The Culture Conversation

Eight tastemakers discuss the state of culture in 2014 and where it’s heading.

The salons of yesteryear—in which the cultural luminaries and philosophers of the day would convene at the home of some countess or other to exchange ideas and pointed barbs—haven't disappeared. They've just migrated to Twitter. But then so have Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump and 600 million others. So to take stock of culture in 2014 and determine where it's heading in the 21st century, DEPARTURES took a cue from the 18th, gathering an all-star cultural cast for tea at The Lion, a restaurant in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. And, as with seemingly every conversation these days, talk quickly turned to technology. Passions ran high.

THE PLAYERS (in order of appearance)
Julie Taymor: Director of theater, opera, film
Beau Willimon: House of Cards creator
Deborah Berke: Architect; professor, Yale School of Architecture
Carter Cleveland: Founder and CEO of online art forum Artsy
James Wolcott: Vanity Fair culture critic
Damian Woetzel: Dancer; director, Aspen Institute Arts Program and Vail International Dance Festival
Claire Chase: Flutist; 2012 MacArthur Fellow; founder of International Contemporary Ensemble
James McBride: 2013 National Book Award–winning novelist (The Good Lord Bird); jazz saxophonist

How do you go about creating something new and surprising? Do you consciously think of doing things that haven't been done before?

Julie Taymor: No, I don't start that way. I start with the subject matter. I have to be totally inspired by the story, and then that's what controls the design and how it's going to be done. The technique comes second. That's how I approached everything from Lion King to Midsummer Night's Dream to Spider-Man. And then you have limitations—like a budget cap—and you'll find that limitations are freedom, quite often.

Beau Willimon: For me, it usually starts with a pretty dumb and simple challenge. [Turns to Taymor.] By the way, just wanted to say I'm a huge fan. I come from the theater, and that's really my true love, so…you're incredible. [Taymor laughs.] I'll actually use a theater example. A few years ago, I produced and codirected a production of Balm in Gilead, the Lanford Wilson play from 1965. And all that came out of a desire to see the play. No one does it anymore: It was out-there for its time, and it remains just as out-there. I thought, Well, I'm not going to wait around to see it. So I had this idea of doing it just for one night. I went and found a space in this 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Sunset Park [in Brooklyn]. I knew I could get 70 friends together—actors, lighting designers, musicians—for, like, four days. So that raises a practical concern: What does it mean to rehearse a hard play like Balm in Gilead in 100 hours? And out of those simple constraints came something surprising and, for everyone involved, memorable and transformative. But it started with a simple desire to see a play. And with House of Cards, all I want to tell is a story about power and marriage.

Deborah, how does an architectural idea develop for you?

Deborah Berke: Similarly to what other people are saying. You start an architectural idea knowing what it is you want to make but not knowing how you're going to make it, or what you're going to make it out of. And, in fact, the limitations, whether they're related to the budget or the site, make it better and contribute to it, and that's true whether it's a house or a hotel or a city hall or a school.

Carter Cleveland: It's so fascinating hearing people who are at the very top of the game in culture talk about their craft. The parallels [with technological innovation] are actually really interesting. [Turns to Willimon.] When you were talking about doing a play in 100 hours, I was thinking, My God, that's exactly the same thing as doing a hackathon! You just lock a bunch of computer engineers and designers in a room for 48 hours and build stuff. At Artsy, though, it's less about our self-expression, and it's more about being a platform for other people's self-expression. And that's really challenging because art, almost by definition, is trying to be original. So we're trying to fit something into a framework that inherently doesn't want to be fit into any framework. Think of something like performance art. How do we record that? How do we make that experience accessible to those not lucky enough to be in New York when the performance is happening?

Willimon: Forgive my ignorance, but how do you decide what to include? With any archive, it's an act of curation and tells a story.

