One Long Masturbation: Reply to the Belief that Things Were Better When

In 1818 the population of England was near twenty million, 80 percent of whom were functionally illiterate. The literate field, then, was approximately four hundred thousand. This was not only the maximum poetry audience, it was the field from which the country’s poets could come.

How many were there? Coleridge-Wordsworth-Blake-Byron-Shelley-Keats . . . ? Certainly. But we can pull out over another dozen without even opening our Palgrave: Crabbe, Hunt, Reynolds, Campbell, Scott, Moore, Southey, E. H. Coleridge, Landor, Darley, Hood, Praed, Clare, and Beddoes were all writing that same year. And at this point we’ve pretty much scraped the bottom of the barrel for acceptable thesis topics in British poetry for that decade. Twenty all together!

Out of a field of four hundred thousand, that’s six poets of major interest and fourteen of varying minor interest.

In the United States today [1972] we have nearly 225 million people. Perhaps 80 percent are literate, which gives us a literate field of 180 million from which we can cull both our audience and our poets—a field fifty times as large.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that, where there were six major and fourteen minor poets in England in 1818, today there are fifty times six major poets (about three hundred) and fifty times fourteen (about seven hundred) of merit and interest in America today.

In general, the standards of poetry are far higher than in Shelley’s time. Few little magazines today will accept verse with as much padding as the lines that filled The Edinburgh Review.

Still, most people would rather not respond to a poem at all without the reassurance of critical approbation/mystification . . . that element so necessary if a writer is to be, to whatever degree, “famous.” Fame has been used, by the academic, as a sort of mineral oil to make works of culture slip down the throats of students a bit more easily. But fame is a matter of individual attention/fascination. And, at present, there just isn’t enough of it to go around—not if you want to dole it out to poets according to merit.

I think people have known this in a vaguely inarticulate way for years: it has resulted in an immense effort to propagate the lie that while the population rises geometrically, the amount of poetic excellence remains an arithmetic constant.

Yes, 99 percent of what is written is awful. And perhaps 75 percent of what is published—a microscopically small fraction of what is written—is trivial. But what is good and published would fill barns.

And I suspect one can find analogs of this situation with the novel, the theater, dance . . .

— from Samuel R. Delany’s “Letter to a Critic: Popular Culture, High Art, and the SF Landscape” (1972) available in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction.

In 2020, the population of the US is closer to 327 million, with another 66 million in the UK, 37 million in Canada, and 30 in Australia & New Zealand, meaning the population of the core English-speaking world nears half a billion souls, most of whom are better-educated, better-fed, and live longer than the English aristocracy of the Regency era.

If the laws of statistics hold — and why wouldn’t they? — we ought to have a 100 Keats in every generation. And if Delany is right, we probably do — if the threshold of merit has not changed; that is, if we judge today’s writers by the same standards of excellence.

There’s this idea that “Things were better when…” — that there has been a falling off in the arts (modern art specifically) — that despite the orders of magnitude more of it being produced than ever before, it has degraded from some imagined high.

I don’t know much about poetry. That was Delany’s analogy. But I do know a little about art history, although I am entirely self-taught. I’ve never taken a class, but I’ve read. Mostly, I went to museums. It was a perk of living in DC; they’re all free.

That’s important because it means I didn’t come to it wearing goggles I received from the establishment. Nor was I drawn in by the Impressionists, as most people seem to be. I actually came in at the beginning, which almost no one does. I came in via anthropology. I’ve shared an example before: the “Thinker” of Cernavoda. It mesmerized me.

We speak of things as timeless. Turn on the TV and within a few minutes, a baritone voice will extol the timelessness of the jewelry he wants you to buy for your wife. But the Thinker is timeless — in ways even the pyramids are not. They are remote. Impressive, but imposing. That was their purpose: to remind us that their inhabitants were explicitly NOT human. They were divine.

And yet, they’re crumbling.

Looking at the Thinker on his little stool, you can immediately identify with this fellow over a gap of five thousand years, which is bafflingly extraordinary. If that doesn’t give you goosebumps, you’re not seeing.

Because John Berger is right, there is a way to see — or rather ways of seeing, to use the name of his famous book. There is a visual vocabulary that you and I pick up in grade school and that includes a disposition to judge images of a certain sort “higher” than others.

The reason most non-Western art seems so pointlessly obtuse to Westerners is not because it’s infantile but because we lack the vocabulary to parse it. (I’ve written about that as well in The Sorrow of Radha.) We can’t tell a “high” image from a “low” one: it’s all foreign. But then, assuming you are a Westerner like me, it wasn’t made for us.

It’s not the least surprising to me that the great mass of people became turned off by art the moment it stopped being about them. Modern art isn’t about us. Modern art is about art. It’s art asking itself what art is, or can be.

Modern art is to art history what the “linguistic turn” in philosophy is to the history of ideas: an exhaustion. It is a looking around and wondering where else there is to go.

But there are more kinds of art made today than just the abstract, or whatever the critics tout. I share some on this blog. Alexander Korzer-Robinson excavates old books, an antiquarian archeology. Cyndy Salisbury makes carnival and opera masks, in both new and old styles. There are artists who make incredibly detailed maps of places that don’t exist, artists who paint in light and sculpt in shadow (see Fukuda).

What makes it into the news is the disgusting: Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” or Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca,” a poop-making robot. It’s deliberately curated to be controversial, and while I freely admit I get a tickle out of that kind of thing, I don’t expect everyone will. In fact, I suspect it would tickle less if everyone did.

We think we “get” modern art because we’re raised on modern images. (Before modern reproduction technology, that wasn’t the case.) Children’s books and television are designed to be got. A child that can’t read can nevertheless follow the misadventures of Curious George in pictures while they are read to her by the babysitter.

