The Illusion of Decline: The United States, Architecture and the Arts
An interesting feature of human societies is the idea of decline; that we live in the worst of times, the most amoral, secular, obese, and unequal societies. Decline is applied to countries too where nations like the United States are thought to be in their sunset years due to various sociopolitical and economic mishaps bedeviling them today. In this issue, I question the reality of decline and the underlying psychological phenomena that promotes it. I also discuss post modernism and the decline of contemporary arts.
Is the United States in decline?
The best way to understand decline is by first looking at the United States. At its peak, the United States is a behemoth with a massive economy, political influence, and a sophisticated military. But the U.S is not the only empire of its kind, before it, larger and more sophisticated empires stood, until all of them were eaten up by time. Time, it seems, is the killer of empires and a tomb of great memories.
If empires are swallowed by time then that leaves most of us with questions of whether America’s decline is imminent.
Indeed it is, but when is American’s decline?
That question forms the basis of my discussion on declinism. I won’t be talking of the United States only since declinism affects many spheres of human life. The centrality of the United States in this discussion rests on the fact that the decline of the United States has been discussed more extensively and formally than the decline of other aspects of human life.
During the pandemic, at the height of Trump’s administration, Tom McTague observed that the United States not only demonstrated incompetence in its handling of Covid-19, but also revealed the racist skeletons in its closet after the murder of Floyd. Massive protests that ensued led many people to ask whether the United States was going to last any longer. Trump’s administration is believed to be the worst in history, an event that further cemented feelings of an America in decline. Similarly, the pandemic showed us the United States wasn’t as technically competent as western propaganda had led us to believe.
On “The Decline of the American World,” McTague aptly captures our thoughts. He believes “as citizens of the world the United States creates, we are accustomed to listening to those who loath America, admire America, and fear America. But feeling pity for America? That one is new.” At the height of the pandemic, more deaths were recorded in the United States than anywhere else in the world. For the first time we felt pity for the United States. With Donald Trump at the helm, the shimmering flames of this long overdue giant, we believed, were slowly going out.
These feelings of loathing and pity have extended into Biden’s administration. Nothing defines this administration better than pictures of Biden trying hard enough to evoke vigor and vitality, amidst fears of senility, incompetence, and a raging Ukrainian war that makes NATO and Biden look weak.
The idea of a United States of America that is all powerful and all knowing has dissipated over time as more sympathetic views of this powerful empire take hold. However, McTague is not the only one to write of America’s decline. In 1992, Michael Prowse asked: “Is America in Decline?” It’s interesting to think what was particularly troublesome in 1992 to make someone ask whether America was in decline.
But 1992 wasn’t a peaceful period for the United States. At the time, Prowse writes, the list of complaints about the United States was endless.
Real wages are falling. Productivity growth is down. Companies aren’t competitive in global markets. White collar jobs are no longer secure. The nation’s infrastructure is collapsing. The federal deficit is soaring. The health system deteriorating…and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.
These problems made many people in 1992 to believe the United States had reached its zenith and was already in its way down. Prowse did not think America was in actual decline, what was viewed as decline, he believed, was an increase in domestic inequality and an increase in international equality. Countries like Japan and Germany, which the United States had helped rebuild, were now maturing, and it was easy for Americans to think the U.S. wasn’t moving ahead first enough.
The America of today doesn’t look any different from the one Americans were complaining about in 92. Inequality is at its all time highest today and the 2008 recession revealed the weaknesses in the United States’ economy. 9–11 is also a major event in the post 1992 America, which set the United States in its current trajectory of war and regime changes in foreign countries. It’s exit from Afghanistan in 2021 was also weak and wreaks of decline both strategically and militarily. Maybe the deteriorating health system of 1992 is what set up the United States for its embarrassing failure during the pandemic.
However, the school of American decline had begun earlier than 1992. Peter Schmeisser reviewed for the New York Times Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” in 1988. The book had a chapter on American decline, raising pertinent issues about the United States’ position in the international arena and how that position was increasingly at risk. Like Prowse, Schmeisser was also worried of America’s domestic decline arguing that:
When Japan and West Germany were busy rebuilding their heavy industries, encouraging private savings and cultivating public education around education mathematics and the sciences, America began to experience the chronic ailment of a maturing economy.
America’s decline it seems, is an ideas as old as the empire itself. It’s 34 years since Peter Schmeisser wrote for the New York Times, but we are still asking whether the United States is in decline. The position that China currently occupies as the United States’ rival was previously held by promising countries like Japan and Germany. Other issues such as social justice, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, Trans Rights, and Critical Race Theory have currently taken center stage in America’s sociopolitical structure and many people believe them to be telltale signs of decline
Despite these problems, and a three-decade-long commentary on Americas decline, the United States still remains at the top. It may be that nations take generations to collapse, but even if that were true, declinism seems more of a psychological phenomena than reality. Each generation looks at itself more pitifully, often reminiscing the good times in bygone eras. The Americans of 1992 still thought the United States was an awful country in decline and so were their counterparts of the 80s. The past, it seems, is a tomb of great memories, and the present a period of unparalleled torment.
The psychology of decline
There’s nothing more loved than history, not as a discipline but in relations to the past. People never fail to point how times were great in the decades that came before the present one. Our best days are always behind us.
Decline is a result of people comparing the present, which they live in, with a distant past which they may not have lived, probably only heard of, or only lived in their childhood.
People often think the present is worse than the past and that people who came before lived better lives. Other than the United States which has been a victim of declinism for the last thirty years, notions of decline are widespread in other fields.
Decline is understood not only in reference to countries but also towards culture, music, architecture, and art.
