Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa is probably my favorite living novelist. His work is heart-wrenching and vivid, a celebration of the power of the individual — an island of true liberalism in the sea of Marxism that makes up modern literary fiction in Latin America.
So, I was disheartened to read his most recent collection of nonfiction, Notes on the Death of Culture. In it, he decries what he sees as a devolution of modern culture from classical forms of art, to a “civilization of the spectacle.” While I make no attempt to normatively evaluate the two stacked against one another, I do think there is a lot to celebrate in this “spectacle,” as he calls it.
Replacing Substance with Entertainment?
Vargas Llosa’s spectacle can basically be defined as modern forms of entertainment and mass media, and the values underlying most people’s consumption of those mediums. Having “a good time, escaping boredom” has become the “universal passion,” has led culture down the path to banality and frivolity, and has given rise to tabloid-style journalism.
The two most important factors in these developments are the post-WWII economic gains experienced by the West and certain Asian economies, and the further democratization of culture, in which literature and the arts are no longer only the domain of the elites. Now, everyone gets a seat at the cultural table which, he contends, has caused a “cheapening and trivializing” effect that has downgraded the content of our cultural consumption, to the extent that “a Verdi opera, the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones, and a performance by Cirque du Soleil have equal value.”
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