Cleveland: That's a really good question. Today we essentially curate the curators, so we work with major galleries and cultural institutions and museums. But we're pretty careful about who we let onto the platform at this point. In the long run, though, where is the line gonna be drawn in the sand when it comes to human expression? It doesn't seem like that's going to be possible to do. I wouldn't be surprised if we become more open but include personalization technology that makes sure you get the perfect experience for you. [Artsy's central algorithm is called the Art Genome Project. Like Pandora does with music, it scores artists and artworks along more than 1,000 categories and brings up art that is “genetically” similar to what you've clicked on.] Ultimately, it's a very democratic vision.

Taymor: I get very offended by those things. I read those “Suggestions for you” and I go, Wha…What? Are you out of your mind? I don't know what they were thinking!

Willimon: I had a fascinating conversation with the head product person at Netflix about this. They've been working on these algorithms for ten years, and they're incredibly sophisticated. This might offend you [Taymor laughs]—and I'll just use an absurd example—but they might find, weirdly, that 10 percent of the people who love The Sopranos also love Two and a Half Men. Now, no network executive would ever make that connection. But since the data shows that 10 percent of these people deeply love both shows, they'll say, “Alright, we're going to start suggesting Two and a Half Men to a lot of Sopranos fans.” And 90 percent of them might be like, Why the hell am I getting this? But there might be a few more who, if it's suggested to them, they watch it and they find that they love it. It actually expands their horizons within that archive.

Berke: So [with Artsy] does that kind of algorithm re-create in the ether what happens if you take a different path through the Met to get to something you like? [Ever the architect, Berke tends to visualize abstract ideas almost as physical structures. At one point, she outlined the very conversation we were having—using her hands—as if it were a building.] You stumble on a random thing, and it's like, Wow, I've never liked black-and-white photography before, but I ended up walking through this show?

Cleveland: The Art Genome Project [the Artsy algorithm] creates a very similar experience. For every page, you start with an artwork and then, if you scroll down, there are other similar works. It might just be other works that are from the same period. But there might also be works that are from hundreds of years in the past in a different geography, but they have other things about them that are very similar. And then you're like, Huh, I never thought of that before.

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Jim, do algorithms like this put the professional critic out of work?

James Wolcott: The professional critic's already out of work! [Room laughs.] Most professional critics have been on autopilot for 20 years. But if you want to have truly abject despair, go read the comments sections from YouTube under clips from classic films or classic performances. It's like somebody opened up the orc pit. Because—never mind the opinions—nobody can spell. They don't understand why something was in black and white! One of the things that is going to be interesting is seeing how much an audience is allowed to get into the act, thanks to algorithms and Twitter. I can actually look at shows and I think, They've been listening to the fans too much.

Damian Woetzel: They're focus grouping it.

Wolcott: Yeah, but like on a mass level. Following what the Twitter traffic tells them. It really helps not to know too much about something going in. And so much of our culture now is removing that.

Claire Chase: John Cage would always say, “I'm trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing.” Ultimately the reason that we go to see live art, and the reason at least that I make it, is so that I will forget everything that I know and be able to be a beginner again. That's the point of curiosity.

Woetzel: I'm fascinated by the Artsy idea, and Pandora and how it guides you places. But I, myself, am always looking for how completely unrelated things rub up against each other. And I don't know if you can get there through democracy.

James, when you write or compose, do you pay attention to what's popular these days? Do you find any guidance on Twitter?

James McBride: I don't have any of that stuff. I don't tweet. I don't have Facebook. I don't pay any more attention to that stuff than I would a bird snatching crumbs off the ground. I get up at four o'clock in the morning, I do my laundry, I get my son to school, I do 60 sit-ups and get to work. And at the end of the day, at nine o'clock, I fall asleep. [McBride mentioned that he doesn't practice his saxophone as much as he did when at Oberlin. This prompted both Taymor and Chase to reveal that they were fellow “Obies.”] Sometime between then, something happens. I think the corporatization of art, and people telling you what you should watch—not only is it offensive, but it's really, really bad if you're trying to preserve what little innocence you have left. And everybody sitting at this table, they must have that small bit of innocence in order to continue to function creatively.

