Admittedly this is an open ended question that can be answered several different ways depending on how you look at it. Still the subject has come up several times recent. Most notably it was mentioned by Dave Meltzer on an episode of WOR which led to a lengthy twitter debate I engaged in with Joe and Rich from Voices of Wrestling. I was set to let this one sit for a while, but it came up again on the latest VOW podcast, and since twitter is an awful medium for meaningful discussion on a subject like this, I thought it was worth starting a thread to discuss it here.
One thing that I think is important to note right out of the gate is that if we accept the "standards change" argument, I'm not sure where that leaves projects or discussion based on older wrestling footage. After all, if "standards change," and it is unfair to evaluate old matches with "modern eyes" (Meltzer's favorite talking point on the subject), what value is there in talking about old footage at all? Furthermore if "standards change," what value is there in writing revisionist histories/biographies about wrestlers or events that are based on understandings that would have been alien to the people/events being discussed? It seems to me that the "standards change" argument logically leads to a sort of uniformity of opinion, whereby even if one does have interest in looking back, one must concede that their views carry a unique bias, and that conclusions drawn from them are somehow less credible than they would have been if they had been formed in "real time" with what they are viewing. Perhaps not surprisingly this view is the exact view one would expect to find among tastemaker(s) whose opinions and views on past events and matches are being challenged with much more frequency than at any point in history.
Having said all of this, NONE of the above means that standards do not change. In fact to some degree this is a personal question, as reflected in the responses and comments of Joe and Rich on their most recent podcast. During the twitter debate I made the point that the "standards change" argument, is a point that is reflective of a particular point of view about what constitutes good wrestling, a viewpoint that Joe, Rich and Dave Meltzer (generally speaking) seem to share. It is notable that when I made this argument on twitter, both Joe and Rich didn't buy it, with Joe in fact calling it "bullshit" to suggest that Dave Meltzer's views on the subject reflected an individual bias toward certain forms/styles of wrestling. This is important because it suggests that the "standards change" argument is something that they see as universal and global in scope. In other words - if I am following their argument correctly - they are not talking about a change in personal tastes, but in fact a change in some sort of objective or at least consensus based standard for what constitutes good wrestling.
There is a ton more I could write on this, but I think now it is important to cite Joe and Rich from their most recent podcast. I do not want to misrepresent what was said and am not quoting, but I believe the argument used was effectively this - as innovation has led to flashier wrestling offense (I believe Flamita was cited), older finishing holds like side headlock throws have become outdated. While in the context of their time those spots may have seemed believable and even exciting, in the modern context finishing a match with such a spot would seem dated, and the spot itself is generally treated as filler. Therefore "standards change," and it is impossible to fairly rate, discuss, analyze, et. a match from the 50's because the context is too different.
You can look at that point many different ways, but to my eyes I fail to see how it is a point that says anything about some universal "standard" that has changed. What it does suggests to me is that Joe (the one really driving home the point) has a personal bias toward innovative, flashy spots. On the other hand someone like myself has a bias toward tight, believable, matwork. To that end I would just as soon see Timothy Thatcher deliver a visually impressive, impactful and strategically logical headlock throw, as I would see Flamita do a leaping rana.
But even the particulars of the spots in question are not what really interests me. Instead I am most interested in the context of the particular spots. Why is Thatcher doing what he is doing? Why is Flamita doing what he is doing? The internal context of a match does NOT change, even if the external context does. Do "modern eyes" really preclude us from understanding the psychology of a match? Do they make it difficult to understand the history or storyline that contributed to the context of the match itself? Is it really impossible, or even extremely difficult, to analyze an older match merely because it's older?
And going further than that, if it is true that these matches were worked for particular people at particular points in time and thus it is unfair to judge them unless one was a part of that place and time, how far does that window extend? NJPW ran a show last night in Japan that was reviewed by Joe from VOW. I read the review and enjoyed it. But Joe is not Japanese. Is he the target audience? Does that even matter? Going further if I watch the show next week has the window closed? What if I watch it in a year? To take another example, what if a house show is taped by a fan, who shows it to his friends the next day? Those wrestlers certainly weren't working for any cameras, or intending their efforts to be seen by people outside of that building that night. Does that matter?
While some of these questions may seem silly to certain people, I think if you are interested in wrestling criticism and discussion, this subject is a very important one that deserves to be seriously thought about and discussed. If Joe or Rich feel I have unfairly presented their opinions, I invite them to joint the debate and correct any errors I have made on that front. I also hope that this will not be seen as an attack on them or their website, which is not at all my intent. The point here is to try and get to the bottom of what the "standards change" argument means and doesn't mean for sites like this one which focus so much of their attention on wrestling of the past.
(please forgive shitty grammar, spelling, et. I wrote this in a hurry, on two hours of sleep, as I'm walking out the door for work).