Curmudgeon corner: The plague of popular culture
This huge cauldron of bilge has spilled over into what passes for high culture. Some even regard the charlatan Andy Warhol as the greatest artist of the twentieth century. And worse was to come with the vacuum cleaners of Jeff Koons (sublime!) and the shark tank of Damien Hirst (epoch-making!).
A propos of Hirst and company, the NY Times published an insightful piece by Denis Dutton (Oct. 15), a professor of the philosophy of art who is based in New Zealand. Aptly, his piece is entitled “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?” (“Jumping the shark” is a term common in TV circles for the point when a silly gimmick reveals that a show has passed its expiration date.)
In his piece, Dutton goes all the way back to prehistoric hand-axes to show that some of them are not just practical items, but reveal, even across the millennia, a palpable sensitivity for aesthetic values. He hails these objects as “literally the earliest known works of art—practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and virtuoso craftsmanship. Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human prehistory, tools attractively fashioned to function as what Darwinians call ‘fitness signals’—displays like the glorious peacock’s tail, which functions to show peahens the strength and vitality of the males who display it.”
Skill was an important factor in achieving this result.
Yet much of contemporary art has been deskilled. In the new regime that has flourished under the evil star of the late Marcel Duchamp, it is only the concept that matters. Dutton questions the staying power of this approach.
“Does this mean that conceptual art is here to stay? That is not at all certain, and it is not just auction results that are relevant to the issue.” Such works may have an inherent investment risk, he thinks.
"Beginning with prehistoric times, beauty and skill have gone together. From this link certain consequences follow. “We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture. Evidence is all around us. Even when we have lost contact with the social or religious ideas behind the arts of bygone civilizations, we are still able, as with the great bronzes or temples of Greece or ancient China, to respond directly to craftsmanship. The direct response to skill is what makes it possible to find beauty in many tribal arts even though we often know nothing about the beliefs of the people who created them. There is no place on earth where superlative technique in music and dance is not regarded as beautiful.”
“The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work [and, I would add, Manzoni’s celebrated canning of his own faeces], Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of ‘chair’), or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art ‘concepts’ and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.”
As one who made his living in the professor game, I regret to say that academia has been deeply complicit in this process of dumbing down. The cloister has made its own not inconsiderable contribution to the gauntlet we must daily run as we are subjected to the barrage of popular culture and to its corruption of what still passes for high culture.
I was reminded of this point by an obituary in today’s NY Times. It reports the death of Ray Browne, 87, the patriarch of the popular-culture studies trend in academia. At his death, Professor Browne was a distinguished university professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University, where he had taught from 1967 to 1992. In 1967, the year he arrived at Bowling Green, Professor Browne founded both its Center for the Study of Popular Culture and The Journal of Popular Culture, the field’s first scholarly journal.
Because of these achievements, Browne was sometimes credited with coining the term “popular culture.” Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression goes back at least to 1854, when it appeared in print in a newspaper, The Defiance Democrat in Ohio.
The Times obituary recites the following megilla: “Popular culture casts a wide net. It takes in dime novels, tabloid newspapers and TV weathermen; the Monkees, the Muppets and “The Love Boat”; T-shirts and G-strings; baseball cards and tarot cards; infomercials, Chatty Cathy dolls and needlepoint pillows; Bob Hope, Tiny Tim, Archie Bunker and Erica Jong; Tupperware, cream pies and Spam (both kinds); hood ornaments, Harlequin romances, “Leave It to Beaver” and a great deal else. For some, this ecumenicalism [sic] is part of the field’s appeal. For others, it is precisely what makes it seem unfit for scholarly consumption.” Hear, hear.
Yes, this garbage exists and it proliferates all around us. There is no getting arround that dismal fact. But why must universities join in promoting the stuff? Is this not a waste of taxpayer money?
At first, it is true, the new “discipline” became the object of widespread derision. It figured in attacks by traditionalists during the canon wars of the 1980s. The two-credit course on roller coasters, rides included, that Bowling Green offered in 1978 was singled out as a particular object of scorn. Why, in fact, should one even take the course? The university could just give credit for having ridden on the things in the past. That is “life experience,” you see--another academic fad, though one that I hope is receding.
Absurdly, Browne claimed: “Popular culture is the voice of democracy, democracy speaking and acting, the seedbed in which democracy grows. . . . It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments and diversions. It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology and religion — our total life picture. It is the way of living we inherit, practice and modify as we please, and how we do it. It is the dreams we dream while asleep.”
Bull. In reality most popular culture, as we experience it now, is the cynical product of Hollywood moguls and their lackeys, not to mention their numerous collaborators in other fields and regions of the world. Perhaps the true patron of the trend was not Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol, but Salvador Dali, aka Avida Dollares in Andre' Breton's revealing rendering.