Monday, August 27, 2007

The Popular Fallacy

"Everything popular is wrong." Oscar Wilde

There is a school of thought that anything that is popular cannot possibly be good. Such individuals maintain that anything created for the masses must be inferior by its very nature. Quite simply, "popular" culture (movies, television, comic books, popular music, et. al.) must be of a lesser quality than "high" culture (the stage, ballet, painting, and so on).

Of course, what these critics often ignore is the fact that much of what is counted as high culture is also a part of popular culture. The Dukes of Hazzard, a prime example of low culture if there ever was one, is a part of popular culture, but then so is the art of Picasso, a prime example of high culture. In my mind, popular culture is simply those artistic works which are well known and appreciated by a large number of the population.

Although it is not as prevalent today, this line of thought is still relatively common. For all that it is now taught and studied at universities, television is still not thought of as a form of art by many. It took the cinema decades after its development before it was accepted that a film could be a work of art, and even then there are those who would maintain that the cinema does not qualify as art. Such cultural elitism is still very much a part of our society.

Indeed, as popular culture continued to grow in both quantity and influence in the 20th century, there were those intellectuals who felt the need to strike back. In a 1939 issue of the Partisan Review, in his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," art critic Clement Greenberg differentiated between the avant-garde and kitsch. For Greenberg the avant-garde (which for him included Picasso, Rimbaud, and Yeats) was revolutionary, while kitsch (which for him included commercial art, pulp fiction, comics, and Hollywood movies) was "vicarious experience and faked sensations." Writing later, in 1960, in his essay "Masscult and Midcult," also published in the Partisan Review, writer and philosopher Dwight MacDonald differentiated between masscult or "mass culture" (culture as relayed through mass media) and high culture. He maintained that masscult "...offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience..." He also claimed that masscult "...doesn't even have the theoretical possibility of being good." It must be pointed out that MacDonald was not completely opposed to popular culture; he thought of Charlie Chaplin and Rodgers and Hart's works as "high culture."

Not all intellectuals believed that popular culture was necessarily evil. In the Februrary 1949 issue of Harpers, art historian and social critic Russell Lynes took a definite stand against the culture elite or "snobs." Writing only four years later than MacDonald and in the very same publication (the Partisan Review), in 1964 Susan Sontag placed Greenberg's kitsch on a pedestal in her article "Notes on 'Camp.'" She attacked the cultural elite, maintaining that "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure..." Sontag's essay was a timely one. It was in the Sixties that pop culture gained a modicum of acceptance, in the art of Andy Warhol and the works of Jules Feiffer. In 1969 the Popular Culture Association, an organisation of academics dedicated to the serious study of pop culture such as comics, movies, and music, was founded. It is to be noted that since the Sixties, the serious study of television, comic books, popular magazines, and other pop culture artefacts has gained a foothold at major universities.

There can be no doubt that to some degree or another critics such as Greenberg and MacDonald are right. Much, perhaps most, of what is created for enjoyment by the masses is inferior in nature. I do not think that anyone is going to argue that the above cited Dukes of Hazzard is a work of art any time soon. That having been said, the idea that everything created for the masses cannot possibly be good (to paraphrase MacDonald) holds little merit, as I can think of examples of works that were created for the masses that are now regarded as classics.

While MacDonald argued in Masscult and Midcult" that mass culture was a phenomenon primarily of the past 200 years, I would maintain that it has probably existed in some form since the invention of the printing press. Indeed, if we need look for an early example of a mass culture artist, there is probably no better candidate than the works of William Shakespeare. Although now regarded as part of high culture, Shakespeare's works began as a part of pop culture and are still a part of it. While I have little doubt that Shakespeare set out to write the best possible plays he could, I rather suspect that the primary reason for writing them was as a form of mass entertainment. Indeed, William Shakespeare was not below giving in to popular tastes and even writing for specific tastes. It is to be noted that Shakespeare turned Richard III into a base villain, which had been the Tudors' stance since they took power. It is also to be noted that he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor at the request of Elizabeth I, who was a huge fan of the character of Falstaff. That Shakespeare was popular there can be no doubt. His plays were first printed during his lifetime (the First Folio dates to 1623). Despite his popularity and while he received a good amount of praise during his lifetime, Shakespeare was not revered as the monolithic playwright par excellence as he is now. And his reputation shrank in the 17th century when he was considered inferior to such playwrights as Ben Johnson and John Fletcher. It wasn't really until the 18th century that his repuatation began to recover. Shakespeare is a prime example of someone whose work was part of pop culture and remained part of pop culture while becoming a part of high culture. It would be ludicrous to think that Shakespeare's plays somehow increased in quality following his death. Instead it seems more likely that as time passed, critics and the masses both realised just how good the Bard really was.

