Tearing Down The High Culture / Pop Culture Pseudo-Hierarchy

by evanmcmurry

I’m with Jed Perl:

MOCA, Deitch, and Broad are part of a much larger catastrophe, a catastrophe that began in the last years of the last century, when Thomas Krens mounted a show at the Guggenheim in New York called “The Art of the Motorcycle.” Krens filled the ramp of Frank Lloyd Wright’s great rotunda with motorcycles, and mused at the press preview that he might or might not ride his own bike up the ramp. Don’t get me wrong. Motorcycles are beautiful. But “The Art of the Motorcycle” was not really about motorcycles. Krens was telling the world that all cultural institutions are pop culture institutions. He was a populist demagogue with an Upper East Side pulpit. He was preaching to the Wall Street types who were hankering for some cultural glamour, telling them it didn’t matter if they didn’t know or care what distinguished a Mondrian from a Kandinsky. Krens has been swept aside. But his message—make it dumb and then make it dumber—has been resonating around the world.

[…] The question is not pop culture versus high culture. We live in a world where there are many opportunities to experience pop culture and many fewer opportunities to experience painting and sculpture. In a wealthy society—and recession or no, this remains a wealthy society—why can’t there be a place dedicated to Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko, and Pollock? Is that such a sin?

Hey, replace museums with bookstores, motorcycles with Jonathan Lethem novels, and you’ve got a half-decent literary manifesto, too.

Seriously, Perl’s is an astute and crucial point, and it finally offers a substantive riposte to pop culture’s irritating claim to authenticity that’s so effectively exiled literary fiction (and art). You can’t suggest that perhaps people could read other books than Harry Potter, or maybe feature another book in their book club besides The Hunger Games, or gather famous minds together to discuss something other than Fifty Shades of Gray, without being called an elitist. To insist that literary fiction have a spot in the public consciousness is automatically interpreted as a proposal of a qualitative hierarchy. And everybody wants to play rebel by sneering at a caste system, even—especially—an imaginary one.*

But nobody’s saying that high culture must take precedence over pop culture; we’re saying that pop culture is plenty successful on its own, and it doesn’t need institutions that could be benefiting smaller, more independent, and, yes, more serious artists, to further endow its success. Popular discourse is finite and exclusive; if Feministe is discussing Hunger Games, or if Erica Jong is discussing Fifty Shades of Gray, then they’re not discussing The Vanishers, or By Blood, or Threats, or Other People We Married, or Why The Child Is Cooking In The Polenta, or any of the other books published this year by lesser-known, up-and-coming female writers who composed texts that didn’t start out as Twilight fan fiction.

This is not saying that one is more or less entitled than the other; it’s saying that since Fifty Shades of Gray already has every facet of capitalism working overtime on its behalf, we shouldn’t feel bad about petitioning for attention to be paid to other novels. In fact, we should, like Perl, demand it without shame. (via TNR)

* That pop culture products eternally benefit from this faux-hierarchy by using the strawman of high culture to excuse its flaws is a post for another time.