For me, the most interesting part of the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art wasn't the information behind Rockwell's famous pieces, or the video on his life, or even the look at his pieces dealing with the social upheaval of the 1960s. It was the wall of Saturday Evening Post covers featuring his work: Here was a paper that published the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, yet was firmly entrenched in America's mainstream.
It required a mental rewind on several levels. First, take away mobile devices, then the Internet, then cable TV, then TV itself, then radio and perhaps even records. What you were left with was a time when popular culture was truly popular, because art, literature, journalism, everything was being directed through mass-distribution toward a wide, pre-set audience.
But let's consider that sales/ ratings/ whatever status you use to quantify success in any media are down. Books are down. TV shows are down. Movie grosses are down. Music's been quite depressed for a while now. We are at a point where popular culture isn't that, well, popular.
How the entertainment industry can continue to make money is not a question I can answer, but there is one thing to consider as we move toward a world where it's considered an innovation to watch a film shot for a massive cinema screen on a 4-inch portable phone: If an audience exists for something, they can find it.
Remember the days when you'd hear about a TV show, and if you missed it, you'd have to wait weeks or even months for reruns, assuming it wasn't canceled? Now you can catch up on intricate plots from the beginning on Hulu or Netflix.
Consider the mediocrity that was M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. Normally, critics would have just excoriated its dull story line and lousy 3-D as an adaptation of a kids' show, but this time, those same critics were able to catch up on the original series through Netflix and say what the rest of us were saying: "Wow, this is good. Why didn't they just make this story?"
The generation of filmmakers that emerged in the 1970s were people like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, people who were in turn emerged from the example set by the French New Wave, of those who relentlessly analyzed the style of classic filmmaking and applied it to the evolved society in a way that felt fresh and innovative.
By all rights, we have the materials in place for a generation of creative geniuses unlike anything seen before. The whole of the past awaits them through this age of media, like an electronic Library of Alexandria (hopefully with better preservation management). And when they're ready to create art of their own, they'll have an ability to create it that wasn't there for previous generations. Cameras are cheaper. Software to develop CGI effects is increasingly available as freeware on the Internet, where they'll also be able to find actors, crew, designers and more.
Musicians, authors, anyone who is willing to put their time and money into creating something can bring their dreams to life like never before. And through technology, they have the ability to reach those who share their dreams and make them their audience.
There's little likelihood that families will gather around the Saturday Evening Post any more, but there's now a variety and depth of entertainment in popular culture like nothing seen before. But there are also examples of people in the new millennium who are reevaluating the middlebrow material of the past. They're taking a John Wayne western that was a bit dated along such contemporaries as Easy Rider, and refiltering it through their sensibilities while maintaining its populist appeal. As it happens, that western, True Grit, has been remade by the ultimate ironists, the Coen brothers, but the original film was adapted from a serial by Charles Portis that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.
There's a potential in 2011 for art to continue evolving into something that's never been seen before, even if we get stuck with more unnecessary 3-D and movies seen on screens the size of postage stamps. There's more culture than ever—even if it's not as popular as it used to be.