No Bad Culture


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.

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4 Responses to No Bad Culture

  1. sonredjhon says:

    what if we substitute the godfather and honey boo boo or whatever pawn stars is with the simpsons and comedians in cars getting coffee?
    the distance between the lowest common denominator and the highest common denominator is never fixed.
    i’m just happy whenever i stumble upon someone still attempting to gauge/express it.

  2. Alex Bowles says:

    So when I started the A.O. Scott piece, this line in particular jumped out.

    The most obvious thing about the series’s meticulous, revisionist, present-minded depiction of the past, and for many viewers the most pleasurable, is that it shows an old order collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction and external pressure.

    Well yes, I thought, that’s it exactly. I mean, that’s what’s going on right now so of course it’s going to be the subtext of the televised implosions Scott is describing. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the grown-up ideal that these shows showed unraveling was a bit of a misnomer. For one thing, it wasn’t really an universally American ideal at all (or at least not one available to anyone outside the straight, white middle class). Gender norms that assumed one, invariably male breadwinner did not extend to working class where pretty much everyone had to work.

    The same insular culture featured in Mad Men seemed pretty oblivious to the world at large, as well as the systemic injustices at home that were rapidly building towards an era-defining eruption. Indeed, that’s the whole point of the show. Draper et. al. can’t grasp the major cultural reckoning that’s about to suck them under.

    And then I came across this reply to Scott by Maria Bustillos. The essential bit was at the end, where she observed:

    Here we can connect our earlier claim that adulthood is a matter of less selfishness and more empathy. Because an adult who has moved beyond the imperatives of his own ego no longer needs to show that the people or things he admires meet some (actually) childish, ego-stroking standard of “adulthood”—nor of “coolness” or “discernment,” for that matter. An adult is a person whose existential center of gravity has moved out from himself and into the world; he naturally just gives more attention than he takes in. That is, he doesn’t need attention for himself any longer; he’s more interested in what’s outside himself.

    That’s why American culture is becoming more adult, rather than less. Educated Americans no longer think of their country as the center of the universe, but see their country as one among many; American novels, plays and stories seek a diversity of voices and opinions; same with the better American schools and workplaces. In my lifetime, despite some really terrible setbacks—in politics, especially—Americans have been slowly but steadily growing into the literal truth of the idea that all people are created equal, and that all voices should be heard.

    I realize this doesn’t answer the question, but it does say something about different kinds of audiences, what they expect, and what kind of work finds traction as a result.

  3. edith grove says:

    I always assumed the role of the critic was not to assign meaningless terms like good and bad, or enjoyable and unenjoyable, but to look somewhat deeper and try and establish what any particular artist or piece was trying to achieve, and why, and what that might mean in a larger context. It’s fairly obvious that there is a great human need to express ourselves. (Sometimes, to misquote Beckett, we have the need to express, even when we have nothing to express.) Because our race evolves slowly, our needs, desires, hopes and fears, differ little from generation to generation: People want to be safe, loved, love in return, and be heard. Some spend their time consumed with existential fear, others with religious epiphanies. To continually express these things requires that each generation find a new, fresh way of doing so. Commerce, which can always smell a buck in helping to provide this expression for ready consumption, tends (and I generalize) to want to make it as palatable for as many consumers as possible. Their job is to ‘turn revolt into a style.’ And the work of each generation of artists is to remove the sugar from the confection, and get back to something more primal – to a more simple and vital means of expression, which will once again seem fresh. The ‘British Invasion’ was a revolt against the saccharine lovesongs of Tin Pan Alley. It wasn’t conscious but when those guys heard Black Blues and R&B it sounded more authentic, and they wanted to feel that authenticity.
    Roy London observed that when Brando and Co. started ‘method acting’ it was shocking to see a man prepared to express such emotions – but within a decade every TV soap had taken that tool – so fresh in the hands of Brando – and blunted it.
    It is an age old circle as the arts move through new forms, trying to express the same things, but in a new way that will speak to now.
    I would be the last person to try and figure out what’s happening now culturally – it strikes me that we are going through a seismic change and will not be able to observe it until it is long behind us – but I’d throw three observations out there:
    Firstly, Marshall Macluhan predicted that with ‘the global village’ we would NOT see our similarities, but our differences, and that a Balkanization of culture would be created. It wouldn’t be geographic. And I think that has happened. The web allows us, more than ever, to tune into a world that we like, and ignore much else.
    Secondly, the word ‘art’ has radically changed it’s meaning. I went to art school in the late sixties, early seventies. To become an artist was on a par with becoming a priest: It was a calling. You might hope that you’d be the next Picasso or Pollock, but that was not the reason. You did it because you really couldn’t imagine doing anything else. To talk about art involved erudition. It wasn’t enough to be able to talk about who was selling now. One also had to be able to string a line of thought back from Warhol to Giotto. It wasn’t snobbery, or elitism, but more an deepfelt understanding that one was part of a tradition. (By the way, get any group of serious guitarists together and watch as the conversation turns towards guitars, amlifiers, past masters etc. – they do the exact same thing.) But ‘Fine Art’ became a commodity in the 80’s and its financial worth became completely confused with its cultural worth. Great art now means that which achieves the most at auction. This is a very silly mistake. Just look back at auction records over the 18th and 19th Centuries and look at the great masters who ‘fell out of fashion.’ 150 years ago you could have bought a Caravaggio for a song. I don’t know whether we will ever now parse out financial from cultural value.
    Thirdly and lastly, we have started to enter a world without objects. Much has been said about ‘virtual worlds’, little of it of interest and most of it fails to address the fact that virtual worlds do not exist… This may sound like a dumb observation, but what it means is that ANY SIMULACRUM OF THE PAST NO LONGER EXISTS. Stay with me here: I have, on my bookshelves many books and magazines from the past. Everything from their illustrations, method of assembly, quality of paper etc. actually describes the world they came from because THEY ARE AN ACTUAL PIECE OF THAT WORLD. That’s why we have museums. They allow us to time travel. Try going back to the web as it was when it started… People say ‘once things are on the web, they are there forever’ – but they are not. The presentation formats change daily. To go back there you’d need a clunky old modem that loaded pages in blocky lines and be able to find all those awful pages filled with bad typefaces and garish colours. That is what I mean by the past – that is actually what it looked and felt like. That is what we experienced. And it has gone. Poof.
    I am surrounded by younger people (who are, by the way, smart, engaged, witty and compassionate) who have almost nothing of their pasts. They were videotaped and photographed more than any previous generation – but a huge percentage of that info has ended up on dead drives or formats. All of their music, which they love, will, I’ll wager, meet a similar fate. Their iPads and Kindles store books which will also vanish. Is this good? Is this bad? I literally have no way of knowing. The old Taoist notion of ‘Be Here Now’ springs to mind as a positive – but I feel a discomfort that while they may be free from past expression, perhaps they will be doomed to replicate it, forever.

