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Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Delights Of Popular Culture–What’s With Highbrow Anyway? We Are All Middlebrow

Noah Berlatsky, writing in The New Republic (10.13) lamented the demise of ‘true’ culture – that higher-level appeal to the most sophisticated and evolved tastes of society.  Such culture, he said, was being eroded if not destroyed by a popular culture which has no universally redeeming values, no intellectual foundation, and no purpose in a necessarily pedestrian life sorely in need of salvation.

Berlatsky’s plaint is a familiar one – America is losing its soul to popular culture.  We are a country more characterized by Las Vegas glitz, Hollywood, Beyoncé, throw-away fashion, and Happy Meals.  Intellectuals can only smile at America’s fancies and inanities.  If Americans were only more like the French, they say. Why haven’t they ever had a Sartre, Camus, or a New Wave?

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Berlatsky goes on:

What matters are these soulless, hollow, fungible icons, and the assurance that they will continue forever as around them all the mere humans effervesce like ghosts. This art isn't about empathy or love. Instead, it's about worship, about pledging fealty to our invented, charismatically uncaring, gods. Our corporate fictions offer the blank joy of not caring, whether about creators, actors, strangers, or ourselves.

With one final kick at corporate greed and its devilish distortion of empathy and good, Berlatsky dismisses popular culture for its divorce from meaning.  It has no purpose other than to entertain, and by resorting to pure entertainment – i.e. hollow men in tights and evil villains – it dumbs us down to the lowest possible level.  Where are the moral considerations of evil? Or the consequences of action? Or gender issues?

The argument, of course, denies the real vitality of American culture and the ineffable connection it has with millions of followers from Africa to the Arctic. If our culture is derivative, it is irresistible.  As much intellectuals would like to deny it, most of the world cares more about Iron Man than Kant.  More importantly this popular culture is far more seminal than any Left Bank reflections on being and nothingness.  It has gone viral,  and soon, with  America leading the way towards a virtual world where the very concept of reality is changing, personal fantasy, idealization, and make-believe will forevermore bury highbrow culture.

Classical music in the United States is dying.  According to a former violinist for the Metropolitan Opera, there are a number of signs:

¶The recent labor disputes of American orchestras due to decreased budgets and donor support.

¶The reduction or outright cancellation of Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic tours and concerts in the parks.

¶The demise of classical music radio stations across America.

¶The increased media focus on rock and pop superstars, while classical music managements have difficulty booking concerts for their artists. (NY Times, Letters to the Editor, 11.24.12)

As a result, most symphony orchestras rely on the canon – the fewer concert-goers there are, the more conservative they feel they must be.  Why take the chance of alienating both old and young with a complex Liszt or Benjamin Britten?  Ironically but not surprisingly, the more predictable and over-performed the music, the less people enjoy it and stay away in even greater numbers.

Western classical music suffers from many ills. Perhaps first and foremost, as suggested by the last point above, it is the very epitome of an archaic, irrelevant past – ‘dead white men’ in common parlance.  Most symphony orchestra rarely play any 20th century music, and even the sprightly Mozart cannot draw big audiences for whom an unbelievable array of modern, contemporary music and entertainment is available. Secondly, the venue – the concert hall – is as formal, deadening, and insufferably enclosed as can be.  Compare this to a rock concert.

Image result for images rock concerts

Now more than ever, with the ascendency and influence of Donald Trump, middle-brow popular culture has never been more important and universal. Gone are the days of Camelot where  Pablo Casals played at the White House, Robert Frost read his poetry at JFK’s inauguration, Jackie was the epitome of European grace, charm, and elegance.  Gone are the morally righteous days of Jimmy Carter who abhorred excess, preached parsimony and restraint; and gone are the days of George H.W. Bush, a patrician in the Roman style – generous, respectful, dutiful, and principled. In its place are gold bracelets, a rough-and-tumble macho braggadocio, a Jay Gatsby lifestyle, and a concentration of American power – not the political power that Robert Reich and his colleagues are used to but financial, retail, real estate, entertainment power all concentrated in one man.

The Trump years began as  soap opera. When would the Trump children start fighting over access to Father? Would Melania continue to live her life of luxury and privilege in New York, dismissing Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill, and press club events? Would her life be any different from the Hollande and Sarkozy wives and loves who came and went from the Elysees as they pleased?

