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Era Of The Woodenheads

Posted by acdtest on January 8, 2003

Era Of The Woodenheads

or anyone even marginally attuned, it will come as no news that over the past three decades what has been termed high culture in the arts has, with geometrically increasing effect, been overrun, if not to the point of extinction, nearly so, by the ravaging pandemic of pop culture. None of the arts has been spared: neither music, literature, painting, nor the plastic arts. All have been contaminated, and all succumbed to greater or lesser degree. What is perhaps most dismaying is that, having succumbed, all seem to have embraced and reveled in the succumbing as if given a new lease on life — a little like one stricken with cancer welcoming the disease, its progress, and its ineluctable terminal consequence.

How did this happen, and who’s to blame? Beyond the manifest evidence that its proximate beginnings date to the radical upheavals of the late 1960s, it would take a cultural historian and anthropologist of uncommon gift and insight to determine the full answer to the former question. But one doesn’t have to be a specialist, or look very deep or very far to provide competent answer to the latter. The evidence is abundant, pervasive, and all too clear. The culprits are those very persons who ought to have been high culture’s greatest advocates and staunchest protectors and defenders: The cultural elite, who by dint of native intellect, education, training, and tastes refined over years of wide-ranging study and experience, are at least presumed to know better than most. Instead of leading the fight against the invading barbarian hordes, however, they welcomed, nay, even supported and encouraged them, all in the name of cultural equalitarianism with its concomitant hypocritical charade of the disavowal of elitism in all its forms and manifestations.

It’s been, and remains still, a genuinely appalling spectacle, and in character if not strict substance eerily akin to the appalling spectacle chronicled to savage effect, but with clear-eyed vivisectional precision and distance, by Tom Wolfe in his brilliant 1971 book, Radical Chic, which chronicled an embodiment of the era: The grotesque Beautiful People soiree held in the late 1960s by the celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein and his wife — Bernstein, that Man of the People and publicly avowed Lefty who was in fact a card-carrying Beautiful Person, the Beautiful People’s darling, and an egomaniac and elitist of the very first water — to raise money in support and to the benefit of that band of radical activist criminals the Black Panthers and their thuggish party.

The present capitulation by the cultural elite, the center (but, unhappily, not the circumference) of which is to be found in the humanities departments of academe, has produced a cultural attitude now all too prevalent; an anti-intellectual, ignorant, and risibly woodenheaded attitude such as expressed in perverse epitome in the following little gem plucked from an entry on a popular weblog (quoted here in extenso because I’d otherwise surely be suspected of quoting out of context to my advantage, and the name of the author of which I omit as an act of charity) which gem attacked a short but fairly brilliant if mildly rhetorical London Times piece by historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto published some time ago that despite its ostensible target(s) is at bottom an argument against the pervasive and massive triumph of pop culture worldwide:

The author [Fernandez-Armesto] of the piece believed the Lord of the Rings, and sci-fi/fantasy in general, to be a degenerate form of literature that’s helping to destroy Western Civilization as we know it by poisoning young minds and diverting attention away from the real classics.


We’ve seen this particular play act itself out before when Star Wars was first released. It was a cultural phenomenon that prompted pompous boors to lift their noses up from their dusty books for a moment to denounce the movie as trash, before returning to the classical works they hold in such high esteem. Those academics and their words have faded from memory. Star Wars endures.

The number of stories and themes that can be employed in literature is finite. The trick is in the execution. Mr. Fernandez-Armesto is an intelligent man, but what he fails to realize is that his preference for classical authors and their works is merely a matter of taste. He prefers their execution of the basic tales over those who write in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and then mistakes his preference for classical literature for superiority of the material itself. His claims naturally stem from vanity and arrogance. What’s worse, he believes that what is older is necessarily better. Mr. Fernandez-Armesto is indeed a learned man, but wisdom yet eludes him.

The whole argument itself is rather pointless once you realize that people are arguing the superiority of their preferences rather than the merits of the material. The question I’ve yet to see anyone ask is, “What does it matter if someone prefers fantasy over Plato or would rather learn Klingon than Greek?” What’s more important, the work itself or what someone takes away from that work? Taken by themselves, things like Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare’s Hamlet are mere exercises in vanity on the part of their respective authors. They have no inherent importance in and of themselves until someone reads them and imbues them with meaning and importance. Plenty of people attempt to read Plato’s Republic, but take nothing away from it. Has the book served its purpose? Of course not. It’s neither enriched nor enlightened the reader. On the other hand, plenty of people read Stephen King and find their lives, in whatever degree, enriched and their horizons expanded. Has The Stand served its purpose? Yes. Whose work, then, is superior? It depends upon the reader. If his life is enhanced and enriched by a particular style of fiction, than that style is superior as far as that individual is concerned. If a book or a film can take a person to places he’s never been and make him think something new or see something an entirely different way, that that piece of fiction has served its purpose and is by default superior to any work that cannot accomplish that feat. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, when they wrote it, how they wrote it or what they were writing about.

[All emphases mine.]

See? What is and what is not genuine literature, and worthwhile and of importance, is only a matter of personal preference. The works of Shakespeare are “mere exercises in vanity” on Shakespeare’s part. It’s the reader who “imbues [the works] with meaning,” not Shakespeare, and if readers take away more from Stephen King than they do from Shakespeare, why, then, King is superior to Shakespeare. It’s all relative, and the reader, not the work, is the measure.

As absurd as those contentions are, they express notions currently held, or at least publicly professed, by a significant majority of the cultural elite, although none would be fool enough to state things as crudely and mindlessly as did the jejune author of that weblog post. But stated crudely and mindlessly, or subtly and with finesse, they’re still the same idiot notions.

Is there a way out of this mess? Will the art of high culture and its study and appreciation go extinct, and pop culture trash prevail? Will the proper caretakers wrest control back from the inmates of the asylum that is academe’s humanity departments? Will the genuine intellectuals finally triumph, or will they finally cede completely the field to the woodenheads?

Beats me.

Stay tuned.


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