Willimon: I think this either/or thing—either you're having the authentic, live, palpable, visceral experience, or you are obsessed with Twitter and social media—is…

Taymore: Oh, I don't think it's either/or. You should have both.

McBride: Can I just interrupt for a second? I don't do Facebook or Twitter, but I pay someone to do it for me. [Room laughs.]

Cleveland: I would say that in today's age, art is getting better across every category, because you can actually be more true to yourself and have higher integrity, knowing that, because of more efficient information sharing and the Internet, you will find your audience. For example, there's another series on Netflix that I think is incredible, called Top of the Lake. It's a series I'd never heard of, none of my friends had seen, but Netflix just kind of knew that this thing was going to be good for me. It surfaced it. And it is so beautiful and has such high integrity.

McBride: You have very good points about the Internet and how Netflix tells you what to do. But I wouldn't recommend that to my children. I mean, why do we do what we do? We do this because we want the world to be better. We do this because we convince ourselves that we are trying to spread love and kill hate and so forth. And if you think that can happen with this kind of community sharing that comes from a computer…I think you're mistaken. I think love happens when people hold hands. [Grabs Berke's hand.]

Berke: That's nice!

Willimon: Love is holding someone's hand, but that doesn't mean you can't also have a different type, and an equally important type, of community with someone in another country halfway around the globe that I never even would have had access to.

Chase: Why do these things need to be mutually exclusive? Why can't we also explore the territory in between, which is fertile and exciting and uncharted?

Cleveland: Also, they're actually no different. Every form of self-expression that we take for granted today, at some point when it first debuted was some crazy technology that a lot of people were very suspicious of, just like computers and social media. Can you imagine the first time someone saw a photograph? They must have just flipped out.

McBride: Well, this thing is spinning in a direction that I didn't intend. I'm just talking about what I need to do to stay creative. Now, what works for me doesn't work for everyone else.

Woetzel: I think we're talking about authenticity, actually. Whether it's online or in person, to me it's all part of a continuum.

Cleveland: [To Woetzel.] I'm just curious: What do you think of So You Think You Can Dance?

Woetzel: I bring a bunch of those people to my festival every year for a reason. I think that some of them are pretty remarkable. It's got some things that really trouble me, though. For one thing, it's short form, and that relates to this conversation about technology: I worry about capacity to sit through things, capacity to get through an hour without checking your BlackBerry or your iPhone, which relates to doing a minute and a quarter of dancing and then that's it.

Cleveland: I agree. That is a problem, especially with my generation. [At 27, Cleveland was the youngest of the group. Chase and Willimon are in their thirties, Woetzel is in his forties and the rest are over 50.] You see people walking around and checking their Twitter on the street, and you worry they're gonna get hit by a car or whatever. I sort of see it as, like, cars before they created seat belts. We've created this new technology, and no one's learned to deal with it in a healthy way. I feel like kids in the future are going to be taught to meditate from a young age, so they learn mental willpower and control.

Chase: It's really hard to have any sense of consciousness in the 21st century, and it's even harder for the younger generation. And the question is, How can we work with that to create access to our greatest pieces of art?

Woetzel: These things can actually build off one another. One of the people I've worked with in the last few years is a dancer named Lil Buck, who's from Memphis. And I first saw him online. I saw him in a Facebook video, tracked him down and that led to live performances all over the world. [Including in Spike Jonze's Her.] It's because I looked at that video, and it was authentic on the highest level. [Pause.] But I did say, “I can't wait to see this live.”

Taymor: Digital technology is a resource. [Taymor said she wanted to use freestanding 3-D holograms for Spider-Man on Broadway, but the technology didn't exist. (And still doesn't.)] It's a great resource. But where I get a little bit frustrated as a filmmaker is this no-more-film situation. It's all going to be digital. And there's just no comparison. Some of the most exquisite, beautiful, older technologies get wiped out because they end up being obsolete and more expensive. But most audiences don't give a shit and don't know. And then that depresses me. Then I go to the question of, Are people educated in that? And is that a snotty attitude? I really feel it's the school system.

