have a lot of art from long ago: songs, paintings, and particularly fiction. What can art tell us about life in an earlier America and about people’s thoughts and feelings in those times?
We might learn something about, say, common life on the New York frontier around 1800 from James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans or life in the Mississippi Valley around 1850 from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. We learn not from the foreground plots, but from the background settings what people wore, the houses they lived in, the jobs they worked, and the way families were structured – say, the fact that many households included spinster aunts. The 23rd century historian similarly might learn from our fiction about air travel, cell phones, work schedules, and perhaps even public norms for sexual behavior. (Today’s fiction takes premarital sex for granted; much of early 20th century fiction treated it as scandalous.)
However, we have to be alert to distortions. For example, the slice of society which usually appears in art is quite a narrow one. Most works of fiction, just as most paintings, depict the well-off (or for dramatic counterpose, the terribly distressed). The great mass of average people and their average lives are largely invisible. This is one reason many imagine 19th-century life as more stable than our own. The stories and pictures that have come down to us largely depict the life of established families in stately homes, ignoring the disrupted lives and tumble-down shacks around them. Similarly, we have to consider how the production and marketing of art affects our view of the past. For example, sociologist Wendy Griswold found that as long as publishers flooded the U.S. book market with pirated British novels in the 19th century, American novelists focused on distinctive, niche topics (like Indians and frontiersmen rather than, say, urban family life). Once copyright protection developed and limited the British competition, American novels came to read more like British ones. The settings and themes changed because the market changed, even if American life did not.
What might art tell us about inward issues — about how people thought and felt, what motivated them, the qualities of personal relationships, and such? One argument is that art captures shared world views and people’s most important concerns (as sociologist Benjamin Moodie argues here: pdf). Art tells us what the people of its time valued, what they considered to be moral dilemmas, how they evaluated character. If many Shakespearean plays are about false identities, that may mean that people of his era were obsessed with putting on and with unmasking false fronts. If Shakespearean characters are so driven by revenge that plays end with murdered bodies by the dozen, we take it that Shakespeare’s was a brutally violent society. (Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, reads much of the violence in earlier literature in just this vein.) The popularity of Horatio Alger up-from-poverty stories in the late 19th-century perhaps tells us that Americans felt that they, too, had such chances.
Or, instead, perhaps what novelists, songwriters, and artists really do to capture audiences is tell dramatically atypical stories, not boringly realistic ones — the prince-and-Cinderella romance; the rise-from-the-mat Rocky Balboa saga; the Milquetoast-turned-hero Cary Grant escapade; the Sex and the City glamour; the ghetto drug war shootouts; the improbable escape and improbable love story. And the stranger the tale – the more zombies, perhaps – the better? Art, in this analysis, is not a mirror of real life, but a funhouse mirror of real life.
One answer to this skepticism about the realism of art is that “classic,” “fine” art may be “truer.” Don’t look at the pop novels or entertainment of an era to understand it; look at the “literature.” But what we consider to be literature or other fine art depends more on the era in which the work is deemed great (and put on required reading lists) than on the era it was produced. Melville is only one example of a writer who was seen as great by 20th-century hindsight. Which art of 2013 — music, theater, award-winning books, video games, film, sculpture, tv, and more — would we say “tells it like it is” accurately enough that a future historian could use it to describe our lives and understand our psyches? The art of an age provides a window to spy on the people of its time, but through a dark glass. Seeing well through that colored window is itself an art.