Friday, 1 July 2016

Popular Culture aka Lazy Culture (maybe)

I'm what one might call a non-participant. In general, I don't listen to contemporary music nor, indeed, do I ever actively seek out any new form of media: I am perfectly content listening to the "same" 800+ songs, reading the same books and watching the same things. In fact, I periodically re-read things I read years and years ago (a bit like an annual migration). This extends to how I use Facebook. I don't post, except maybe to post screenshots of games I play. I don't "like" things, aside from the odd post (and often replies on my infrequent posts). I definitely don't wish people happy birthday. On the other hand, I don't expect any of these things in return: my birthday is not on Facebook, for instance. These days I pretty much only use Facebook for various groups (and the odd invitation). But, sometimes, I read the newsfeed and that's where I found this Junkee (?) article: "You’re Not Smart Or Interesting For Shitting All Over Popular Culture".

Firstly, this is an ironic title. That is not a smart or interesting title. It is, in fact, a clickbait title. And, as all readers of Young Avengers know, clickbait is spammy. It is also criticising people for giving Popular Culture the "high hat". It's giving those people the "high hat". More irony. Secondly, I clicked on it regardless of my opinions of clickbait (versus, say, sharkbait, ooh haha) because the topic is interesting to me. Thirdly, I thought of writing a post about it as I was reading the thing. Which, I guess, is where we are now.

Get it? (from Miller's Crossing)
I think I should probably begin by saying that Lenton (the article's author) begins with a false premise. Namely that the separation of lowbrow and highbrow cultural forms is utterly arbitrary. Specifically, this is what Lenton has to say: "This arbitrary binary relies on the idea that some art forms are inherently smart, deep and rewarding, while the rest are just dross to be consumed with guilt, if at all." I think Lenton has got the gist but not grasped the reason.

In general, if something is highbrow it is a) aware of its themes and b) gives them serious and stolid treatment. Thus, they look "smart, deep and rewarding". Now, sometimes there are genre complications. That is, some things are immediately imagined to be lowbrow/pop culture. If you try to approach them as highbrow, you'll probably be accused of taking yourself too seriously. That's not to say that you can't use superheroes to make points about social exclusion (see: mutants/X-Men), but it is to say even if you do that right you can still over-reach, if you want to make a different point (see: any time X-Men tries to make a point about child soldiers). And, sometimes, things do go from being lowbrow to being highbrow. Let's quote the article.
Grouping art into these fictitious opposing teams is made even more ludicrous when you consider how subjective the statuses of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” actually are. Sometimes all it takes is an artist’s or author’s death to reclassify their work. Van Gogh never sold a painting. Shakespeare wrote for the masses, and is now seen as an essential literary experience.
There are actually some errors of fact here. Van Gogh sold at least one painting, and others were semi-bartered/made for others. His reputation actually began to turn in his last few years, anyway. Shakespeare's audience was not just mass. What actually changed these from lowbrow to highbrow was societal change. People don't watch plays in the same way that we used to. Going to a theatre these days is a sign of high culture and, often, is treated as aspirational in class terms. Going to a movie? Now that's a completely different thing. Watching television? Again, different. Same goes for art galleries and art appreciation. At school you're a scam artist playing the system for easy marks (poppycock, by the way). Art with a capital A is also perceived as high culture. People are interested, in popular terms, in things more like concept art for films or games. People look at memes, not museums. Does this matter in terms of Lenton's argument? That art with a capital A exists? Not really.
Both Nazis.
What we have here is two different depictions of Nazis. One is High Culture (from Schindler's List) and the other is Low/Popular Culture (from a production of The Producers). This dynamic was introduced to me in History 217 (which I took last year in semester two). It's pretty obvious why one is the other. That's not arbitrary. The thing is, as is perhaps made clear by both being part of an academic history course, that this classification doesn't mean that one is meaningful and the other meaningless. Indeed, I believe that satirical works, generally put in low culture (until they get old and become canon:  e.g. Vanity Fair) will probably piss all over a lot of High Culture in terms of the bigness of the meaning. The point is that the article seems to believe that people think that meaning is contained only in High Culture. Hell, I reckon that's true. The trouble occurs when Lenton goes on to say, "This thinking is obviously outdated. These days, there is so much smart, incisive and critical writing being done about popular culture, about the ‘lowbrow,'" a line which makes the point of the meaningless of the distinction. People like to think about what they've consumed and because people consume popular culture (by definition more than High Culture), there's going to be a lot of thinking about it. (Also, Popular Culture gives more insight into people than High Culture, which is ultimately generally just studying one particular person's perspective of people.)