Willimon: I disagree. I think more people have more access to knowledge than ever. If you go to Anthology Film Archive, there is the greatest archive of avant-garde film in America. I have asked [the head archivist] about the advent of digital filmmaking and the demise of celluloid. Whether filmmakers like Jonas Mekas or Stan Brakhage or any of them that have had their retrospectives there—do they lament it? And they say, “Absolutely fucking not.” No, they wish they had this technology. They don't cry a single tear.

McBride: This is the reason what Julie said is so important. Steely Dan, just as a crude example: greatest songwriting team probably ever to suit up. [Steely Dan's Donald Fagen once said, “Digital sound loosens the fillings in your teeth.”] They did everything in analog. They spent hours trying to fuse a flute with a synthesizer. This is dirty, nasty analog. No one can reproduce it today. Digital has wiped out the funk and grit. It's taken the sweat and the pus and the body odor out of art.

Willimon: You're preaching to the choir, man. But I love both. I started out as a painter. There is no more immediate art form than taking mud and scraping it across a wall. Which is basically what painting is. There's a smell to it, there's a taste to it. And for that reason it has never died. It's just that there are more opportunities [to create] now.

Woetzel:I imagine this conversation happened to some extent when storytelling became on a page, rather than around a fire. I do think people adapt, but I think that we're on a train right now that has gone so fast the other way. The online community is not the same thing as us sitting here. It is simply not. And that has to be recognized. Are we living, or are we focused so down that we're not actually looking up?

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The Internet and other factors seem to have led to a blurring of the distinction between so-called high culture and, for lack of a better word, low or popular culture. Jim, can you even talk about high culture anymore?

Wolcott: No, there is no high culture. High culture's gone, except for a few outposts. The kind of people who would defend high culture have pretty much all died. [Room laughs.] All you have to do to know that there's no high culture is to look at The New York Times Arts & Leisure section any weekend. I mean, how many supplements do they do about the Oscars, about the summer blockbusters, about the Christmas movies?

Willimon: What's “high culture”?

Wolcott: High culture was defined as, you know, classical music, museum art… It was a class system. It came out of modernism, the idea that you had to master that level of difficulty to make it and understand it. You could not just pick up Joyce. To read T. S. Eliot even with T. S. Eliot's footnotes to “The Waste Land” requires a sense of history.

Willimon: Is Shakespeare “high culture”?

Wolcott: Well, it depends. He was popular at the time, but to understand Shakespeare now, there is like a filling in that has to be done about the time period and the language. But as I say, high culture, in the 20th century, was the kind of thing that was fought for by Partisan Review intellectuals. And they're all gone.

Woetzel: What does that mean for artistic aspiration to you?

Wolcott: Well, now even the simplest things are considered too difficult. You can't expect audiences to fill in certain things. I spoke at a college recently, and one of the things I was told was, “We have to prepare you”—and these were really good students—“they will not recognize any of the names you say.” And the students are polite; they'll Google it while you're talking to them. But in creative-writing classes, it is as if literature began and died with David Foster Wallace.

Why does somebody like Shakespeare have such perennial appeal, though? House of Cards has Shakespeare written all over it, for example.

Willimon: I think one of the reasons is that he's not high culture and he's not low culture—he's all of it. You have prose with the poetry, you have clowns, you have violence. He would have been doing great in Hollywood.

Taymor: Yes, but wait a second. I did the most violent of all films—Titus Andronicus—and Shakespeare did not do great in Hollywood. And it's because of the language. I like the language, and with Shakespeare, you can have a good time without understanding every single word, but the language is the thing that keeps it from being extremely popular. I agree that there is less “high/low,” though, and I think that is a positive thing.

Wolcott: Just to give you an example of how high culture lost: In the '60s there was an essay in Partisan Review called “Learning from The Beatles,” by Richard Poirier. [There was an essay in Partisan Review called “Learning from The Beatles,” by Richard Poirier, in the fall 1967 issue, to be exact.] And it was considered a scandal in New York intellectual circles that the Partisan Review thought The Beatles were worth attention. Sergeant Pepper won!