Two years into the Trump presidency, the soap opera continues, episode after episode of jealousy, spite, family disputes, greed, ambition, and sex.  For the first time and once and for all, Americans have a president who truly represents them – not politically, but culturally.  Who would not want a trophy wife, mistresses, yachts, tropical resorts, glitz, bright lights and show.  Trump’s supporters knew from the beginning that this was man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the mean streets of New York, not one of hearings, legislation, lobbyists, and backdoor deals.  They knew that they were electing a showman and a vaudevillian; and that 1600 Pennsylvania would become the center of a three-ring circus.  Only the pundits are surprised and nonplussed, still smarting from Trump’s surprising victory and still unsure how to cover him.

Trump press conferences, reviled by the Left and the establishment media, are watched by ordinary Americans, not because they will learn anything substantial about policy, but because of the performance?  Gone is Clinton’s judicious parsing of language, the careful and thoughtful evasion of pointed questions, the respectful demeanor.  Americans tune in because they want to see Trump fire people, yell at insolent reporters, storm in and out.  Anyone who thinks that just because Donald Trump is President he will change his ways is just whistlin’ Dixie.

The reason why Turkish soap operas are so popular is not because of the beauty of the female leads (stunning), the suspense of the cannily-devised plots, the comeuppance of the bad, the recognition of righteousness and right action, and the victory of love; but because what happens every week in Istanbul can happen anywhere in America whether on Wall Street, Washington, or Dubuque….Especially Washington, for Turkish tales of greed, ambition, and impossibly immoral action could only happen here.

Image result for images kara para ask

Americans  watch the Trump soap opera with as much delightful anticipation as they do Kara Para Aşk.  They have have willingly suspended belief, disassociated themselves from the supposedly ‘serious’ development and dénouement of the events in Washington, and are as devoted to the American serial as Turks are to theirs.  What will happen to Elif?  Will she escape the malicious set-up engineered by her uncle and aunt? Will Omer solve the case and win Elif’s heart? Will the dastardly be caught and put behind bars?  Will Trump be caught in a web of lies, sabotaged by his own confidants, exposed for all his wrongdoings and evil intent?

Donald Trump loves all of this – he is the center-stage, high-stepping vaudevillian, carny barker, trapeze artist, and sideshow attraction all rolled into one.  He loves the attention, and loves it even more when his critics cry for blood.  His critics, schooled as they are in old, archaic modes of opposition (policy, logic, defined purpose, values) are hopelessly outmatched.  They refuse to wrestle in his ring, object to his rules, and are beaten before they enter the arena.
What is the point of living in Washington, after all, if it isn’t for the grand guignol of national politics.  Washington is center stage, not for serious political inquiry or debate, but for melodrama, soap opera tears and remorse, and best of all vengeance, vendetta, and retribution.

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As much as the elite Eastern Establishment would like to hope otherwise, we are a middlebrow nation, dismissive of intellectual pretention, and solidly rooted in popular culture – a culture which has emerged from the populace, never imposed, and always subject to whim, fancy, and fickle preference.  We Americans fled Europe four hundred years ago exactly to escape cultural feudalism, the imposition not only of state religion but state culture.  In America there were no academies of right thinking, not arbiters of expression or cultural preference, no historical determinism.  America’s pop culture is so popular here and abroad because of its democracy.  We all are no different from the actors on As The World Turns or Dallas.  We need no canon, no Louis XIV, no Oxford, Sorbonne, no Medicis or Tudors.  Human nature is simple – self-serving, defensive, territorial, jealous, ambitious, and expansive – and the great fun is seeing it played out in its infinite variety, not looking for insights.

Fewer and fewer Americans are content to sit on their hands at an Elgar concert, stand respectfully before a Picasso or Rembrandt, or read Proust and Joyce.  Most of us want some fun out of life.  People Magazine, E!, and Entertainment Today are our preferred reading.  Soap operas are preferred viewing, and sound-and-light performances our preferred way to spend a Saturday night.

So be it and bravo for it.  American popular culture is an expression of our history, our spirit, our democracy, and our unassailable individualism.

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