No Context

Another problem with our obsession with recency is the loss of context. George Trow wrote about it in his famous essay Within the Context of No Context. What happens when news is packaged and transmitted in little packages is that only the most recent element of what’s happening is covered. There is no context, there is no history, and there is no follow-up. This is a stark contrast to the linear structure of a book, where stories and ideas are connected and flow into each other for a reason, those connections being the vital feature. Where the book builds on what was thought and recorded before it, news media covers only the very latest. The very nature of the medium does not allow this for only so much can be transmitted during the handful of minutes of air time or printed on a page of a newspaper.

The loss of context affects other areas of our lives. Observe how art has evolved over the last hundred years. Where Renaissance art was concerned with technique and execution, modern art is obsessed with originality and uniqueness. I use Renaissance because it’s a good example of a period where evolution of technique was paramount, but the point is true for all other periods before it, too. This progression is obvious given the state of the society at at the time, for those in the days of the Renaissance who produced and procured art valued their heritage and history, their religion and their myths. Their art depicted either what was real – portraits of people and their possessions – or what was important in guiding their lives – scenes from religion and mythology. The scenes were not original – what set one artist apart from another was the execution of those scenes. Their creativity expressed itself in advanced technique and composition.

The shift from the historical and religious subject matter happened with the rise of the middle class, which allowed the artist to depict what he wanted, and created a much wider market of buyers. This meant that art was no longer solely produced for institutions that cared about the depiction of religious scenes, myths or possessions. Years later, with the invention of the newspaper and the TV, context is thoroughly wiped out for both the creator and the buyer. In this setting, originality becomes the only way to set yourself apart, and so we get a barrage of creative explorations that come to define modern art, with every new artist trying to produce something completely different.

March 2012