When I was a teenager I was fond of 19th century novels such as Flaubert's Sentimental Education or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. In music, my absolute favorite were Pink Floyd's long, discursive compositions: I remember myself those days listening to Comfortably Numb over and over again full of adolescent angst.
There was a uniting theme to these works: they were important, no pastime, bigger than life in some sense. The subjects proposed were deliberately profound: morality, redemption, isolation. There was a search for some sort of transcendence in the literature and music I visited in my youth days.
Twenty years later, I found myself reading Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and appreciating the beauty of Portishead's new album, Third. The contrast is stark: some profundity remains, but in a subtler form. Discourse has been supplanted by evocation, and layers of reference take the place of the distinctive stories of the past. Whereas the pieces of my youth sought to prove some thesis or convey important information to a more or less passive audience, Rainbow or Third draw heavily from the reader/listener mental background and cannot exist in isolation from the audience and their implied cultural setting.
I think this is a recurring pattern in the way art has evolved in our days: we have moved from transcendence to self-reference. Art today is less about the world and much more about art itself and its relationship with the viewer. If artistic works of the past projected the viewer into a bigger, external reality, current art constitutes a mere tool for exquisite masturbation.