Letter to the Editor, Arts & Leisure Section, NY Times
(published by the Times in highly edited form, but the full original text follows:)

On the Nostalgia Boom

by Laurie Spiegel, July 1, 1990

Reading your articles on nostalgia today, I wanted to add the observation that this widespread backward-focusing of our culture cannot be entirely explained as though motivated solely by public mood. The demand has come into existence partly as a result of economic factors in informational media.

The number of available conduit media (tv channels, etc.) has expanded in recent years faster than our society's ability to create quality new information to fill the added channel capacity. The resulting gap between new bandwidth and new programming is being filled by re-use of older material (epitomized by "oldies" radio stations, CATV networks showing only old movies, and reissues of LPs as CDs). Old material is cheap, fast to obtain in final form, and quick to achieve widespread public recognition and acceptance, compared to new material of the same quality which must be created and promoted from scratch at today's prices.

Our society can't help becoming increasingly nostalgic when constantly bombarded with images remembered from our own lost youths. So a cyclic spiral is created, in which public demand increasingly opts for revivalism in place of new work, because information providers are more than happy to keep their costs low by keeping our attention focused on the past.

This phenomenon of looking to our pasts for entertainment, insight, and aesthetic experience, rather than to the creative voices of our own peers, who can authenticate and explore our own experience for and with us in our own times - this tendency has coincided with major reactionary pressures to curtail support for our country's information creators - writers, artists, film makers, composers, inventors, etc.

As new distribution media rely on revivals of old work, because it's too expensive to create enough good new stuff to fill our expanding media, we are being pushed toward a culture of nostalgia. Because the creation of new work is genuinely more expensive, risky, and difficult than just using old work again, new works need to be subsidized to compete with old works. This is in essence why all other developed nations with strong artistic inventories from their pasts have already learned to subsidize their living information creators (artists), even if costly and risky short term. Younger USA culture has yet to understand this and do likewise.

Support for new creation is basic cultural R&D (research and development). It can help us fill our new media channels with greater variety instead of greater redundancy, allow us to continue to export music, film, literature, and new informational forms, and to stimulate more relevant and useful societal discussion and insight.

Peoples around the world are currently eager to adopt American political, economic, and cultural ways in large part because they have been exposed to American informational output (music, film, etc.) for decades. In an era when this country is no longer a world leader in other fields where we used to be, our informational output - intellectual, artistic, imaginative, and inventive - our strongest remaining area of leadership overall, is getting less and less support because reruns are cheaper and safer, and new creation is increasingly costly and restricted. As new work fails to gain the support it needs to compete on an economic par with old work, our media are understandably saturated with an increasing percentage of reruns and remakes.

If this tendency is not reversed, we will soon experience nostalgia for a time when vision, honest exploration, expression, and creativity were still economically viable, and little will survive our own unique time to show the next generation what we will by then be nostalgic for.

Copyright ©1990 Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.
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