On the weekend the Academy Awards were handed out, I was in a restaurant in Los Angeles when two Oscar nominees walked in. What most shocked me was the complete lack of reaction by anyone in the room.
No one stared or even pointed. No one congratulated them. Diners not caught up in conversation had their eyes fixed on the TV in the bar, where people on a cable news show were discussing the upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The folks in the restaurant found Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., more interesting to watch on TV than the stars who had just entered the room.
This underscored something I’ve thought for a long time: Politics has become our national entertainment – and entertainment just doesn’t matter anymore.
At one time films, music and TV bound us together as a people. They collectively reminded us of who we were and where we were going.
Whether it was “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “M*A*S*H,” or “Dallas,” Americans at one time watched the same shows at the same time, and we were better for it.
There were fixed cultural reference points – places we could go across generations for laughter, understanding and – if not agreement – unity.
With the onslaught of streaming services and niche programming today, one could make the argument that there is no mass pop culture. We are a series of isolated viewers enjoying our own entertainment options. But the communal experience is all but gone.
Today we are all focused on the one thing that can only drive us further apart: politics. It has infected all aspects of American life and has become its own alternative entertainment.
Americans tune in day and night to the soap opera that has become their government. It’s a blood-sport challenge for power that plays out in real time on our screens.
For the most part it is now “Hunger Games.” And however detestable the spectacle, we all watch. This gives us something in common to discuss the next day at work.
Last weekend’s South by Southwest gathering furnished more evidence of the cultural shift. What was once a festival dedicated to technology and film has become a showcase for ambitious politicians.
Democratic presidential hopefuls showing up included Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar Minnesota; unsuccessful Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas; and socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York (not running for president because she is too young).
Attendees filled the meeting halls to see the Democratic politicians. Axios reports that at one party Hollywood stars were ignored while partygoers flocked around Ocasio-Cortez. This is entirely the fault of the artists themselves and those who produce entertainment.
By injecting politics into their offerings, Hollywood creatives and too many artists have ceded their rightful place in American culture. Their job is not to bully audiences into adopting positions they hold, or to convince us to vote for their candidate, but to entertain and enlighten.
Art can do what no politician can: it reminds us that we are human and how similar we are despite our differences. But after years of politically divisive offerings, audiences have drifted away.
The ratings for the Oscars, the Grammys, the Tonys and the Emmys have cratered for the most part year after year. And 2018 was the lowest-rated Academy Awards show in history. The stars are smaller than ever and so are their vehicles.
If artists don’t rediscover their true purpose in American life and stop playing pundits or politicians, they can expect to be further culturally supplanted by the real thing. And they shouldn’t be surprised when the paparazzi abandon them on the red carpet to chase the next political star of the moment.
The culture is just following the script – the one these artists have written.