High vs. Pop Culture – An Ongoing Discussion

I’m going to be frank: I find the phrase “pop culture” to be a contradiction in terms.  This should surprise no one… my blog is called Classically Educated, after all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I find no value in popular expressions.  They can, for short periods of time, be entertaining, even brilliant.  Who hasn’t enjoyed a Hollywood blockbuster or delighted in a trashy 70s paperback?

In my own particular case, I often write popular entertainment.  While you can certainly make a case for Outside as being something much more than a fun science fiction novel (it is a fun science fiction novel, but it’s also a very pointed look at current social trends), I’m pretty sure Ice Station Death and Jungle Lab Terror will be afforded no such leniency, no matter how well-written they are.

So am I a hypocrite for what I’m about to say?  I hope not.

Starry Night - Vincent Van Gogh.jpg

I believe there is a huge gulf not only between high and pop culture, but also between those who enjoy high culture and those who find it boring, elitist and stuffy.  In fact, that’s one of the few distinctions between people I even care about.

Note that I didn’t say that enjoying pop entertainment is a negative trait.  Go ahead, listen to reggaeton, read a comic book or watch the latest transformers film.  It’s all good.  The problem is when you’re listening to Beethoven’s Eroica and unable to sit still for the duration because it is sadly lacking in explosions and no one is twerking nearby or on-screen.  That’s where I feel there is something wrong.

There is a difference between art that is fast-paced, superficial and ephemeral and that which requires a little more introspection and calm to appreciate it.  That doesn’t mean you have to like every expression of high culture, of course.  I have a really hard time with Opera, for example, and some abstract art is, in my opinion, pretty sterile, from the manifesto all the way through every execution.

However, being able to appreciate art that requires an effort is, to me, the sign of an intellectually curious human (even if you then decide–for yourself–that that particular piece of art is not particularly valuable).

Warhol Vegetable Soup Campbell's Can

Of course, this discussion drew worldwide attention when the pop artists were at work, attempting to blur the lines between the two forms.  Unfortunately (for their idea, at least), the solid philosophical grounding and thought-provoking execution landed them in the most ironic of spaces: the pop artists ended up as an unmovable part of high culture.

Regardless of the failings of Warhol and his ilk in blurring the lines, they DO blur, but only time can do so.  Hokusai’s prints were very much pop art (especially the erotic ones, I would say), but have crossed the gulf to enter the realm of high art.  Likewise Dickens’ novels and, sadly, Opera, which should have been strangled at birth, but somehow became socially acceptable (this is the art form that I really have to make an effort towards).

Historically, the theater may be the medium that has struggled with this dichotomy most often as, on one hand, it needed to keep those seats filled while, at the same time, keeping the nobility and better class of citizens happy as well, because not doing so brought consequences.  Shakespeare was famous for combining erudite classical references and the Greek tragic tradition with juvenile dick jokes which are only funny if you’re really, really lowbrow and laugh only because it’s a dick joke.

What will be considered high art in the future?  I don’t know.  It might be a superman comic or the Muppet Babies or AC/DC or Twilight (it will NOT be reggaeton).  We don’t know.  What we do know is that most of what we call “culture” today will fall by the wayside and be forgotten in much the same way as most of the major, popular “culture” of the past is utterly gone today.  That ephemeral nature is the main external difference between the two.

But in my mind the big difference is in the kind of people each type of culture attracts.  I’ve found that regardless of what popular entertainment (whether it be Lady Gaga or Star Trek or TikTok Videos) they prefer, the people I get along with also have an appreciation for high culture.  Whether that makes them more valuable or not as friends is a very personal question.  Your own mileage might vary.

But in my own particular case, I already know the answer.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose work straddles the line.  His linked collection of short fiction, Love and Death is definitely highbrow.  His fast-selling monster novel Ice Station Death… isn’t.

9 comments

  1. Do you remember the poetry snob who hung out for a time in the old Speculative Vision forum (I think that was the name of it – it’s been a long time now)? He drew a similar distinction between speculative poetry and more mainstream-type verse. He called speculative poetry “folk art” and more mainstream verse “fine art”. It seemed to amuse him when I stated that I approach my own form of speculative poetry simply as poetry. I never really made such a distinction between speculative poetry and non-speculative poetry. And yet, because of the subject matter of most of my verse, it seems some automatically see it as a “lesser” art. That’s rather silly, actually.

