in prestige and culture – The exciting new realist book that seems to be sitting at the table of many creative executives – Author W David Marx surveys several millennia of popular culture in pursuit of a compelling unifying theory of “why”. Why do certain things — a pop song, a jean story, or a movie genre — then go out of fashion, only to mysteriously fall back into vogue years later? The magic ingredient, Marks says, is prestige, that elusive social coin on which Hollywood is built.
Much of the book’s media coverage has coalesced around the idea of ”cultural stagnation,” or that today’s culture—in all its forms and despite (or perhaps because of) the Internet’s instantaneousness—is in stagnation. But that’s not exactly what Marx says, as he explained in a live discussion with Zoom The Hollywood Reporter From his home in Tokyo that touches on everything from sale to superhero movies.
Your book gets a lot of attention for trying to do something new: customizing quantitative analysis of culture.
I’ve been frustrated for a long time that there isn’t a particularly good explanation for why culture has changed over time. There are all these predictable behaviors regarding fashion, and yet I was very intrigued by the mystery of exactly why these things happen. And if you study economics or all of these other fields, you have very clear explanations for human behavior. And I felt that with the culture it was all very abstract and not very specific.
I set out to try to put all of this stuff together, all of these different theories and all of what I’ve learned over the years. And in doing so, I figured out the case part as the unifying thread that made everything make sense. I went to the library just to try to find one book on the condition. And I found that there wasn’t really a single authoritative text on how the case worked. From there I realized I could write a book that explains how the condition works, how the culture works, and how they work together.
The case can be a lot of different things. So what is your definition of niche?
Status is your position in the hierarchy. We are in all these different hierarchies in our lives. A local community, your school, your workplace, your family – you may have a place in the hierarchy. If you go up the hierarchy, you will get more benefits, people will treat you better and you will have a better life. And if you move down, you will live a worse life. Social psychologists have conducted a lot of experiments and studies where they found that people’s well-being increases absolutely whenever they have a relative position over their peers and decreases if their position is lower.
But what’s important about what I’m talking about in the book isn’t just that people are all constantly asking for a raise, because that’s not necessarily true. It’s simply that even normal, what I call normal, which is just being in a group and being a member in good standing, has benefits and feels good about being part of a community and people care about that. Just caring about what other people think of them and the benefits they get from that is really the most important thing to understand for creating and shaping culture.
Once you understand these principles of status seeking, you begin to understand why these behaviors are abusive—because culture is ultimately a set of arbitrary ways of doing certain activities—why we focus so heavily on certain activities at certain times and then change over time.
I’ve always assumed that culture has certain thought leaders who show the world something different they didn’t know they wanted, that happens at just the right time, and then all of a sudden everyone follows along. Like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, people love it. So how does that fit into your thesis?
I talk about the role of prestige in inspiring the artists in the book. I’m not saying that artists all want a social standing and therefore they create. What I’m talking about mostly is within the art community, especially for, let’s say, something like avant-garde art: if you create innovative forms of culture and you’re not recognized as an artist, those ideas may not be recognized as art. So it’s really important for artists to acquire what I call “artist status”, which is that if they are seen as artists, the work that they do [is deemed[ art and then people can have aesthetic experiences with that.
I would say David Bowie was someone who was pretty singularly obsessed with becoming a star and finally achieved it. Warhol was a commercial artist who desperately wanted to be a fine artist and in his case he decided to paint two different styles of art: abstract expressionism and then what became pop art. And he showed them around the different galleries and got feedback and then went into the pop art direction. And ended up, because he was in that cycle of artists, knowing what the future direction could be for art.
One of the things I’m trying to say about where new art comes from is it always comes from a very specific social context. Even if these people feel like geniuses, they’re reacting against what came before and the next wave of people will also react against what they did. But what motivates them, in a sense, is to create status for themselves as artists by negating the previous styles and creating space for themselves.
And also it sounds like having an innate sense of what is commercially viable or appealing to a mass audience.
I think that’s become increasingly important. But obviously someone like Marcel Duchamp, who was absolutely one of the most important artists of 20th century, did not care about commercialism at all. But he understood, I think, what would be the most radical negations of Picasso and Matisse and the art at the time that would get attention and devalue the art that came before. I think in the late 20th century we’re getting to a point where people have to be very commercially savvy, but it’s just knowing what is going to obviously get you attention as the next step in the narrative of the history of art and culture.
What about this notion that “selling out” doesn’t really exist anymore? That used to be a real big deal and now some people think that commercialism has become so prevalent that it doesn’t even exist as an artistic philosophy.