A child can’t “get” a medieval triptych. She has to be baptized into it. But once she has the tools (a basic religious education), she gets it quite easily — again, even if she can’t read. This of course was the purpose of stained glass: to illustrate the path to salvation, like an airline safety pamphlet. And because images were so rare, stained glass would’ve seemed quite glorious, divine even, especially when lit by the sun.

It’s not clear to what degree an educated person of the Regency era would’ve “got” post-impressionism (or even impressionism). Some would’ve, surely. The rest, while recognizing that, for example, it was a picture of a starry night, might call it rubbish. “My God, man! It’s all blurry. I can’t see a damned thing!”


Already with Van Gogh (active 1881-1890), there is a high level of abstraction. Those of us born after the impressionist period, whether we’re aware of it or not, learned the visual vocabulary, developed by impressionism necessary to see Van Gogh’s “Starry, Starry Night,” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” and so on until….

The Great War. Full stop. WWI was an unprecedented shock to Western culture, which in 1900 was sure that it had just about figured everything out. It was a bigger shock than WWII, despite that fewer people died, because by WWII, we knew such things could happen, which is why we started numbering them.

After the war, European artists, who had been looked to as leaders of the culture (if not the society) for two centuries — hence the obsession with art-as-status-symbol — asked themselves: if this is the result, what’s it all for?

The immediate result was Dada, the shell shock of art, but that was just a fuse. Everything exploded from there.

The first point to get is that after 1918, high art stopped celebrating Western culture. It stopped being about you. More than that, it became abstract enough that it surpassed the common understanding. The visual vocabulary turned so complex that it required some measure of specialized study to partake in the conversation.

This was not unique to art. It was characteristic of all areas of study and “high culture” at the time. Until and perhaps even through the Victorian age, you could still lay claim to being a “Man of Letters,” which is to say you could have a passing knowledge of anything known with reasonable certainty, and even quite a bit that wasn’t.

By the 20th century, that was no longer the case. And yet, we don’t blame physicists that physics stopped being fully teachable at the high school level — that you have to be inducted in from there. We don’t expect physics to be about us. We expect it to explore something grander.

But people assume art is supposed to be for them. Try to stage anything other than a classical ballet at the community theater and woe to you! (We begrudgingly accept opera, despite that no one “gets it,” because it wears a patina of tradition.)

Delaney is right. 99% of art made today is crap. Like him, I mean ALL art, including by the hobbyist. 75% of art curated in commercial galleries (or even online) is at best trivial. That means it’s extraordinarily easy to pick out a few shoddy pieces and think that’s the whole of it. Picking at random, which is all the outsider can hope to do, that’s the likely result.

And yet, judging on the same standards of excellence as in the past, there is more great art being made today than ever before.

So why don’t we see it?

A lot of it, we simply don’t get. Not because we’re stupid. In as much as we have to be inducted, we lack the vocabulary, just as we lack the ability to interpret these colorized particle tracks, captured in a bubble chamber at CERN, which could easily be mistaken for modern art (there’s a reason for that as well).


That is the first point. The second point is a little easier to grasp. There is a law in marketing, born through repeated experiment, that says it is better to be first than to be better. That is, the product that is first to market tends to do better over later entries, even those of a higher quality.

No one is defending this, by the way. It’s just a description of our purchasing behavior, of our psychology.

There is a corollary that says: once there was the Beatles, no one could be the Beatles again. The position is taken.

Given the numbers, it is probable that since the Beatles, there have existed other musicians who could’ve done Beatles-style music better than the Beatles, but since the Beatles were extraordinary enough — and came first — the matter is settled. Anyone else making Beatles music (like Klaatu) is relegated to the dustbin.

I’m convinced the contemporary Australian classic rock group Wolfmother, had they existed before Led Zeppelin, would’ve become a household name. But since Led Zeppelin beat them to existence by half a century, it’s the other way round. Wolfmother can’t help but sound derivative.

People are still painting impressionist paintings. But what can they do when it’s all been done? No matter how good they are, it’s still just repetition of a century-old form. Once you have the Beatles, you can never have the Beatles again. It sounds like a knockoff.

What the culture experiences writ large in this way we also experience personally over the course of our lives. I recently shared a quote from C.S. Lewis to that effect: “It is very rarely that in middle-age we find an author who gives us what we knew so often in our teens and twenties, the sense of having opened a new door.” Because once it’s been done and experienced, we no longer experience it as a novelty, as a peak.

When you say “Things were better when,” you are expressing a taste. You may as well have told me you prefer chocolate ice cream.

But when people say “Art was better when,” they tend to mean more than that. They mean it has fallen, something closer to “The chocolate ice cream of today is not as good as the chocolate ice cream of my youth.”

It’s possible. Statistically, it’s very unlikely. Given there are more kinds of chocolate ice cream, and more kinds of cacao, being produced than ever before — more than one could practically sample, I expect — one would expect a significant portion of it to be crap, and that’s fair.

But whatever the difference in proportion, in absolute terms, there are more excellent chocolate ice creams — or wines of the vintage, or love songs, or visual art — being produced now than at any time in history.

The problem for the casual observer is that this is not instantly apparent. And in fact, I think what these folks are really lamenting is not the state of art at all but the state of society, which has turned into an escaping nuclear reaction. (Their complaints are not unique to art.) The world itself is not as immediately comprehensible as it was in the past — or as we imagine the past.

That’s not to say anyone has to like modern art, or the inflated commercial enterprise of the same name. But art as it’s being produced today (or novels, or the theater) has not fallen off the pedestal. It’s just not what some people want it to be.