From Pop Culture to High Culture

by Chris Berger

A cottage industry of sorts has been made out of deploring the effects of large-scale entertainment on the modern psyche and its tastes and judgment, on its alleged tendency to drain artistic and philosophic depth. This has in turn been sparring with a counter-industry that attacks such considerations and objections as reactionary, antiquarian, and nostalgic, not to mention cranky and stuffy. I myself may even hold some blame for encouraging the former; it is certainly true that I do not think very highly of a lot of what is churned out today, be it books, magazines, music, television, (post)modern art or what have you, and it is equally true that I encourage the rediscovery of old books as a partial remedy for this. But I also want to avoid giving the impression that I make a habit of yelling at the neighbourhood kids to get off my lawn.

What I find to be a unique problem with the social, economic, and political setting in which we find ourselves is not necessarily that our age is uniquely toxic and detrimental to the quality of thought and art. For all I know, it may be, but the observation that artistic and thoughtful types from all times and places have found their communities and circumstances wanting, particularly as regards support for their craft, should caution us from being too hasty in writing off our own. Rather the problem, I think, is the perfect storm brewed by our technological sophistication, our market economics, and our egalitarian politics. The result is that there is that much more chaff to sift through in order to find the good stuff.

Yet it may also be healthy to remember that what we now think of as “high culture” – the plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus in classical Greece, those of Shakespeare in England, the poetry of Dante in Renaissance Italy – was once what we today might call the “popular culture” of the people that enjoyed them and for whom it was daily fare. It is mere snobbery to dismiss something popular as being of low quality simply because it is popular. Having said that, I am sure we can also agree that popularity does not quality make, either.

So how do we know what is worth our attention? Readers who are familiar with my contributions to the Wanderer will probably have noticed that I have a penchant for referencing the so-called “classics” – Plato comes up a lot, for instance. The helpful advantage conferred by recourse to the these sources is that, to put it simply, they have been tried and tested. Plato has managed to retain his position of high esteem for nearly two and a half millennia, during which time virtually every talented and insightful personality who encountered him agreed there was something special at work there – one does not make it that far by being a charlatan or a hack.

And while the list of so-called “Greak Books” and the canonical authors, artists, and composers seems like a lengthy one, keep in mind these are the ones that passed muster out of all writers, thinkers, painters and musicians who produced anything at all in the past few thousand years. Granted, there are undoubtedly many who slipped through the cracks for one reason or another – incredibly talented women in ancient Greece were not typically given a chance to show their true quality alongside Euripides or Aristotle, for instance (Sappho being a notable exception) – but we can be reasonably confident that something that has withstood such an endurance test probably stands a good chance of meeting our own challenges to it.

While it is surely not the case that excellence has gone extinct, it has to be admitted that the sheer volume of mediocrity has tended to drown it out proportionally. This is not to say that greatness birthed in our time will not be preserved for the future – if anything, greatness today stands perhaps a better chance than it would in any other time of surviving, if only because our digital technology allows us to preserve almost anything indefinitely. All it means is that it seems to be less and less likely that we will stumble by chance alone upon a genuine work of genius by a contemporary. There’s just too damn much material to work through, and so much of it is – let’s face it – bullshit.

We need a guide, if only to educate our tastes and accustom our palates for what we ought to be tasting. For all its many faults and spurious presumptions, something like the Great Books compendium published by Mortimer Adler, pretentious and presumptuous as he was, does give us a reference guide by which we can orient ourselves if we want to find a really worthwhile book without having to take a shot in the dark – there is no such reference for works produced in our age, in part because most of us are not great and in greater part because there hasn’t been enough time for a proper vetting.

By definition, true greatness is rare, and it’s unlikely that most of us could recognize it right away even if we saw it. As Nietzsche put it, genius always appears to its own time as madness, insanity, and worst of all, immorality: this is why Socrates was killed for corrupting the youth and Galileo threatened with torture for undermining church cosmology. But if two thousand years’ worth of extraordinarily talented minds agree that Plato, for instance is worth taking seriously, then we can accept provisionally – but only provisionally, at first – that it may very well be so.

