Today, I’ve been posting up comedians who were stars 30 or 40 or more years before I was born. So far, there’s been The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. I expect I’ll get into Laurel and Hardy next.
I saw most of those stars when I was a little kid. BBC2 would stick on their films at peculiar hours and back then there were only three TV channels in Britain so you kind of watched what was on. So, I quickly got into black and white / silent film. The same with subtitles as they’d often lob a Renoir or Cocteau into the mix.
Because of this early exposure, I grew up thinking that all of the 20th century (and some of the late 19th) was local to me, there was no real strangeness or distance. And I grew up thinking of those people from those times as living, breathing people. How can you not when you hear a Groucho one-liner or see Ollie give Stan that look.
The history of film starts in the 1890s. So, I have no favourite film stars from the 1870s. Nor do you. Nor has anyone. I do, however have favourites from every decade of the 20th century and, now, the 21st.
It’s about the same for recorded music, it all kicks off properly in the 1880s, Edison’s phonograph appearing in 1877. With photography, it’s a tad earlier: here’s the earliest surviving photograph:
Enhanced version by the Swiss Helmut Gersheim (1913–1995), performed ca. 1952, of Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras,(Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin)View from the Window at Le Gras, the first successful permanent photograph created by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827, in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes (Saône-et-Loire, Bourgogne, France). Captured on 20×25 cm oil-treated bitumen. Due to the 8-hour exposure, the buildings are illuminated by the sun from both right and left. (Source)
So, at a push, if you’ve being a wanker, you might say you have a favourite photgrapher from the 1830s and his name is Nicéphore Niépce. But, really, photography as a popular art form didn’t grow until much later.
Okay, let’s be strict here, we’ve got around 125 years of film and recorded music to admire and, at a stretch around 175 years of photography. In 2016, that’s it.
I think it’s possible for the average fan to get a handle on that. If you’re a music fan, it’s pretty easy to chart your way back to the 1930s at least, it’s all out there. There is continuity. The same for film and photography. If you’re an old music geek like me, your life + the history of what you live can pile up so I can list these names:
Prince Paul, Al Bowlly, Crispy Ambulance, Helen Kane, Sandhya Mukherjee, Jimmy The Hoover, Akira Kiteshi.
and they all belong to me. They’re all part of me, whatever decade they come from originally.
But that’s now. What happens when the history of recorded media exceeds what the ordinary human can comprehend in even a simplified timeline sense? Obviously, it’s been like that with books for hundreds of years. At one stage in human history, there must have been a time when a single human could read everything that any human had ever written.
We’re a long way from then.
Imagine yourself a teenager in 3016. You’ve got over a thousand years of music, film, photography, painting, sculpture, videogames, VR, AR and whatever other art forms are yet to be invented to investigate. You’re connected to an information structure that is as far ahead of the web as the web was of the pony express. But even with this fantastic, intelligent agent that is capable of indexing yottabytes of media in an eyeblink… how can one human absorb it all?
Inevitably, this future viewer will start compacting centuries the way we do decades. The ‘90s in pop culture is now just Britpop and lads mags. But it wasn’t. The ‘80s is A Flock Of Seagulls and yuppies. But it wasn’t.
One day, will someone look back at the 21st century and round it all into one lump? I’m pretty sure they’ll take time to unpack the 20th century as it was the first complete century of mass media.
But us? We’re the lucky fuckers! We’re close enough to the start that it’s possible for us to have at least a hazily accurate view over all these art forms.
Get stuck in.