I intend to use this blog as a platform for my daily thoughts on a variety of topics. I welcome comments, objections, and questions.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Intellectual vs. Popular Culture

This topic has come up a few times in conversations lately, and I have been itching to write about this since I saw John Williams conduct the New York Philharmonic two weeks ago. The topic is the apparent divide between intellectual culture and pop culture. Think of the divide in film, for example, between extremely popular summer blockbusters and the "independent" films of movie festivals. I think the entire topic requires a substantial writing effort, but I'd just like to get some thoughts out here as a start. In this post I plan to argue in partial defense of the best elements of popular culture.

Ayn Rand provided a great deal of structure to this divide in several of her non-fiction works, but most particularly in The Romantic Manifesto. In her terms,
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments. An artist recreates those aspects of reality which represent his fundamental view of man and of existence. In forming a view of man's nature, a fundamental question one must answer is whether man possesses the faculty of volition--because one's conclusions and evaluations in regard to all the characteristics, requirements, and actions of man depend on the answer.

Their opposite answers to this question constitute the respective basic premises of two broad categories of art: Romanticism, which recognizes the existence of man's volition--and Naturalism, which denies it.

In the field of literature, the logical consequences of these basic premises (whether held consciously or subconsciously) determine the form of the key elements of a literary work. (The Romantic Manifesto: pg .99)
In other words,
of all the possible things to focus on in the entire realm of the universe, the artist chooses to recreate a concrete sum based on its metaphysical importance. That is, the basic philosophy of an artist has a very strong impact on the focus and nature of his work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Rand, she firmly believed that modern philosophy had gone completely astray. Reason was no longer accepted as the proper means of knowledge, free will was believed to be an illusion, altruism and collectivism reigned supreme, capitalism was dying as a political ideology, and suffering was believed to be the natural state of human existence.

She also believed that philosophy was ultimately the primary mover of human events and thus had a profound impact on a society at large. But the way in which this impact would influence a society was split based on how philosophy is received by different elements of the population. Intellectuals were likely to be influenced quickly and directly, as they were reading new philosophy as it came out. The "average" person on the other hand, who did not concern himself with reading philosophy texts, would be gradually influenced over a long period of time, indirectly, as this new philosophy trickled down through art, political speeches, religious leaders, and so on. This phenomenon can be seen in terms of the divide between those in the "ivory tower" and those in the masses, so to speak.

So, if art is highly influenced by philosophy, it would stand to reason that the more intellectually connected artists would be influenced by more modern philosophy; whereas pop culture would retain more "traditional" values. Here is a brief summation of these values, as they existed in the popular culture:
Whatever their conscious convictions, the artists of that [the nineteenth] century's great new school--the Romanticists--picked their sense of life out of the cultural atmosphere: it was an atmosphere of men intoxicated by the discovery of freedom, with all the ancient strongholds of tyranny--of church, state, monarchy, feudalism--crumbling around them, with unlimited roads opening in all directions and no barriers set to their newly unleashed energy.
In other words, the artistic culture of Romanticists was based on popular beliefs in things like the supremacy of reason, the virtue of freedom, and the optimistic heroism of the human will to be able to achieve anything. The intellectual elite of the time, however, were arguing the exact opposite, and this was reflected in art the most connected with contemporary philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged
is one of the best examples of this divide. It was blasted by critics, particularly for its technical flaws (in the writing style) and for its "awful" philosophy; but, it remains as one of the most popular books in American history. (It recently experienced a jump to #32 on the bestseller list in fact, after a front-page article in the business section of the New York times). That is a fantastic number for a 50 year old book. (Even #388, where it was before the jump, is good considering that fact).

Rand was writing about the artistic trends of the mid 20th century, but I think that this philosophical divide between intellectual and pop culture still exists today. I'll provide some examples to demonstrate what I'm talking about.

In film, compare Memento to Independence Day. In the former, all of the subsidiary characters are clearly immoral, trying to manipulate and deceive the main character for various reasons. The main character himself, gravely affected by anterograde amnesia, is barely able to function and is almost entirely a slave to his environment. The efficacy of free will is clearly questioned and the universe is presented as a malevolent force preventing one from achieving values. Along with these philosophical values, though, is a truly brilliant technical form. The acting, plot, the unique progression of events, and the cinematography are all brilliant.

Independence Day
, however, presents a world in which human beings are confronted with a terrible disaster, but use their reason to devise a solution. The film triumphs in the power of the human mind and will to conquer even one of the most horrible events imaginable - full-scale alien invasion. It's extremely heroic, optimistic, and joyful. It is also technically awful in several ways. The acting and a few of the characters are sometimes ridiculous and cliche, the film is an obvious "re-imagining" of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and so on.

Another good contrast can be found in television between the new Battlestar Galactica and South Park. In the former, all of the characters are miserable, they exist in a malevolent universe, the entire human race is victim to constant and unexpected attacks by an enemy bent on their complete destruction, and so on. But again, it is technically amazing. The acting is top-rate, every episode is visually stunning, and the plot is quite compelling.

South Park by contrast, is unbelievably crude, offensive, and poorly written. But the philosophical messages of the majority of episodes, especially those involving political satire, are brilliant.

Take Star Trek: The Next Generation as another example. Obviously, it's not literary genius. But what is the basic philosophy behind it? Human beings are masters at using the reasoning mind to solve any problem. In the future, we will use those minds to not only transform Earth but colonize new planets and transform the Solar System and well beyond. The optimism about human nature contained in this simple television show is nearly unparalleled in any other art that I am aware of. That is also exactly how I feel about John Williams. While technically lacking the broad strokes of a master like Brahms or Beethoven, the heroism and philosophy of Williams' music is triumphant, dare I say, perhaps more so than either of them.