    I bet some literary snobs would apply the same distinction to my genre short fiction, even though some of it can be very literary. Regardless of what the snobs might think, I approach my short fiction much in the same way that I approach my poetry. First and foremost, I see it as an art. I’ll leave up to individual readers to decide whether it’s high or low art.

    Even with my visual art, there are some who would call most of it “lesser” art because the vast majority of my works are illustrative in nature. After all, there is supposed to be a distinction between illustrative art and fine art much in the same way that there is a distinction between pop culture and fine art. Again, that’s rather silly. I apply the same artistic instincts and techniques to my illustrative art that I would apply to fine art. I have done a few pieces that might qualify as “fine art” (my “Head Abstract”, for instance), but they aren’t nearly as popular, and don’t sell nearly as well, as my more illustrative works.

    As for appreciating high culture versus pop culture…I listen to classical music, a lot. I even have a favorite classical era, Baroque, and a favorite composer, Telemann. However, I also listen to eighties pop, and my all-time favorite band is Duran Duran. They’ve been called pop trash so many times that they entitled one of their (lesser-known) albums POP TRASH. I read literary genre fiction like Lord Dunsany’s works (any who think Dunsany’s genre fiction isn’t literary because it’s genre fiction hasn’t actually read any of it), but I also read pulp genre fiction like Seabury Quinn’s very pulpy stories featuring his occult detective Jules De Grandin. I appreciate fine art and especially love the way the Hudson River School artists used light and color in dramatic ways. Plus, I think their subject matter of dramatic landscapes tends to be quite eye-catching. However, I also appreciate art by illustrators and pop culture artists. I love the works of Bob Eggleton, an artist who has made a name for himself as a monster artist (even though he does more than just monster art). My discriminating eye notes a similarity between Bob’s use of light and color and that of the Hudson River School artists. I watch film adaptations of Shakespeare plays (my favorite is Polanski’s MACBETH, but I also appreciate Olivier’s Shakespeare films and Branagh’s HENRY V). However, I also watch cheesy low-budget films like THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK. As a matter of fact, I’m such a fan of Godzilla films (a total Godzilla nut, actually) that I have a growing collection of Godzilla figures. I plan on passing them on to my daughter and grand kids after I’m gone.

    I guess one could say I don’t really get into snobbery when it comes to appreciating art, whether it be fine or pop, high or low.

    Finally, a few words about Dickens…my wife, who was an English major years before she went into law, hates Dickens’s works. However, I rather enjoyed reading A TALE OF TWO CITIES. I also like several film adaptations of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. There is one animated one in particular that I thought was quite good when I saw it on TV way, way back. You have to admit, that tale in particular has become timeless (unless you think it’s nothing but Communist propaganda ).

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    1. I don’t think I got to meet the poetry snob. As I never did much poetry, I suppose I just never ran into him.

      For the rest, I agree with you 100% that there are very many critics who would consider speculative literature–of almost any type–to be pop culture. I actually don’t see much wrong with that take (my monster novels, for example, are specifically aimed at giving the reader a few hours of entertainment, even though I try to writer them as well as I can).

      However, I do think a certain amount of genre stuff, whether it be fiction, poetry or even visual arts, is going to cross the line into high-art in the next few years. We can blame Bradbury for that.

      Like you, I enjoy each for what it is, but, like you, I appreciate the qualities that separate them as well.

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      1. I think Dunsany and Tolkien have already crossed that line. Dunsany was obviously hugely concerned with the art of his writing, and his works tend to be quite literary in nature. With Tolkien, considering all the allegory and symbolism his works contain, and considering the richness of his world building (for instance, he created entire languages and a detailed history), and considering his influences (Anglo-Saxon history and literature being large among them), I’d say his works are literature, not just fantasy literature.

        Surprised you didn’t run into the poetry snob – he was also behind some writing contest about the death of a centaur (or something like that) that, if I recall correctly, nobody won because nobody quite met his high standards. He also tended to look down his nose on genre literature in general. I don’t even know why he was on that forum to begin with, but I believe he was driven off it in the end.

