Even though my previous post, Roman Circuses and Serious Writers, attracted very few visitors – and just when I thought my readership was going up – I have more to say on the subject.
I have no difficulty understanding the very human attraction to the salacious and the violent, to spectacle and to the mortal sins of others, especially celebrities. I used to love CSI and when Dr. Phil’s guests talk about their drug use, spousal abuse, or infidelities, I listen with as much enthusiasm as anyone else in his mass audience. I admit that I don’t understand why people go on the program to tell the same audience about these things in their own lives. Phil’s a pretty good therapist, I guess, but aren’t there other doctors in quieter, less public places? Fifteen minutes of fame be damned. But the National Enquirer, Jerry Springer, and The Bachelor have been around for years now, and I guess all those worries about forfeiting our privacy on the Internet are not so critical as all that.
However, in my last post, I addressed the concerns of Nancy Bentley in her book, Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920, about “serious writers” and their response when staged train collisions and other similar sensations began to attract public attention in ways that serious literature didn’t: “Highbrow writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton and W.E.B. DuBois started to incorporate images such as Wild West shows, disasters and train wrecks into their works…. They discovered that mass culture might actually offer clues and insights about modern society that literary culture had not yet detected.”
Perhaps that’s what happened back then, early in the last century.
But like a lot of things, it’s all gotten more complicated. For much of the last century the debate between high culture and popular culture raged on, but popular culture overwhelmed the art of the museum and the music of the concert hall a long time ago, and today it’s more and more difficult to differentiate between the two. I mean, there’s still serious music that very few people listen to and popular music that almost everyone under a certain age, and many above, enjoy. Both can say important things in a compelling way. Both can inspire.
There are novels that win critical acclaim but only a small readership. But there are also books that are critically acclaimed, and best sellers-kind of modern-day Charles Dickens. It seems to me that the line between what has real value and what’s trivial, glib or senselessly cruel, and earns its sponsors the most money, is increasingly difficult to draw. The parameters of high and popular culture are often very nearly the same.
Serious writers, musicians or artists may be challenged by spectacle, sex and violence like their earlier counterparts, but including or excluding explosions and sexual hijinks isn’t and hasn’t been their response. Instead, they’re trying to understand what’s going on in our very confusing time. They have faith that serious insights can infiltrate the culture and have an impact, however muted, by the din around us.
In this regard, older artists have an advantage. They’ve lived in a time that was quieter, where it was a little easier to see where the money went, where violence was at least followed by an exclamation point, and where sex could be subtle and still be sexy. They have a longer, wider perspective.
And now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I’ll try in my next post to be more amusing. Although I can’t promise anything.