Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In The Long Run, Our Culture Has Good Taste

The continuing fascination with Britney Spears’ apparent meltdown. The success of pop songs like “My Humps” or “The Thong Song” (just to pick two from the past decade) or of movies like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo or Alvin and the Chipmunks (over $200 million at the domestic box office and counting).

There are also examples of pop culture in its various forms that are clearly (or at least debatably) high quality and that are popular. I’d never suggest that popularity is a sign of bad art (or bad or faddish scholarship), but at the same time, no one could accuse contemporary North American culture of having impeccably good taste. (I’ll leave aside for the moment issues of whether cultures can have taste – I’m really talking about the aggregate taste of millions of North American individuals. I’d also note that North America is by no means alone in having a fondness for a mixed bag of profound faire alongside tacky, or even godawful ephemera.)

People often have the impression that pop culture and the arts used to be better. This impression comes from the fact that in the long term, we actually have good taste, and this skews our memory of the past.

In contemporary society, whether you want to call it the society of late capitalism, the postmodern era, or something else, novelty is relentlessly marketed to all of us as consumers of popular culture and commodities generally. (And I think this basic argument applies as much outside North America as to North America.) Most of the novel things have very short shelf lives, momentarily amusing us or catching our eye, until something else does.

Objects of creative expression (and I would include scholarly expression as much as art here) that maintain the interest of many for very long, though highly various, tend to have objective qualities that reward repeated reflection and rumination (i.e. they’re actually at least somewhat profound) and that are not overly determined by the moment of their creation, allowing them to communicate across temporal contexts.

The art objects and scholarship that we continue to go back to over long periods of time are generally first rate stuff (though I’d leave room for exceptions – and it’s crucial to note that I’m not arguing that over time all instances of good art or scholarship come to be appreciated for what they are, but simply that creative expression that is appreciated over long periods of time is generally worthy of the appreciation).

We can have the impression that movies were better in the 1930s or 1940s because we mainly continue to watch and remember Casablanca or Citizen Kane, and compare them to the full range of good and schlocky movies being made today, forgetting about equally schlocky early movies like Gold Diggers of 1935 or Earthworm Tractors. We remember Frank Sinatra, but most don’t know, or have forgotten, a novelty song he sang with a singing dog, and most who do know about that have probably never actually heard it.

1 comment:

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

People often have the impression that pop culture and the arts used to be better. This impression comes from the fact that in the long term, we actually have good taste, and this skews our memory of the past.

I think this is a very astute statement. Human society (perhaps as a survival mechanism for our sanity?) has selective memory. It's why we reduce the issues of past eras to simple narratives of good guys and bad guys, successful philosophies and evil ones that we the enlightened never would have embraced. When we live in the midst of complex times, we like to think that past eras were simpler because we only recall specific elements of the past.

And for pop culture, as you note, we forget 90% of the crap, and use the remaining 10% as a warning lesson.

A friend and I were watching a sitcom recently and I didn't recognize as a guest star as Mandy Moore until he noted it. When I asked what Mandy Moore's songs were, he laughed, unable to think of one, and commented that in the States we like to make celebrities regardless of the quality of their work. One would hope that our relentless adoration of (and eventual attempts to dethrone) pop culture figures could be tempered by a bit of humility about how long we are going to allow their art to survive.