Westerns were hugely popular for over a hundred years and then the genre suddenly fell into disfavor. Not only were Westerns popular in the United States, but the whole world devoured them. The Western was a staple of fiction, Hollywood, television, and daydreams. What happened?
The Western genre became a niche market because it abandoned traditional Western mythology. Westerns aspired to be art.
In recent decades, art has tended toward cynicism. The creative classes insist that true art illuminate our sins and our despair. The literati hooted, heckled, and hissed at the uplifting mythology of the Old West. Rather than a virtue, the talents required to tame a frontier became vices. Man killed—and man killed all the beautiful things. Bad stuff happened to good people, and for no apparent reason other than that life was unfair. The fashionable wanted art to reflect their world view, and the fashionable were in a funk.
And exceptional art did happen. Sergio Leone, an Italian enamored with the Old West, took the negative perspective and made it mainstream. His Dollar trilogy were his experimental etchings and Once upon a Time in the West, his masterpiece. A host of copycat films solidified the fashion and Westerns were henceforth required to portray the Old West with all of its faults and transgressions.
This fashion appealed to the elite, but a funny thing happened on the way to the movie theater—the public veered off in another direction. The general populous found it increasingly difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys and the stories didn’t make them feel good about their ancestors or themselves. But they found a solution. They just quit coming.