  4. Matt Taylor says:

    When first reading through this article, I almost wanted completely agree with all your points. That would have allowed me to be at peace with my own opinions, instead I’m now at constant odds with myself over the fact that I argued in defense of Honey Boo Boo. The place to start that will help frame my entire argument is the quote from Professor Jenkins; “Humans do not spend their time consuming or doing things that are meaningless to them.” Jenkins’ statement contains the core argument against the idea that detrimental culture exists. There will always be two contrasting sides in the debate over whether or not entertainment can be harmful to society. One is essentially Plato’s argument, stating that entertainment has the potential to poison minds and all members of a society are powerless to try and stop it, as they are unaware of its manipulation. The other side would take on Aristotle’s view and state that people have a certain level of common sense, which they maintain when interacting with entertainment, and entertainment can be cathartic for society. Skepticism and cynicism are always necessary however, when it comes to media content I take a more Aristotle approach. Even something as seemingly vapid as Honey Boo Boo can not only be cathartic but also allow viewers to develop their sense of self-identity through understanding their opinions on it, giving the show cultural value. You make an important distinction between entertainment and culture, where culture is something that ‘cultivates the soul’. If people in society interact with it, they produce it, consume it, it affects them on emotional and political levels, it’s cathartic and, it’s a topic constant of conversation, then entertainment must be culture. I disagree with the notion that Pawn Stars is not culture. Pawn Stars in particular is a show that many people discuss and interact with. Whether or not it challenges people to better themselves depends on who is watching and what they get out of interacting with it, but it certainly affects society enough for it to be deemed a part of culture.

    The other point I grappled with in trying to determine if entertainment can indeed be detrimental was we are living ‘not in a wonderland of diversity but a world of similarity’. Society has indeed chosen to gravitate toward media that is filtered and generalized, media that comes from large companies and appeals to large numbers of people. The value in this media isn’t necessarily the content itself, but why people want to consume it. We don’t need a great revolution to diversify the art landscape. We need to analyze content of popular media and study the people that consume it in order to understand its importance. The author deBoer quoted in this post also stated that “Beyonce is boring”. To society, and by extension anyone studying society, she is the opposite of boring. She may be another mass produced and commercialized product for people to easily consume but the fact that she influences masses of people and therefore culture drastically, makes her fascinating. Referencing the Alex Ross piece on what Adorno would think of modern society, he indeed would be disturbed by our domination by massified culture. However, if we take Aristotle’s view that people have common sense and are aware of what they consume, maybe people have started consuming mass-produced media on purpose. What shift in society has caused us to gravitate towards that? That is what we need to focus on.

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