In Friday's Financial Times (UK), Peter Aspden argues that the internet has succeeded in accomplishing a renovation of consciousness of which modernism was a precursor.  --  "That innocuous phrase 'surfing the net' is also revolutionizing the way we think, and ultimately the way we look at the world."  --  Aspden sees in films like "Syriana" effects of this revolution....

Arts & weekend

By Peter Aspden

Financial Times (UK)
January 6, 2006

I believe it was Jean-Luc Godard who said that, yes, of course every work of art must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; they just didn’t need to be in that order. In truth, any one of the masters of last century’s modernist movement might have prefigured his remarks. When art started, thrillingly, to play with form, to champion the multiplicity of viewpoints over a single vision, to take its interpretation of the human condition to the very edges of ugliness and perversion, it seemed a profoundly radical and irrevocable move. How could we ever again be gripped by the clunky ideals of the Enlightenment or Romantic eras? Loss of innocence is surely a one-way ticket. We would never return to the simple charms of a Mozart divertimento or a country scene by Gainsborough.

It didn’t work out like that, of course. When art got really ugly, dissonant, fractured, we recoiled and retrenched. A constant diet of Joyce, Picasso, and Schoenberg provoked a kind of aesthetic distemper. We came back to beginnings, middles, and ends, in that order. Narrative clarity acted, and continues to act, as a cultural comfort blanket. The avant-garde pulled up, and waited for the rest of us to catch up; but we followed with great reluctance, if at all. For a while, post-modern theorists celebrated the death of grand narratives and urged us heartily to embrace the fragmentation of values; we ignored them, and today pile into "King Kong," a film that toasts the ability of the most sophisticated part of our culture -- technology -- to stand in for and act out the dark, primal forces we would rather remain suppressed, but has given up entirely on narrative complexity.

But I wonder if all this is about to change. Almost all of us today work, if not live, in a radically different way from even a decade ago. As part of our daily lives, we zip from one field of inquiry to another with bewildering speed. The velocity of most intellectual research is accelerated by an inestimable factor, thanks to the pressing of a few, key buttons. I am talking about the internet, of course. But speed is not its only virtue. That innocuous phrase “surfing the net” is also revolutionizing the way we think, and ultimately the way we look at the world. Others have identified it as the Hyperlink Syndrome, the way we flit from one subject to another, becoming fascinated, even addicted, by the sheer breadth of everything, rather than by the depth of something.

And that is having its inevitable effect on culture. We are being primed, on a daily basis, to make lateral leaps in our imaginations; to hold disparate ideas in our minds at the same time; to work in various time-frames and shades of thought. The 21st-century intellect must, above all, be fresh, quick, and supple; while the methodical toiler who moves dutifully from the beginning, to the middle, to the end, is bogged down in detail.

We can see the effect in movies. In "Syriana," Stephen Gaghan’s outstanding political thriller on the oil industry, opening in Britain in March, we spend the first hour carrying half a dozen plotlines in our heads, without the remotest clue of how they tie together. We have to work, and make the connections, the Hyperlinks, ourselves; and very rewarding it is too. Even in last year’s "Crash," a mainstream and commercially successful work, we were made to jump from one scenario to the other with alacrity. They were not sub-plots, for there was no single plot; just a theme, of the complexity of living in a multicultural polity. Admittedly "Crash" built on the tradition of the superior "Short Cuts" and "Magnolia." But I am willing to bet we will see far more of this style of film-making: jumpy, piecemeal, kaleidoscopic.

That last word was precisely the term used by Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries, when he talked to me about the forthcoming rehang of works at Tate Modern in May. The gallery will contain four “suites”, on cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and minimalism, which will draw together past and contemporary works. When I asked him what was wrong with the history of art being displayed in the good old chronological way, he replied that young people did not necessarily absorb information in that way any longer. The new hanging was designed to make people think and learn via new juxtapositions. History, he said, was “only one skeleton.”

And it is, to be sure, rattling away in the cupboard, displaying some signs of distemper itself. There is a risk involved in a whole generation losing its timelines completely, left to make uninformed judgments which, put crudely, get things the wrong way around. That is precisely what Godard, and those who shared his sensibility, sought to achieve, of course: to puzzle and disorientate us into benign confusion. But where art toiled, and failed, that little laptop in the corner of your room has succeeded. Follow the links; start at the end; keep moving sideways. We are all cultural magpies now.

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