Form Follows Culture

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“Form follows culture.”

This is a slogan that designer Bennett Peji uses for his company.  It’s rather witty, as it’s a play on the artistic expression “form follows function”: the form of an art piece is influenced by its functionality.  Peji states that while the older adage is correct, form of a piece is also influenced by the culture of its maker.

Peji’s statement is very valid, but I’d like to take it a bit further.  While Peji is being witty, I’m going to be direct:  art reflects one’s culture.  Here are some examples:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Simple, elegant, and balanced: just like the era he lived in.  Mozart lived in the Enlightenment era, which focused on the power of intellect.  A good piece of music was formatted like a good essay:  a rise [conflict], fall [conclusion], in a balanced structure with periods and commas.  Much of Mozart’s music [especially his earlier works] reflects that.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Thicker, more rich, yet simple, with arrangements and influence of folk music:  just like the era he lived in.  Vaughan Williams lived in the late 19th to 20th century—a portion of which we would call the Romantic era.  Influenced by the fall of Napoleon, artists of this era would hold onto their national roots and write music that show pride of their culture.  Much of Vaughan Williams’s music reflects that.

Bob Dylan
Very plain music, simple chord progressions, but intricate and powerful lyrics: just like the era he lived in.  Dylan lived throughout the sixties and seventies [where most of his well known music was made].  America had just gone out of two World Wars and now entered into a Cold War with Communist Russia.  The Vietnam War was big in the news and many activists spoke out against it—musicians followed suit as well, writing many songs not just about the war, but also about society, people, and life in general.  Good music was seen through different lens:  while melodies were important, the most important aspect was the message.  If the message was strong, so would the music.  Much of Dylan’s music reflects that.


History class is over—now for the present.  If art reflects culture, what do our [post-]modern artists have to showcase?  There are many avenues I can focus on, but lately there has been one aspect of our culture that the art of our generation reflects so clearly:  we like to take a spin on the old—for better or for worse.

This goes beyond hipsterdom.  While the hipster movement does have a fetish for antiquity in a 21st century setting, their actions apply to all other cultures during our generation.  We like to take an old product and try to have our own spin on it.  If you go on Youtube and search a song, you are bound to find a handful of covers.  Some are straightforward covers, while others add their own creative spin on it.  While people have done this throughout the ages—singing tunes with friends in the house or even adding a new spin to it—this generation has had the push to record themselves doing said covers and publicising them on the internet for everyone to see.  We want others to see how we alter someone else’s work.

This goes beyond music.  Think of all the reboots our generation.  Within the past ten years, we have had two versions of the Hulk, Spiderman, and Superman.  We have had a new spin on the Star Trek series (while it isn’t a reboot as it still is an indirect continuation of the old series, it is a new take.  Also, the latest of the films, Into Darkness, is essentially a retake of The Wrath of Khan).  Hawaii Five-O is a reboot, as well.

Think of all the great movies and TV shows.  Most of them were retakes of a book.  Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men is based on a book.  A Beautiful Mind is based on a true story.  Emmy Award-winning Justified is based on a short-story.

Perhaps our generation’s pull to retelling older stories is because we live in a “me” centered society.  “My friends.”  Most people have moved to online radio stations that play music suited for “me only” (except for those times when they play you music that the company recommends, but people usually hate listening to those tunes).  Perhaps our generation has the mindset that they can tell a story or paint a picture more effectively than the old.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps we truly just admire the old and this is how we venerate it: give it a modern spin so that others may be intrigued to watch the older versions.

Whichever the case, in a generalized sense, this isn’t a good or a bad thing.  Taking old art and spinning it new isn’t unethical or wrong.  This is just the style of our generation’s art.  This is our culture.

About Jonathan Seligman

Jon is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of NWYT. While his main profession is in education/music/history, he has a deep passion for philosophy, theology, ice cream, and everything else that life has to offer. See All of Jon's Posts

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