Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Can we defend culture?

How do we defend high culture?

The first thing we should consider is why so many people are averse to defending high culture. I think many of us are rightfully skeptical of the concept after decades of conservative editorials that begin with the line: "Our culture is under attack!" I can still remember the 1980s campaign to protect 'our culture' from Prince songs along with the Soviet threat. And for a few years the threat was "Satanism". In the last three years or so, our culture has supposedly been menaced by Islamic radicals (which is plausible), gay marriage (irrational), and Hispanics (racism in place of an argument). I think it's quite right to assume that the cultural sky is not really falling.

Moreover, some of us have been blamed by now. I've never heard a conservative blame cultural decline on a consumer culture whose implicit argument is that any art which requires a personal investment on the part of the viewer is a waste of time; instead blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of feminists, gay culture, the left, ''postmodernism'', or some other vaguely defined bugaboo based on the idea that if X came before Y, then X caused Y. I've joked that most of these books and articles can be boiled down to: Why is pop culture so lousy? Heidegger!

Occasionally, the left will take up the mantle of saving the culture from a general ''dumbing down''. Like conservatives, they worry that the decline of cultural institutions doesn't bode well for democracy. They might be right. Generally, liberals blame this sad state of affairs on ''the media'', or even better, ''the corporate media''. But if there's anything that blogs and personal websites have taught us it's that the public is perfectly able to produce tripe far worse than the worst of corporate culture. In fact, it's perfectly plausible that culture is in the doldrums simply because people have lost interest in it. We shouldn't rule out the possibility that the reverse of the liberal argument is true: that the mass media has been dumbed down by the public.

So why bother? Why worry so much when we find ourselves alone in art galleries, aside from a few impatient tourists in a mad dash to get through them? When the audience for classical music in any city is limited to 30 or so senior citizens? When movies are coming to resemble non-participatory video games, television is limited to insult comedies and vicious reality programs, and every passing car seems to be blaring musical paeans to murdering black men? When there's just so much that is mind-contracting or death affirming?

Because I'd rather. I was talking to Claire recently about how this relates to food. Many nights I'm fine with dining on Kraft Macaroni (like a good Canadian!) and Pepsi. It's comforting and it fills my belly and it tastes good. But the idea of eating like that every night is depressing. Some nights I need to go to a restaurant that makes complex dishes with flavors that I've never had before. I need to be stimulated. So it is with culture. I can live with pop; but a steady diet of pop seems like a bland and colorless life. Food and culture are equally important to my survival.

And it seems to me that the way to ''defend'' culture is not to wage yet another war on tripe. I don't think the world needs to hear a lecture on why I can't stand the 50 Cent brand or the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Bitching is easy; I do it all the time.

Again, I think we need enthusiasts. Enthusiasm is hard; it makes you look a bit foolish to other people. The cool pose is indifference; the ideal is to be jaded and unengaged. Enthusiasm seems ''geeky'', or ''queer'', or ''pretentious'', or even "crazy". The hardest part of teaching is staying enthusiastic in the face of teenagers who want to rain on your parade. I think it's part of why teachers become cynical.

But again we need to extol. Blake wrote that exuberance is beauty- it's also true that it makes us feel connected to the world around us, engaged, and even more alive. Sometimes it seems that we're only really alive on rare moments. But extolling is a defiant statement of who we are and what sort of world we want to live in. It's utopian in the face of status quo realism. It's hope in the face of the ever-present ambiance of fatalism. It's both a ''defense'' of our culture (by treating it as a living thing) and a radical gesture these days.


Hiromi said...

The cool pose is indifference; the ideal is to be jaded and unengaged. Enthusiasm seems ''geeky'', or ''queer'', or ''pretentious'', or even "crazy".

I have to agree with this to an extent. I'm generalizing here, but in my experience those who hold the above attitude do have their own enthusiasms, but those tend to center around short bursts of adrenaline, or at worst, alteration of the senses through controlled substances of one sort or the other.

They can relate to some things I do, such as going to Hawaii or motorcycling or attempting to surf. But after an "oh, cooooool" kind of response, their eyes glaze right over if I try to discuss the self-exploration aspects of these activities, or how these things can allow you to connect with greater phenomena.

But once in a while, you come across someone who understands, or at least tries to understand, which is pretty fucken gratifying.

Holly said...

This gives me questions. I guess first is the question of what to extol. Extol the canon? Extol the "classics" at the expense of current work? Extol the current heirs to the classics? Simply extol that which we relate to, and trust that our judgment is worthy?

Because there are lots of folks who extol the holy hell out of things like drinking your own urine, and the chocolate Jesus, and snowboarding as a religion, and... well, I can go on basically forever about the wingnut things people are very enthusiastic about. Many of them are enduringly enthused, too.

And, really, who to enthuse TO? If you're not in a position of leadership, such as teaching, or mentoring, or whatever, it comes down to telling your social circle what you think of things. That doesn't strike me as an effective strategy for anything beyond finding a good dentist.

Not trying to be negative, these are just things I wonder about, in the realm of propagation of culture.

Also, frankly, I think the thing missing from many people is an aggressive INTAKE of culture. There's a viral approach to experience, where only things directly adjacent to the current knowledge base are explored at all. That won't get anyone a serious breadth or depth of experienced culture. I believe this is one of the big advantages of the way university works for people---all those classes that people only take because they must, *that* is where all the mental growth happens. Only when we're exposed to things outside our frame of reference are we provoked to expand the frame.
Many people are relieved when they've met those requirements and can stop taking classes they wouldn't have considered on their own recognizance.

Rufus said...

I am in a position to extol though- I teach those much-hated required courses. Some of these notes are notes to myself in that regard. It's quite easy to get cynical while teaching and I'm trying not to. Also, I'm really thinking about just what I want to do with this blog lately.

As for what to extol, I'd say all of the things that you've listed and generally anything great that seems overlooked. Would this be somewhat subjective? Yes.

But I do think that tastes are generally more refined the more you expose yourself to. I'm guessing that I'd be much more qualified to decide what horror films are great than I was when I saw my first one at five ('Kingdom of the Spiders' with William Shatner.) And I would assume that Roger Ebert's opinions about good movies are a lot more worthwhile than my own.

I do agree that it's a lifelong duty to keep exposing ourselves to as much art as possible. But I get the feeling that most people could use encouragement to expose themselves to it.

Part of my problem with the canon was that I've heard from people what things to expose myself to, but never why. We used to joke about a prof at W&M who taught the course on Modernism and made a big deal every semester about how sad it is that nobody reads Proust anymore, but she would never assign Proust! I have read In Search of Lost Time and it's fucking fantastic. But I think it's worthwhile and important to explain why it's fantastic.