Thursday, April 24, 2014

Do We Take Popular Culture Way Too Seriously?

Reading through the paper version of Friday’s Wall Street Journal I saw a headline that was meant to capture me: “Pop Culture’s Limits.”  I’m a pretty big fan of pop culture and realize it has both its upsides and downsides, but what of its limits? On the conservative side of the political/cultural spectrum, the one I inhabit, there are many who appreciate and enjoy pop culture and others who think it’s all dreck. But maybe those who appreciate it do so too much?

When I realized I was a conservative back around the time Reagan was elected, pop culture on the right wasn’t terribly popular. The impression I got from the intellectual right, National Review comes to mind, was that pop culture was indeed mostly dreck and would take Western civilization down from the heights of its glorious past; high culture, e.g. classical music, serious literature, poetry, etc., was redemptive, everything else that appealed to the masses was deleterious. As I remember it, it was often portrayed just this way.

Some 30 plus years later, popular culture has become high culture, or so argues Terry Teachout, the drama critic at the Wall Street Journal. What pushed Mr. Teachout over the pop cultural edge were the accolades novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard received upon his recent death. Although a fan of Leonard, Teachout thought it was a bit much. As he puts it:

So why grump about his obituaries? Because they exemplify a trend that has gotten out of hand. It used to be that we didn’t take popular culture seriously, but now we don’t take anything else seriously.

Do I exaggerate?

He doesn’t think so, and as an example points out the critical acclaim for the final episode of “Breaking Bad.” Or that no classical musician has appeared on the cover of Time magazine since 1986. The heart of his argument:

[I]n postmodern America, pop culture gets most of the ink. It always has, but nowadays it also receives the kind of dead-serious critical attention in the academy and elsewhere that used to be reserved for high art—and increasingly it does so to the exclusion of high art.

Which leads him to the limits of the title:

The problem is not that pop culture doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. It’s that a culture totally dominated by popular art is by definition limited.

He uses several examples of such limits, but the case is pretty easy to make when you think about the phrase “pop culture.” What sells, what is popular, is what tends to be produced. So in Hollywood if Spidy 1 does well at the box office, you know Spidy 2, 3, and 4 will come as well. Taking risks is a tough sell when only what is potentially popular is being produced. Which doesn’t mean that popular can’t be high quality; Shakespeare was commercially popular in his day, and they tell me his plays are pretty good.

This doesn’t mean that Teachout isn’t a fan of popular culture, but what if that’s all the “culture” there is? He admits:

Man cannot and need not live by masterpieces alone—so long as he never forgets what makes them masterpieces. A masterpiece has, as Louis Armstrong said of the trumpet playing of Bobby Hackett, “more ingredients.” Egalitarianism be damned: It really is better.

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