A better example of works that have come to be regarded as classics even though they were created for mass consumption may be found in the arena of cinema. Just like the summer blockbusters of today, Universal's 1931 movie Frankenstein was created to appeal to the masses and to make money doing it. While there can be little doubt that director James Whale had artistic intentions for the film and set out to make the best film he possibly could under the circumstances (even on Frankenstein Whale had his share of studio interference), there can be little doubt that Universal meant for the film to be a money maker (a blockbuster in today's term) first and any artistic pretensions were definitely secondary, if not tertiary. Universal achieved their goal of making money on the film with a vengeance. Frankenstein was the Star Wars of its day. There were often queues of people stretching around city blocks to see the movie. In its first release it made $12,000,000. That might not sound like much now, but accounting for inflation it would be around $400,000,000 in today's dollars. Frankenstein was not hailed as a masterpiece upon its release in 1931, although it did receive some favourable reviews. It was not even nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of 1930-1931 (which went to Cimarron, a forgotten movie which has not aged well at all). And yet, over 75 years after it was made, James Whale's Frankestein is counted among the greatest movies of all time. It has even been included in the National Film Registry as a movie which is "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Another example is another horror movie from the Thirties. The original 1933 film King Kong was, like Frankenstein, a blockbuster in its day. It did an enormous amount of box office; in fact, it had the biggest opening of its time. While director Merian C. Cooper was a documentarian who had made such movies as Grass and Chang, his goal with King Kong was not to educate, but to entertain. While I have no doubt that Cooper set out to make the best possible movie he could with King Kong, I very seriously doubt that he thought it would be hailed as a cinematic masterpiece upon its release. And it was not. While overall King Kong received glowing reviews, no one declared it anything more than a good adventure movie or a good horror film. Yet, over the years, it has become considered one of the greatest movies of all time. In the American Film Institute's 2007 edition of their 100 Years… 100 Movies, it ranked at #41. Time Magazine included it in their "All-Time100 best movies" list. It became part of the National Film Registry in 1991. For a movie that was initially a blockbuster in its day and counted merely as a good adventure yarn, that is doing very well indeed.

As one last example of something popular which has gone on to be regarded as classic I turn my view to the world of music. When The Beatles first emerged in Liverpool and later when they set foot in America, they were regarded as a phenomenally popular band, but one that played pop music nonetheless. Intellectuals were not declaring their music the greatest of all time, nor where comparisons to Bach and Beethoven in the offing. Many thought that they would simply be a flash in the pan, popular for a brief time, only to be forgotten a year or two later. Even as their career continued and it became clear just how revolutionary their music was, The Beatles were regularly snubbed at the Grammy Awards; ultimately The Beatles won only a small clutch of Grammies, some of them for technical categories such as Best Album Cover/Package and Best Engineered (Non-Classical) Recording. Over the years, however, The Beatles' reputation has grown. In fact, today their music is studied at universities across the world. Even today, when many in the intellectual elite would be loath to credit rock music as art, The Beatles have gained some degree of acceptance among them.

Ultimately, it would seem that works created for the masses are capable of ascending their origins to become true works of art. Contrary to the claims of both Greenberg and MacDonald, it would seem that some works of mass culture are capable of evoking emotional responses from individuals and, even further, of providing an aesthetic experience for them. It is doubtful that the works of Shakespeare, Frankenstein, King Kong, and the music of The Beatles would be so highly regarded today if they were not genuine works of art. Quite simply, neither the means of production nor the medium in which a work is produced determines whether it is a work of art, but rather the quality with which it was made.

Indeed, I would say that what can make a difference between a work of art like the 1931 version of Frankenstein and mere Hollywood product like The Dukes of Hazard are two factors. The first is the intent with which a work was made. There can be little doubt that John Lennon and Paul McCartney did not write their songs simply to make money, nor does it seem they wrote them simply for the enjoyment of the masses. Rather, it seems to me that The Beatles had true artistic aspirations. Why else would they have experimented with recording and even demanded of producer Sir George Martin the creation of sounds that had never been heard before? Quite simply, it was not enough to create songs that were pleasing to the masses, The Beatles sought to create songs that would last for ages.

Even when the intent of an artist is not necessarily to create a masterpiece, their work can still ascend from the status of mere product to a work of art. With Night of the Living Dead, George Romero did not set out to make a film that would be regarded as a horror classic. Romero and his crew's goal was to simply make a commercial film that would at least earn back its budget and with any luck make a profit. While he wanted Night of the Living Dead to be a good movie, he had no aspirations of it being a work of art. In fact, he has said that at the time he was not an auteur, but merely a student or apprentice who stole what would work for him (from an interview in Hollywood Gothique). He even admits to taking inspiration from Richard Matheson's classic novel, I Am Legend. Indeed, upon its release the film received mixed reviews, some of them downright hostile (Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it a "...junk movie..," while Pauline Kael praised it). Yet today Night of the Living Dead is considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It became part of the National Film Registry in 1999, and was ranked at #93 in the American Film Institute's AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills list. In VH1's "50 Greatest Horror Movies" list from 2006 Night of the Living Dead came in at #2. What made Night of the Living Dead one of the greatest horror movies of all time was the work that Romero and his crew put into it. Even if Romero was only learning as a filmmaker and borrowing much of what he needed from other sources, he still sought to make the best movie that he possibly could. This is what sets Night of the Living Dead from mere exploitation movies made simply for a profit and even Hollywood blockbusters simply made for the same reason. Night of the Living Dead was made with loving care, and it shows.

Ultimately, there may always be those who turn their noses up at popular movies, books, music, and so on, even when they are of a higher quality than most. I suppose that there will always be those who insist that the stage is better than the cinema and that Picasso is better than Norman Rockwell. In the end, however, it is time that will determine victor. After all, the art film which critics praise today may be forgotten 75 years from now, while the latest Hollywood blockbuster may be remembered as a classic. It seems to me that ultimately it is not the source or even necessarily the intent with which a work is made, but the hard work, diligence, care, and talent it takes to make it. In the end, much of pop culture can be every bit as good as that of high culture.

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