A couple days ago, Terry Teachout wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal denouncing the praise given to Elmore Leonard as a “great American artist” and an increased critical attention on “pop” art to the detriment of “high” art. “It used to be that we didn’t take popular culture seriously,” Teachout writes, “but now we don’t take anything else seriously.” Although he gives a brief nod to the acceptability of some attention to popular works, Teachout’s argument is tantamount to holding up his hands and saying, “Whoa, now, let’s not get too crazy.”
The problem with self-described Defenders of Culture — beyond their self descriptions — is that they typically have to manufacture definitions and evidence to support their positions that otherwise are unsupportable. Teachout, in defending his thesis that “we don’t take anything else seriously” gives us the following evidence:
Consider the endless encomia that greeted the airing in September of the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” which the Daily Beast described as “a perfect, A-1 piece of televisual filmmaking…an unparalleled valedictory achievement.” Or Tuesday’s announcement by LA Weekly that it’s cutting back its theater reviews from seven per issue to two. Or the fact that no classical musician has appeared on the cover of Time magazine since 1986.
I find it incredibly strange, and humorous, that Teachout’s evidence for the declining influence of “high art” is extracted from the pages (be they web or print) of those bastions of refined culture known as The Daily Beast, Time and LA Weekly. Imagine popular publications focusing on popular art—outrageous! Even the least popular of these, LA Weekly, is part of a media group that publishes “alternative weeklies” in large cities around the country. However, Teachout doesn’t stop to consider the dubiousness of his own evidence. Rather, he goes on to criticize academia for pop culture studies, writing that “nowadays [pop culture] also receives the kind of dead-serious critical attention in the academy and elsewhere that used to be reserved for high art—and increasingly it does so to the exclusion of high art.”
In one sense, Teachout is right. As any amateur student of economics knows, participation in one activity means non-participation in all other activities. Thus, if I choose to write a paper about the horror movie Cabin in the Woods, as I recently did, then technically I am choosing not to write a paper on — well, on any other movie that Teachout might consider to be “higher.” But that doesn’t seem to be what he means by “exclusion,” especially in light of his earlier claim that “now we don’t take anything else seriously.” Can it really be true that academics taking nothing else seriously except for pop culture, and that the study of “high art” has been excluded? I find the assertion both preposterous and easily debunked with a Google Scholar search or two.
Of course, Teachout isn’t making any kind of new argument. Quite the contrary, pooh-poohing popular work has long been a favorite pastime of culture critics. During Edgar Allan Poe’s lifetime, he was primarily known as a literary critic, and in that capacity, Poe foreshadowed Teachout’s present sentiments in an 1846 review of works by Fitz-Greene Halleck: “Mr. Halleck, in the apparent public estimate, maintains a somewhat better position than that to which, on absolute grounds, he is entitled.” More humorously, Poe’s review of Charles O’Malley by Harry Lorrequer is a rambling, contentious attack on popular literature in general: “We shall not insult our readers by supposing any one of them unaware of the fact, that a book may be even exceedingly popular without any legitimate literary merit,” Poe writes. “This fact can be proven by numerous examples which, now and here, it will be unnecessary and perhaps indecorous to mention.” Then, he goes on to mention as many examples as he can, throwing in several protracted jibes at Charles Dickens for good measure.
Given such attitudes, Poe’s own posthumous influence on pop culture may be viewed as turning the cosmic irony dial up to eleven. Despite the historicity of the argument, however, it hasn’t exactly been refined with age: Poe’s paradoxical polemic is at least droll, while Teachout’s editorial comes across more like a teenager whining because nobody takes the things he likes seriously. In one respect, I suppose Teachout’s whimper indicates a modicum of success for pop-culture proponents, who are typically the ones channeling Rodney Dangerfield as they lament the respect they don’t get. Silver lining aside, however, it’s annoying.
The odd thing is that, once more, Teachout fails to pick convincing examples, this time for works that are…well, not popular. “Novels like Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Wise Blood,’ plays like Tennessee Williams’s ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ballets like Jerome Robbins’s ‘Dances at a Gathering,’ paintings like Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series,’ musical compositions like Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata: These are large-scale works of art that aim higher than their popular counterparts.” Regardless of their aim, Teachout fails to offer a convincing distinction between these works and whatever “popular counterparts” he has in mind. The popularity of The Glass Menagerie made Tennessee Williams notable, and the play has sparked multiple film adaptations and high school performances, not to mention that it is currently enjoying a successful Broadway revival. Wise Blood may not have the peculiarly particular Teachout-maligned plot point of people getting their heads blown off in drug deals, but it does have someone getting run over multiple times by a jealous rival, and it’s hard to understand why that’s somehow “higher.” I’ve only seen Lawrence’s “Migration Series” online, and I’ve only heard Copland’s Piano Sonata via YouTube; both are interesting and no doubt do deserve study, but Teachout fails to show how they are objectively “higher” than, for example, the current “Art of Video Games” exhibit at my local Everson Museum or the 8.5-minute jam of Sirsy’s “Please Let Me Be” that I’ve heard dozens of times.
Even though Teachout is making this particular iteration of the argument, perhaps I shouldn’t blame him individually. After all, he’s merely doing what many critics (among others) tend to do, namely, to conflate preference with Platonic form. The acceptance of a rift between “pop culture” and “high art” is a tacit affirmation that one believes in some objective ideal of Art to which a person may aspire. Assuming for a moment that such an ideal exists (it doesn’t), the question becomes: How can we know when a particular work sufficiently approaches that ideal such that it may be labeled “high” art? The only two possible answers to this question are through special knowledge or by popular acceptance, all other answers being derivatives. All special knowledge is suspect, especially with regard to transcendental forms, thus the only true determination that art is “high” can come from broad acceptance — that is, by its popularity. In which case it ceases to be “high” art and becomes pop culture.
If my logical examination above seems tongue-in-cheek, it’s only because I find the paradox funny. Folks like Teachout want to distinguish between high art and pop culture, but very often they are not content with simple distinction. They feel the need to convince others they are right, and to evangelize their preferred works of greatness. In doing so, they wind up trying to move the thing they find of value from the realm of “high” art into the realm of pop culture.
The problem stems from trying to make such distinctions in the first place. Teachout writes that “a culture totally dominated by popular art is by definition limited.” On the contrary, it’s the definition that is the limiting factor, not the dominance of one kind of art over another. Teachout claims that “high art” consists of “works of art that aim higher than their popular counterparts,” but this definition is incredibly lacking. An artist can aim; art cannot. Art exists, sometimes extemporaneously and often ephemerally, but to imbue it with goals is an anthropic delusion. If there is a purpose to art, it is an individual purpose that each one of us must take from it. Art cannot give meaning, even when we are able to find meaning within it.
This is not to say that different types of art cannot be categorized or catalogued in some way. Certainly, calling a story “fantasy” or a painting “abstract” can be helpful in discussing the work. But terms like “genre fiction” or “kitsch,” which are shorthand for a perceived lack in quality despite popular enjoyment, do little to further artistic understanding, and they create the very limitations that Teachout claims are “by definition.” There is nothing inherently “lower” about something popular, nor should we use terminology that implies such.
I’ll close by sharing the video of a debate I heard on Q earlier this year on this very topic, specifically in relation to Shakespeare. Some great points are made all around.