Another good representation of this phenomenon comes through with so-called "feel good" movies. By definition, the movies are not intellectually engaging, but they are triumphant and heroic, or positive about human nature in some other fashion. They are usually blasted by critics but widely praised by the general public.

There are so many examples of this divide, in every medium of art, that I feel like an entire book could be written on the subject. But I should also point out, that when I am praising popular culture for its philosophical value (albeit expressed in crude form), I am referring only to the
best of that culture. Sadly, there are an increasing number of examples of popular culture that have no redeeming value, technically or philosophically. (Rap music, most reality TV, and television news come to mind, for example).

Another interesting issue evolves from this distinction between aesthetically good/philosophically bad art and vice versa. In judging art, should technical merits be more important or less important than the ideological component? My answer is that the best examples of art combine the two perfectly. (The first example that comes to mind is
V for Vendetta). I do greatly appreciate both qualities, however, when one or the other is lacking in a work of art. Battlestar Galactica is in fact one of my favorite television shows, because of the technical brilliance and despite the often terrible philosophy. The same goes for Independence Day despite its obvious crudeness. Ultimately though, I respond the most positively to art that shares my basic sense of life and philosophy. While I enjoy something like Battlestar Galactica quite a bit, it does not compare to the sense of uplifted reverence that I get from the experience of art that shares my basic philosophy. But as long as I recognize my enjoyment of both types of art for different reasons, I avoid the problem of competing standards.

There are so many other respects in which this divide between intellectual and popular is incredibly interesting. A few that come to mind are the importance of the physical vs. the mental, the enjoyment of sports vs. more "civilized" pursuits, and contemporary philosophy vs. common sense.

I hope these thoughts have been illuminating. By no means do I consider this a complete defense of popular culture. It is rather a look at how there are elements of popular culture
superior to those of "intellectual" culture. Even in that it is not really complete. At any rate, I hope those of you actually reading this have enjoyed these thoughts.


A Rational Egoist said...

Here's a comment posted to this post on facebook, and my response:

You are comparing one thing in pop culture to another (Memento versus Independence Day; South Park versus Battlestar Gallactica) - you're not really referencing intellectual culture here. I still think it's really hard to make the generalization that pop culture is better. It's easy to come up with hundreds of examples of both fantastic and atrocious values being shown in pop culture and high culture. I believe this calls for a statistical test ;) I will admit that both heroism and happiness seem to be viewed as outdated in many intellectual spheres - which is, admittedly, disappointing.


I think there's still some confusion in the distinction I made, and I think that's my fault for not being entirely clear. By "intellectual culture" I do not necessarily mean that which only a small handful of people have seen. The distinction is qualitative, not quantitative. If it were quantitative, I could see how all my examples seem like instances of "popular" culture.

The distinction lies between art that is loved for its technical virtues by critics but not in-sync with traditional philosophical values with art crude technically but laced with a "feel-good" kind of message. The examples I used were not ideal, especially since Memento is both praised by critics and popular (but then again, all I know is that it's popular among college students that are a bit more intellectual than the average population). I just may supplement the post with some new examples at some point.

But most importantly, I am absolutely not trying to argue that pop culture is better! Such a statement would entail that everything in popular culture (including reality TV, rap music, and soap operas) is better than intellectual culture. That's just obviously absurd.

Solely from a technical standpoint, the overwhelming majority of "intellectual" culture is superior to that of pop culture. (I should clarify that by intellectual culture I mean the kind of art displayed in art shows and film festivals, but also, art accessible to a wide audience that happens to be praised by critics).

What I am arguing is that despite expressed in cruder form, several pieces of "popular" art contain implicit philosophical values far superior to contemporary intellectual culture. That's another thing to really stress. I am not attempting to compare South Park to Beethoven, or any other comparison that spans such a wide gap in time or artistic medium.

That is what I was trying to say towards the end of the post. It's not really possible to directly compare artistic worth based on two different categories of judgment. Technical virtue and philosophical virtue in pieces of art are almost like apples and oranges. I do have a stronger emotional response to art that shares my philosophical values, but emotions are not the accurate standard of judgment for art, or anything for that matter!

By the way, you should add several other things that are considered "outdated" by the intellectual elite: selfishness (though that doesn't really count, since I don't know a period in which that quality ever was accepted by intellectuals, hehe), integrity, justice, morality being black and white, etc.

A Rational Egoist said...

Here's another comment and response from facebook to the original post:


I really think you are confused with this "solely from a technical standpoint" stuff. If your philosophy accurately describes ultimate reality, then what is this "technical standpoint" that you are talking about?

My Response:

"Triumph of the Will" is a brilliantly constructed documentary that, as you probably know, was one of the highlights of Nazi propaganda at the height of their regime. The documentary is widely applauded for its innovations in camera direction and cinematography. These virtues, along with acting, plot structure, editing, costume/set design, and so on, make up the "technical standpoint" that I am referring to in regards to film and television.

There are similar examples in other artistic mediums. A lot of the best art of the Renaissance depicts religious symbols (which obviously I have problems with philosophically), portraits of tyrannical rulers, and scenes from brutal and unjust wars. A lot of the best composers of classical music were devoutly religious and poured religious themes into their music. Ein Deutsches Requiem of Johannes Brahms is perhaps one of the most brilliant pieces ever written, despite its philosophical bend.

In sum, there are two separate standards for judging art: the message of the work and the means by which the message is conveyed.

As I said, the best art is brilliant by both standards. Unfortunately however, such art is quite rare. And, it's still appropriate to enjoy the virtuous elements of an artwork despite a lack of perfection.