Hokusai

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.