I’ve been having a lively discussion with my colleague Henry Jenkins, occaisioned by A.O.Scott’s recent essay in the Times entitled, The Death of Adulthood in America Culture, and Frederik DeBoer’s trenchant response. Scott is of course trying to exercise the traditional role of the arts critic, depicting the difference between the real deal and the second rate. Here he narrates the descent from the young rebels of the 1950’s (as depicted by the critic Leslie Fiedler) to the Bro rebels of our contemporary age.
The bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll and the pouting screen rebels played by James Dean and Marlon Brando proved Fiedler’s point even as he was making it. So did Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty, Augie March and Rabbit Angstrom — a new crop of semi-antiheroes in flight from convention, propriety, authority and what Huck would call the whole “sivilized” world.
From there it is but a quick ride on the Pineapple Express to Apatow. The Updikean and Rothian heroes of the 1960s and 1970s chafed against the demands of marriage, career and bureaucratic conformity and played the games of seduction and abandonment, of adultery and divorce, for high existential stakes, only to return a generation later as the protagonists of bro comedies. We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”
But of course like any critic of contemporary pop culture, Scott is carefully defensive lest he would be categorized with the “get off my lawn, kids” crowd. But Deboer notes that the celebrants of contemporary pop culture, don’t need any defending.
To believe that different types of cultural products should exist, and that some of these should create artistic pleasures based on work, ambiguity, or difficulty, is to be immediately and permanently labeled a snob, an empty signifier that exists simply to provide people with a convenient label to apply to those whose artistic tastes are different than their own. If you like any kind of artwork that does not leave its pleasures totally and utterly accessible at all times and to all people with no expectation that consuming art should involve effort, you will be lectured to by the aggrieved.
So I reached out to Henry Jenkins, known to be a big fan of both serious critical studies texts and Survivor. He did not disappoint.
My cultural studies training tells me there is no meaningless culture. Humans do not spend their time consuming or doing things that are meaningless to them. There is culture whose meaning I do not yet understand, and for me, that’s an incitement to investigate more. I see plenty of people who stop short of that obligation and dismiss rather than investigate.Does this mean we have no standards? Nope — but it does mean standards have to be appropriate for the materials being appraised. So, I always chuckle when I recall an undergraduate newspaper review of a Brecht play which said that he just couldn’t identify with any of the characters. Sometimes very bright people end up making equally dumb comments about forms of culture they have not experienced.
So where does this leave the cultural critic like Alex Ross writing in the recent New Yorker about the legacy of Adorno and Horkheimer?
The Internet threatens final confirmation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dictum that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” Champions of online life promised a utopia of infinite availability: a “long tail” of perpetually in-stock products would revive interest in non-mainstream culture. One need not have read Astra Taylor and other critics to sense that this utopia has been slow in arriving. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.
Ross is right. The Long Tail is a myth. The proliferation of cultural choices has not led us into a wonderland of diversity, but into our own balkanized world of similarity. Fans of Duck Dynasty and Pawn Stars never have their world-view challenged, just as fans of John Stewart live in a bubble. And Henry Jenkins is right, the Duck Dynasty world-view is very meaningful to its fans.
And the question of “what is art” keeps expanding. Oliver Luckett, President of The Audience, a social media publishing company talks about one of his new micro-celebrities, Julia Kelley, who describes herself as a “Vine actress” despite the fact that she has never been in a film more than six seconds long.
As Luckett sees it, the money Kelly and Brinley and the other Influencers are paid is merely enabling their art. And yes, to him, they are artists. Julia Kelly and Acacia Brinley and Hugh Jackman and Steve Aoki are all creating content of some sort, which puts them on nearly equal footing in his mind.
Luckett’s definition of art seems pretty elastic to me. And this notion that there is no bad culture is fairly troublesome. If we go back to the first use of the word “culture” by the Roman orator Cicero, he meant it to be “cultura animi” (cultivation of the soul). Surely my friend Henry Jenkins did not mean that there was “no meaningless culture”, but rather that there was “no meaningless entertainment”. This distinction between culture and entertainment seems critical as I don’t think the two terms are interchangeable. Surely The Godfather is both culture and entertainment, but I don’t think the same can be said for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The question then becomes, do we not care if 90% of our media is mere entertainment and only 10% attempts to “cultivate the soul”? Perhaps that’s just the world we live in, but I’m tired of having to defend my right to say that Julia Kelly is not an artist and Pawn Stars is not culture.