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      2. Tolkien crossed the line from niche to popular culture. It will be interesting to see if the literati finally embrace him (as a piece of literature, LoTR is a masterpiece from its very conception). Dunsany is a bit too obscure for most, he has remained in the niche, for now.

        Apart from Bradbury, I think the pioneers are actually people like García Márquez, Borges, Vargas Llosa and Murakami. Those are genre writers who are already darlings of the literary set.

        Atwood will not last. Her work is weak and pretentious, a bad combo. Burgess is already canonical.

        Of the usual suspects, I think that the one who might make the leap when time has a chance to act is actually Frank Herbert, but that, of course, is pure speculation. Le Guin has a Library of America collection to her name, so I suppose we need to count her, too.

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      3. I agree – in my opinion, the canon evolves organically with little regard for definitions or prejudice. It either adopts a work or it doesn’t. Remember the scandal when Manet exhibited Deyuner sur l’herbe… And now he is considered an all-time great.

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  2. I’d go so far as to say many of these distinctions are rather artificial, and depend on the eye of the beholder. I can see the fine art aspects in Bob Eggleton’s monster art, while others might claim there are no such aspects to it because it’s monster art. I see Tolkien’s works as both literary and fantasy, but some may insist that Tolkien’s works aren’t truly literary because true literary works challenge the reader and Tolkien’s works don’t challenge the reader enough to qualify as literary (I was actually told that once in a discussion elsewhere).

    Oftentimes, these discussions end up devolving into such hair-splitting. I think it rather silly.

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  3. There are colleges that offer courses on Tolkien. There are academics who study Tolkien. One can become a Tolkien scholar (how cool would THAT be? – it’s something I’d consider if I had the time). Oxford has a Tolkien seminar (perhaps not overly surprising seeing as he WAS an Oxford professor).

    Obviously, academia recognizes the importance of Tolkien and his works. If there are some snobby literati who have failed to embrace Tolkien as literature, that’s their problem. Seriously. Just because a certain group of wannabe gatekeepers doesn’t recognize Tolkien’s works as literature doesn’t mean Tolkien’s works aren’t truly literature. I would also argue there are some who DO recognize it as such (you can number me firmly among them).

    As for Dunsany being “niche”, probably, but that doesn’t change the literary aspects of his works one iota. Besides, I suspect much of what you define as “high culture” is actually niche. That’s kind of the point – it’s not part of the culture of the masses. It’s not necessarily popular with the masses. Rather, it’s popular with a select “elite” (well, a group that sees themselves as elite, anyway). It’s Classical Music versus Pop Music.

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  4. Who ARE these literati, anyway, and who left them the keys to the literature gate? I want to know because I might have a few choice words to say to them (especially regarding their opinions about Tolkien’s place among the ranks of writers of literature). 😉

    Anyway, I grew up in a town that, for a short while, had a sirloin pit and tavern named THE HOBBIT HOUSE. True story. I still have an (empty) matchbook from the restaurant. Tolkien has been a part of my life for a long time now, so I am rather passionate about his works. THE HOBBIT and then THE LORD OF THE RINGS were the works that first introduced me to the fantasy genre. They set the bar quite high. Very little fantasy literature I’ve read since has come close to reaching that bar. The Earthsea trilogy and (in other ways) Dunsany’s works are probably the only ones that truly have.

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    1. Heh. I think the literati, that nebulous group of taste-setters, isn’t actually as powerful as they think. The way I’ve seen canon formed is that several things come together at once. Readers enjoy a work. Professors suddenly discover it, and critics and scholars either approve of it or “reassess” it after a certain amount of time and give it their seal.

      If all of that happens, it kind of graduates into the canon. Some work does so almost immediately (Lolita comes to mind) while other work takes decades to find its place, which is what happened to Moby Dick and Poe, for example.

      So I don’t think there’s a group of gatekeepers we can talk to. A lot of work gets in despite being hated by a lot of people in one of the groups.

      A lot of genre work is already in there, too (we can add Poe to the list, now that I think of it).

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