January 4, 2013 7:37 pm

Death of the cutting edge

Culture is losing the sharp tang of specificity that used to impress itself so strongly upon us

You all know the line, from Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, delivered with maniacal melodrama and a stirring sense of self-pity: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” The “they” refers of course to the congregation of malign forces – organised crime, organised religion, indifferent acting – that are ranked against Corleone, and bedevil his attempts to put an errant past behind him. But there is no escape. He cannot go straight. They loom weightily and fatally over his desire to create a more wholesome future. They won’t be cast aside.

This is what it is like (without the horses’ heads, etc) to write about the cultural year ahead. You want to say goodbye to the past. You look for new art forms, fresh modes of expression, novel ways of thinking about the world. But the past will not let go. Meticulous lists of canonical works and the twinkling, long-gone golden ages of our greatest cultural forms nag away, fuelling the cosmic pessimism that afflicts any right-thinking person at this tragicomical time of year.

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Peter Aspden

If, like me, you are a middle-aged writer trying to make sense of contemporary culture, the golden rule is never to talk of the old days – your own youth – as if they were better than the new days. You must discard gilded memories of what seemed like life-changing concerts, movies, novels, plays. So what if I saw The Clash for £2, playing storming, resonant, radical music as if their lives depended on it? Who cares about my reminiscences of seeing the opening montage of Apocalypse Now, napalm, jungle, The Doors, in a dank west London cinema, and feeling like I had begun the descent into the outer circle of hell?

You must leave those reflections behind, and embrace the new. I look forward to new albums by Hollywood Undead and Black Veil Brides later this month (not least because I like their names very much). It will be important to keep an eye on the various pop-up events that will adorn the streets with zesty self-importance. The art scene will surprise us with new conceptual riddles. A new theatrical masterpiece may be able to detach us from the world for a couple of hours and explain the puzzling and fast-moving times in which we live. 2012 was entertaining enough, but let it slide away. Bring on the new year.

But just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Those colourful personalities and epochal events, many from my own youth, that weirdly continue to dominate our culture. Here are a few: Tate Modern’s website was last month “overwhelmed by the phenomenal number of people” that applied for tickets to see the German electronic band Kraftwerk play in the gallery’s Turbine Hall in February. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s David Bowie is exhibition in March is expected to attract an equally devoted following.

The film I am most looking forward to? It has to be Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s account of the relationship between Liberace and his young lover, played by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon respectively, although there is also David Mamet’s Phil Spector biopic, starring Pacino in the title role, to consider. Those films are embedded in the past but at least they are original, unlike the forthcoming remade Carrie and The Great Gatsby. Commercial cinema grips ferociously to past success stories: why else Iron Man 3, Scary Movie 5, Fast and Furious 6, all coming your way in the next few coming months?

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One of the hottest tickets in West End theatre is for John Logan’s Peter and Alice, an imaginary encounter between the real-life inspirations behind two of fiction’s most renowned characters, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Logan’s previous, well-crafted play Red was based on the life of Mark Rothko. On and on they live, these figures from the recent past that so fascinate contemporary audiences.

My television highlight over Christmas was the BBC/HBO collaboration The Girl, addressing the creepy relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his bullied leading lady Tippi Hedren. The small screen’s most poignant dramas – Mad Men, The Hour – base their success on brilliantly evocative reconstructions of what seem like more fecund times.

The obvious dismissal of this trend – that it is merely a phenomenon that sees middle-aged writers and programme-makers describing the times for which they have the most affection – falls flat. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there was no recycling of interest in Glenn Miller, Vera Lynn or even the great visual designers of the 1950s, Robin and Lucienne Day and the rest.

There is something we are looking for in the lives and times of the late 20th century that we perceive as lacking today. The monster genius figures such as Hitchcock and Spector; the stars of limitless charisma – Maria Callas, Burton and Taylor; the performers who took inconceivable risks – is there any so-called conceptual artist today who twisted and satirised his or her own art form in the way that the great American comic Andy Kaufman did?

It is not for me to say whether they were better times. Just to point out some of the differences between then and now. One of them is this: as culture has become more open, democratic and globally promiscuous, it has also lost the sharp tang of specificity that used to impress itself so strongly upon us. The 21st century has room for everyone and everything. There is no cutting edge. In compensation, we replay yesterday’s avant-garde. And the monsters are asleep, waiting for the next Led Zep reunion.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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