Looking at the picture above, you notice there’s something off-putting about modern architecture. Unlike the past, modern architecture seems lifeless, meaningless, and bland. Anybody would easily argue the best days of architecture are behind us. I recently wrote an article discussing Gothic and Romanesque architecture before the renaissance. The vibes are the same and the article almost makes it clear there was nothing better in architecture after Gothic. The claim is disputable because we still saw better art during the renaissance and the enlightenment, but that’s as far as we get.
The decline of modern architecture is just one of many declinist notions of modern societies. I recently Googled the Best songs of all time. Rolling Stones has a top 500 list but I was only interested in the top 50. While the names listed are big, there’s no denying the best music was sang before the dawn of this century. I am not sure whether the songs listed are actually great, what I know is the world is quite paranoid about contemporary music. Very few songs and artists from this century have been listed. People will even go as far as Mozart and Beethoven just to show how garbage contemporary music is.
Among the big names that make the Rolling Stone’s list is Aretha Franklin, John Lennon and the Beatles, Prince, Queen, Marvin Gaye, Outkast, Bob Marley’s “redemption song,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” Lorde’s “Royals,” and Kanye West’s “Runaway.” (In no particular order)
That list looks westernized in every sense. However, looking at Kenya’s music, many will agree contemporary Gengetone is viewed as a sign of decadence. People love the vibe that comes with old school Kenyan Music than any modern songs.
Good music reminds us of the great days in our past but great films define eras. As you’d expect, film critics agree some of the best films of all time were created in the 20th century. Like music, declinist views are rife in the film industry. Steven Spielberg and other modern directors are still not as revered as Hitchcock and other great directors of the 20th Century.
I recently reviewed some of the great films of all time. Unlike music, most of these films are great and there’s no denying directors of the past did more with less. The bicycle thieves (1948), properly captured Italian Neorealism and the post World War II era. Rear Window (1954) is one of Hitchcock’s best, and Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain (1952) is such a vibe. Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) sits at the peak of American Gothic, with great acts by Lilian Gish and the children. Francoise Truffaut was a genius of the French New Wave with his film the 400 blows (1959). The pessimism rife in the Second World War was adequately captured by Film Noir, and no films do a better job than Detour (1945) and the Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Coming close to the end of the century is La Haine (1995) by Mathew Kassovitz, which explores police brutality in the banlieues of Paris. The films lesson “Le Monde est a n(v)ous” can’t be easily forgotten.
In film, like in music and architecture, the best is always buried in time. People believe nothing about contemporary society is good, and that we live in the sunset years of humanity. Decline is a human psychological phenomenon that defines how we view and define our social spaces. Steven Pinker takes it a notch higher and discusses declinism in the arts. He observes that even as bachelor’s degrees increased by 40% between 1970 and 1994, English degrees declined by 40% in the same period. The number of prospective high school students who desired an English degree also declined, with only 9% willing to pursue a course in English literature in college.
Are the arts in decline?
Just like other artistic fields including film and music, declinism in the arts is only evident when you consider the output of great works. In the real sense, we are drowning in lots of music, films, books, and photographs.
Growing up, our village only had one photographer. Today that number has increased and the estates are not short of young boys and girls doing photography with cameras or smartphones. The same is true of Disk Jockeys and musicians. In less than a decade, I’ve met more upcoming D.Js and musicians than successful ones. I’ve also watched movies and read more books than any average person from the last century could probably ever in his lifetime. Often, I view diverse collections of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and ceramics in online museums curated from whichever part of the world. The idea that art is in decline looks like a mirage. The Arts have become more accessible and successful in the 21st Century than in any other period.
Steven Pinker quotes the economist Tyler Cowen arguing that “the best works of art are more likely to appear in the past decade than in the present decade for the reason that another line in the supermarket always moves faster than the one you are in.” The truth is, contemporary society is not in decline and neither are the arts. Pinker believes “it’s hard to recognize nascent art forms when they are on the rise, and by the time they are widely appreciated, their best days are behind them.”
The best about this generation will be recognized only after we’ve exited. The films I outlined earlier were the best of the period’s they represent, poor ones were forgotten. This is a classic case of survivorship bias, where only the great works of an era are given more attention. According to Pinker, “we get to enjoy the greatest hits winnowed from all those decades, listening to the Mozarts and forgetting the Salieris.” The bicycle thieves (1948) adequately defined Italian Neorealism and Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) is a masterpiece of the French New Wave. Other great directors like Charles Laughton were only recognized posthumously. Laughton directed one film in his lifetime and died before seeing its success. The Night of the Hunter (1955) has since become a classic, defining the Gothic era of American film.
Why is modern art so ugly?
The idea that something is in decline needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Modern architecture may be ugly compared to Gothic, but in future, these designs might actually stand out from other mediocre designs of the future. Some good movies and songs from this decade could also stand the test of time and so will books, poems, paintings, sculptures, and photographs.
That is not to mean modern culture is not bland, ugly, and stupid. Even in a hundred years, Gothic architecture will still be better than modern sky scrappers, and Michelangelo will continue to reign supreme among painters and sculptors. Pinker believes post modernism is largely to blame for the decline of aesthetics in the arts today, especially because of its rejection of human nature.
There’s a universal magnet that draws human beings towards the arts and it’s not possible for them to decline. However, postmodernism with its disregard for human nature and other sensibilities has impacted the arts tremendously. If human nature is not real, according to post modernist thought, then chances are none of its works will appeal to the masses, since enjoying the arts is also part of human nature. Imagine erroneously believing people don’t have tongues then cooking food so bland and tasteless because you believe they cannot taste. That’s what post modernism has done to contemporary art. We have a sense of taste for the arts, but post modernists believe we don’t have tongues, and they’ve gone ahead to give us tasteless crap.
Like other eras, post modernism will come and go but the arts will remain. Like the United States and other great empires of the past, the decline of post modernism is imminent.