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On black-and-white films, the Las Vegas Strip, and the adoption of modernity
A small band of dyspeptic commentators runs about on the English-languag Internet, decrying various aspects of modernity as having lost touch with the supposed beauty of the past. Under anonymous handles, they point to small samples of art and architecture from the present, selectively lining them up against small samples of historic works, or just point vaguely at great past achievements and weigh them against a vague assumption that people today are too lazy or unambitious to match up.
■ It would all be amusing in an anachronistic way -- like someone who refuses to watch any movie filmed in color -- if it weren't so very likely that the accounts putting on their holy war against modernity weren't serving a truly backwards ideology.
■ The problem is that it is so easy to tap into a human instinct to mistake ornamentation for beauty. If something looks elaborate, it often looks like it required a lot of work, and that seems to appeal to a basic human instinct.
■ But ornamentation isn't equivalent to quality. The Las Vegas Strip is chock-full of ornamentation, but nothing there is permanent, nor is it classically beautiful. It is merely decorated. Lavishly decorated, but that is all.
■ Human tastes change, both individually and at scale. That's a blessing, not a curse. The architecture of skyscrapers alone has gone through at least four major schools since World War II.
■ Some looks have endured. Others have not. But ornamentation hasn't really made any lasting difference, any more than wallpaper can salvage a poorly laid-out room. Fully valid schools of thought have idealized the simplification of design, from Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School of architecture to the Streamline Moderne design movement to Internationalism in tall buildings.
■ What makes the Internet commentators so troubling is the ease with which they seek to recruit people to a broad and unsubstantiated dissatisfaction with the modern world. It's a very old playbook -- representing the modern as corrupt or bereft of "true" beauty, needing replacement by a revival of "traditional" beauty -- which, suspiciously, is always defined by what its advocates oppose.
■ It's gross and backwards, but more significantly, it invites alliances with those seeking conscripts to a war against this straw-man of "modernity". The most important tradition is the continuous evolution of human tastes and standards to match the new things we've learned. Human civilization must conserve what works, while adapting to change and adopting what works better than what came before.