The proof is in the eating, as it were, and only after having chewed, swallowed, and digested can we decide for sure. At the beginning of my second year as an undergrad the only thing I “knew” about Plato was that he was supposed to be really smart, if a bit authoritarian and elitist. I have since come through some first-hand investigation – and no small amount of guidance from an excellent teacher – to find that he speaks more profoundly than anyone else (possibly rivalled by Rousseau, Nietzsche and Shakespeare) to what I experience and intuit day to day. Along with this, I concluded that the conventional teachings about what Plato believed or taught is usually dead wrong.

But if not for that received tradition, I would not have discovered him in the first place. There is no tradition yet backing up what is produced in our day, of course, so we must rely on chance – the chance that we have a knack for recognizing greatness, and the chance that we happen to stumble upon it as we grope through the darkness of our Cave and the innumerable ephemeral shadows it churns out through various media. Leo Strauss said that we can have no way of knowing when or where (or if, for that matter) the next great philosopher or poet may happen to appear. He could show up in twenty-third century Myanmar for all we know (The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, p. 30).

The lesson I take from this is twofold: One, proven greats from the past are invaluable guides for our presents and futures; and Two, that by using these guides properly, by not falling into unthinking nostalgia and turning our noses up at everything we have all around us ready for tasting, we can identify insights springing from our own time and place that say something poignant about our experiences, and perhaps thereby play a role in carrying greatness forward. And as regards the consumption of what our own culture produces, cutting our teeth on greats of the past prepares us to recognize and engage fruitfully with greatness of our own. In especially blessed cases, that kind of education can prepare us to be creators ourselves. You’d be hard pressed to find a great author who wasn’t a great reader of what came before, and the same holds for all great creators, from musicians to painters to plain ol’ thinkers.

Just as Oedipus Tyrannus was once pop culture for ancient Athenians, so a few pieces of our present “pop culture” will likely last as standing testaments to the best of our age for posterity.  Thinking about which they might be and why is a worthwhile and fun exercise, not least of all because of how it can help us to reflect seriously on both timely and perennial questions; insight is not confined to the past, after all.

One thinker in particular has inspired me to take our pop culture a little more seriously in this vein. Paul Cantor, an English professor from the University of Virginia and noted Shakespearean and literary theory scholar, has been developing a name for himself in interviews and in some of his recent books as a commentator on pop culture.  In his discussions of everything from The Simpsons, South Park, and Gilligan’s Island to The Wire, Star Trek, The X-Files, and The Walking Dead, Cantor exhibits inspiring optimism and refreshingly unpretentious erudition in showing how we might find content worth thinking deeply about in some of the higher-caliber examples of our cultural output. He makes a very convincing case that some of the greatest literature of our age is to be found on the medium of television.

Our present vice, democrats that we are, is our need to find merit in everything. (“Everyone is special!” “Everyone gets a trophy!” “One person’s ‘truth’ is as true as any other!” “Art is in the eye of the beholder!” And other such gratuitous platitudes ad nauseum.) This gets in the way of the creation of great popular culture, and combined with the technological nature of modern media, it makes the real gems that do get produced that much harder to find amidst the mass of fluff. However, by acquainting ourselves with genuinely deep and comprehensive insights into our condition and the nature of things, we can identify those precious few morsels of what our Cave produces that can help us to learn something about ourselves as they entertain us.

So our task is twofold: first, to take our own pop culture more seriously, in spite of the curmudgeons and the fluff peddlers in equal measure. But second, we need to train ourselves to do this by embracing the “high culture” of the past as ever-present, always-relevant answers to the lasting human feelings and questions. Given the enormity of the task, we can begin to appreciate why some pop culture makes it as high culture, but also why the vast majority doesn’t (the equivalent of bad reality TV may not have survived from ancient Greece, but it’s a safe bet that there were scores of these for every one great tragedy or poem that survived through the ages). Greatness has always been rare; if we can learn to stop deluding ourselves into seeing it everywhere, perhaps we will stand a chance of happening upon it somewhere.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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