popular culture

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.

The Rich Tapestry of a Small Island

A you may have surmised from this blog, I am not exactly someone who has their finger on the pulse of popular culture.  In fact–and we need to have this discussion someday–if I’m sitting at a table with people discussing famous actors, pretty models who are married to sporting figures or the latest diet craze, I’m usually the guy in the corner rolling his eyes and wondering how 21st century civilization manages to survive if its citizens are concerned about those things.

A few exceptions exist, usually literary.  I read The Da Vinci Code when everyone was reading it (I happen to like that kind of thing and turn a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings) and also read and watched the Harry Potter series in nearly real time (I began with the first movie).

That’s not normally the case. I usually sneer at popular culture as the modern equivalent of the prefrontal lobotomy.

But sometimes–not always, or even usually, but sometimes–popular culture ends up becoming part of the canon and it’s nice to be beaten over the head with it and discovering it twenty years later (twenty years seems to be the benchmark–if it dies before the 20 years are up, it wasn’t really worth much, was it?).

Notes From a Small Island - Folio Society Edition - Bill Bryson

I frequent a few of those places where popular culture makes the transition to high culture and I discover things that I might have missed.  One of those places, strangely enough, is the Folio Society website.  Yes, the Folio Society is mainly known for its pretty editions of classics, but they also have a fine sense of when a book or author is making that transition between the popular and the canon.  If your book becomes a Folio edition, you have, in a real sense not necessarily measured in dollars, arrived.

For readers like myself, who are often have no way of telling the popular culture wheat from the chaff, it’s a great place to find out what is making that transition and to discover authors that everyone but I have already heard of.

To that list, I have now added Bill Bryson, and specifically his amazing book Notes From a Small Island.  For those who are as sadly clueless as I was, Bryson is an American journalist who lived in Britain for many years.  Before returning to his homeland, he decided to take a sort of Grand Tour of the Isles and write it up.  The result is a delightful, often laugh-out-loud-funny, and affectionate glimpse at Britain through the eyes of someone who can tell what is so funny about it and make us understand.

It’s one of those delightful books that definitely make life richer.  If you haven’t read it, track down a copy–you won’t regret it.

In fact, finding things like this is almost enough to make one want to pay more attention to what is going on in popular media, or even to pay attention to what the people around you are discussing at lunch.

Almost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and insufferable elitist who expounds his unsustainable worldview in a number of novels and collections which he only wishes would become a part of popular culture and make him a millionaire.  Branch is a novella about evolution in the next few years and, as a shorter work, is probably a good introduction to his oeuvre.