“Poptimism” was a critical movement in the early 2000s that more or less said, “Why are we so focused on innovation in indie rock when rock is a pretty stale form and most of the really cool production and interesting ideas are happening in R&B, hip hop and those fields?” That initial poptimism, which was a really, I think, an egalitarian look at, “let’s try to weigh all culture in the same way and give it attention, even if it’s popular, if it’s indie,” I think that has now moved to a sense that things that are gigantic blockbusters need our attention more than things that are underground because they matter to more people and that’s where our attention should be. So it’s kind of a somewhat of an ultra democratic impulse, but it also is, I think, crowding out some of the time and attention that used to go to indie culture.
You’ve mentioned the “b” word — blockbuster — so let’s move into movies. What’s your assessment of where Hollywood is right now when it comes to movies?
All creative industries are faced with a major problem, which is that you can’t predict demand for your specific products. It is nearly impossible to predict what will be a hit and what won’t. And what you do is you try to use a bunch of techniques in order to better predict demand and to create products that are much more reliable, in terms of success in the commercial market.
I think the question for today is not why are big studios making sequels and really ultra-safe movies, because that is the economic imperative that they have. I think it’s instead: Why is there no pressure from auteurs or indie creators — who in some ways devalue what’s going on in the mass market — so that the big studios have to respond. Something has changed with the internet and with our economy right now, that either those indie creators are co-opted, or that their message, or the assault that they have on mass-market tastes, has been blunted.
So is that all to say that we’re in a moment of stagnation or a less creative moment?
That’s certainly what people are feeling. And I think there are some measures of this. The reason people bring up that there’s so many sequels, there’s been so many Spider-Man films, is because that does seem like a sign of stagnation. And if you grew up in the 1990s, which people who were over 40 did, they just remember Pulp Fiction and they remember Clerks and they remember Good Will Hunting.
I think some of this is a little bit glossy nostalgia in the sense that there was no internet video when we were kids and our lives were transformed by these things and we wished to be inspired by these kind of films. Again, young people, people under 25, maybe so transfixed with what’s on TikTok all the time that maybe they don’t necessarily worry about the stagnation issue.
But by the measure of 20th century, in terms of what are the big films and who are the musicians, then the amount of change that we’re seeing, the amount of tweaks to the conventions of the art forms, seems to be moving in a slower pace. I don’t think that stagnation necessarily means that people are all bored or that everybody is upset about it. But if you are a cultural critic and your entire way of thinking about the health of the culture is the pace at which conventions of these fields change, and they feel like they’re moving forward in new interesting directions, people have tended to be disappointed in the last 20 years.
But then if you look at TV, there’s just this glut of streaming content that is very creative and out of the box.
I do think that’s where people’s attention has gone. But I think there’s also become a formula for this kind of TV creation. There’s a cadence to the way these streaming TV shows are made and the way that the cliffhangers are given at the end, so you keep clicking, I think we’re growing a little bit tired of. So I think the health of that ecosystem in the last five years can’t predict necessarily what the next five years will be.
My whole contribution in the book to this debate of “cultural statis,” is not necessarily that there’s not good things being made. It’s just that when you have so much of it and it moves so quickly, we don’t necessarily form the bonds to it and it does not become representative of people’s identities the same way that culture used to in the past. If you’re just in a world of infinite content, it is really depleting the social meaning of the things that we consume.
At the same time, I feel like there is a lot of great culture happening right now. The films coming out of the festivals this year look very exciting to me and nothing I’ve seen before. And then people do rally around certain TV shows, like the fourth season of Stranger Things. And it really dominated all summer and then revived Kate Bush’s career in a way, or made her bigger than she ever was. The Squid Game phenomenon, these phenomena still occur.
Absolutely. Culture still exists. Culture is still an ecosystem that moves — but I think the fear is that it’s just not moving as much. Is there new culture that’s entertaining people? Absolutely. Is there really interesting stuff still going on? Yes. The Rehearsal was an incredible TV show unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And people talked about it in that sense. And so this is not at all to say that nothing’s interesting anymore. It’s simply, at a macro scale, people feel like they’re not getting the kind of innovation that will make them inspired anymore — but this may have to do with our perception as much as it has to do with the actual reality on the ground.
I think a big part of it is that people are getting annoyed with just the number of comic book movies the studios produce.
Which is funny, because you just don’t have to watch them.
I have the Criterion channel. I have not watched all the films on the Criterion Channel. If I’m really bored with the Marvel movies, I can just watch those instead. But the entire dialogue gets sucked into these blockbusters. And so we feel like we have to have an opinion on them and that people may be resentful of that.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.