Willimon:Jazz and rock 'n' roll won. Blues won. The Impressionists won. Shakespeare won.

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Where is the next great, culture-transforming creative genius going to emerge?

Willimon: I don't think you're going to like my answer, but I actually think that the dominant art form of the 21st century, which suffers from a terrible name, is video games. [It's worth noting that Kevin Spacey's character on House of Cards is an avid video gamer.] If you look at a lot of new art forms, whether it be the novel, or theater or film—it was the thing that brought the most people together. And it was also the thing that was the most financially successful. The reason Michelangelo was able to do what he did is because the Medicis were willing to pay for it. And a video game—a big video game—can make more money in one day than the most successful film of all time has ever made. And a lot of the indie games that are being made now are not about winning; they're about world creation. They're also ways to tell a story. I think video games are still suffering from this thought that they are incapable of being art.

Taymor: What makes it art?

Willimon: Any time that human beings can express themselves in a way that transcends a simple, prosaic language. Where we are finding a new way to communicate, in a way that reflects our souls, our feelings and evokes them in others. And I think that some of these video games that are being made now do that in ways I have not felt from other art forms. That's exciting.

Chase: I'm very intrigued by your answer. I never would have thought of that. And one of my great heroes, and the progenitor of so much incredible music and art in the 20th century, Edgard Varèse…I think it would have intrigued him, too. [The best introduction to Varèse may be Poème éléctronique, a “noise” composition written in collaboration with Le Corbusier in 1958. It's on Spotify.) I have no idea who that next transformative cultural force is gonna be. What's the Chinese proverb? “An eye can't see its own eyelashes”? But I really think it could be anywhere from a video game to a kid from PS 169. I think it also might be collections of people.

McBride: I think it still boils down to a pen scratching across a piece of paper. I look to the Southern rappers now, for example, the kids you saw when New Orleans fell apart. The “refugees.” I don't like their music at all, but I think the next great creative force will come from a place that reflects the hardship of American life. I'm a social activist of a sort, and I tend to think that a lot of these great artistic movements come out of someone's desire to be socially active.

Do all of you hope to have a moral takeaway for what you do? Does that enter into the equation?

Taymor: I think so. What are the values [that a work espouses]?

Woetzel: That's what I look for in visual art, in music, in dance, in film, in theater: What questions are being asked? And I think that's what stands the test of time in the end. I'm thinking about George Balanchine. [A clip of the original ballet, set to Stravinsky, is available on YouTube.] He created a ballet in 1957 called Agon, and in that ballet he put Arthur Mitchell, an African American dancer, with Diana Adams, a Caucasian ballerina. And it was not trumpeted. But it happened, and the ballet happened to be a work of genius at the same moment that the civil rights struggle was raging. And that affected society in some way.

Culture seems to have eliminated all the boundaries that it could in the 20th century. You know, after John Cage's 4'33, a composition of pure silence, where can you go? Can you imagine a 21st century where information technology allows culture to transform as radically? Or was the 20th century a fluke?

Cleveland: I think it's going to be much more extreme.

Willimon: It's Moore's law. [In 1965, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore predicted that computing power would double about every two years. He was pretty much right.] There's more information being generated every day than in all of previous human history prior to 1995. [Pause.] This is where I sound like a complete fucking madman. But I actually think that humans are only the beginning. I think we've moved beyond biological evolution, which is incredibly inefficient. It took 15 billion years for us to get where we are. And there's still 15 billion more years to go. We are the salamanders crawling out of an ocean. And there's something way beyond. And I don't think it's God that created the universe. I think it's the universe's project to create God. And the things that we do in our rudimentary ways are teaching the next thing how to imagine. And then it's going to take it from there. It will ask the questions we don't even know to ask. It will think the things that we are incapable of thinking. It will experience and feel the things that we aren't capable of…. Anyway. [Laughs.]

[Silence.]

I don't know where to take it from there. Anyone else?

Taymor: Uh…that was a biggie. [Room laughs. Exeunt.]