At this point, naturally, one is left to ponder why I haven't actually created a definition of lowbrow/Popular Culture. Well, to some extent that's because it is everything that isn't High Brow/Culture. It's also worth noting that there is an element of "craft" to my definition of High Culture. I didn't consciously realise this until I read the following comment from Emma Louise Kuehnbaum (probably a real name as the comments section is via Facebook) in the comments section of that article:
The Kardashian's reality show has value because it "gives people pleasure"? Well, so does crystal meth. These pieces of "reality-tv" (even the name is a lie; none of it is actually real) culture are designed to stimulate and enflame the basest parts of human nature; people's avarice, covetousness, consumerism and titillation. Shakespeare may have written for the masses, but a tale well-told is equally moving no matter how many people like it. I'll continue to judge culture on whether it is well-crafted, thought-provoking and authentic. That standard allows for appreciation of romance novels and condemnation of the Kardashians, btw.
Reality television, then, can never be High Culture? Well, probably. However, you may be able to manipulate the design and editing of the show in such a fashion that you can have your producer/presenter get up and say, "Well, at heart, it's about how the human psyche reacts in situations of pressure" and people won't being going, "Jesus, what have they been smoking: it's reality crapovision". It's possibly how you might take Yesterday or Eleanor Rigby and contrast such with Can I Hold Your Hand? Same band but they evolved the style enough that you can deal with pretty serious stuff in pretty serious fashions. Help! sort of occupies a middle ground. At heart we've got "bubblegum pop" but it's not the third song just mentioned because it's matter is more like the first two. But, because it's bubblegum pop it can't be High Culture because it doesn't act as though it is.

Talking the Talk is Walking the Walk (cf. How to Live Well on Nothing a Year)
That first line in the comments section quote is our point of return to the article. One of the contentions made is that we shouldn't really be comparing Keeping up with the Kardashians to War and Peace. I, in particular, shouldn't compare them because I've neither seen the former nor read the latter (although, I have read another work of Russian Literature: Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead). This is a pretty common argument. The point is that both do what they're meant to. Okay, but that doesn't mean that one can't be better than the other (the point being made). And this is where your subjective preference comes in as you may choose to evaluate betterness with different criteria to what I choose: we cannot say that any given criterion is definitively more appropriate than another. This also doesn't mean that "War and Peace vs The Kardashians, which is better?" is a question that can never be resolved. What it means is that every answer we give will be true only within the system of the answer. But, maybe, we can say that there is a system which we ought to prefer more. Kuehnbaum's comment, for instance, posits that favouring "well-crafted, thought-provoking and authentic" cultural artefacts is such a system. Lenton uses just the "satisfies consumers" standard.

Where things get interesting is what Lenton just never comments on (his stuff about The Shire is accepted to be good vs accepted to be bad, given the genre). How many times have you read/heard people say Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad is the Best Show Ever? People want to make comparisons among things even Lenton would have to accept are on the same level. Now, personally, I seriously doubt most of the people who say these things have seen much television from before 2000, but that aside, where are you meant to start? Well, in general, there is the implicit notion that even among Popular Culture's artefacts (e.g. television shows) there are sub-categories. In particular, that there is a difference between more arty-television (not so sure about Breaking Bad, but this is clearly where Game of Thrones thinks it belongs) and normal (scripted) television like, say, Person of Interest or The Blacklist. Arty Television isn't High Culture per se, but it's close. The reality is that people forget about television shows pretty quickly. Did you know Edge of Darkness was on television first? That House of Cards is a remake? These discussions are ultimately pissing contests between fans with short memories (or, as I suggested before, no memories).

The thing with High Culture is that it's not Popular Culture. People can like it and lots and lots of people can like it, but it's not part of the popular consciousness. Sherlock Holmes is still very much popular culture. Which kinda makes sense because Sherlock Holmes was one of the original Mass Characters, the sort of figure that the readership/audience feels they own more than the creator. In general, popular culture is like this because consuming it doesn't require any additional effort. To some extent, popular culture is normal consumption behaviour. High Culture is consumption behaviour with effort. You have to choose to read, say, Vanity Fair. You just read The Colour of Magic. High Culture lives in the unconsciousness: the sort of thing that you go, "Oh, yeah" that whenever it is referenced. This is why arty television isn't really High Culture, it's a blend of normal and cult consumption: still feels too genre to be High Culture. Over time. of course, I expect arty television to either become over-rated/why did we care so much? or High Culture. In this sense, if you're familiar with High Culture, by all means hold yourself to be superior to the pop culturists but only because you know that the ways we think about the two are different.

Oh, if you hadn't realised, I started off with the non-participant blurb in order that you may understand that while I like popular culture, I am inclined to the view interest in many things as cult behaviour.

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