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Hierarchal Sobriety

Posted by acdtest on November 18, 2003

Hierarchal Sobriety

K. I confess it. My repeated references on this weblog to pop trash are but a rhetorical gesture; a raw, slap-in-the-face device intended to get one’s attention in the spirit of that seemingly deathless exhortation urging one to “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Confronted on a daily basis with the pervasive, ubiquitous, and enthusiastic acceptance of the artifacts of contemporary popular culture as embodying the normative aesthetic of our age, not only by the masses but by the cultural elite as well, one can perhaps be forgiven for resorting to such desperate measures. Desperate measures for desperate times, after all.

While by and large I’m hardly fond of the artifacts of contemporary popular culture — most of them empty of substantive content, and aesthetically vulgar or vapid beyond tolerance — I’m not in the least prevented thereby from recognizing the aesthetic value inherent in the best of them, even though not to my tastes. While I’ve, for instance, a hearty appetite for classic (New Orleans) jazz, I’ve little taste for the contemporary sort. Strange to tell for a trained musician, I don’t really understand it, can’t get my mind around it. But neither my distaste nor my lack of real understanding prevents me from recognizing instantly that the best of contemporary jazz possesses genuine aesthetic and musical value. Ditto, mutatis mutandis, and for another instance, the best of contemporary art (painting).

Truth be told, my real objection is not to the artifacts of contemporary popular culture per se, but to the growing absence of a fundamental aesthetic distinction and hierarchy of aesthetic value between such artifacts and the artifacts of high culture (typically so-called to distinguish it from the popular sort). In my view, and contrary to contemporary thinking, there is such a distinction, a very real one, and no meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting the two can be erected except on the merest technical and taxonomic grounds.

There is no aesthetic continuum connecting a Warhol and a Rembrandt although both are technically and taxonomically works of art (paintings). There is no aesthetic continuum connecting the haunting “Eleanor Rigby” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” although both are technically and taxonomically songs. There doesn’t even exist an aesthetic continuum connecting so excellent an example of popular music as Bernstein’s overture to the Broadway musical West Side Story and, say, the overture to Der Freischütz although both are technically and taxonomically introductory music to a largely sung stage work. (I’ve here, on the popular culture side, adduced popular culture “classics” as examples even though strictly speaking none belong to contemporary popular culture.)

In each case, although technically and taxonomically the same, the contemporary popular culture and high culture artifacts inhabit two separate realms, and can no more be compared on the same aesthetic continuum than can the proverbial apples and oranges be compared on the continuum of things-that-one-can-eat-that-grow-on-trees.

So what is it that constitutes the separation between the artifacts of the realms of contemporary popular culture and high culture; a separation so marked as to preclude any meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting them? I suspect the full answer to that question would require a book-length treatise to define and argue convincingly, and I’m neither inclined nor competent to even attempt such a thing. Instead I’ll merely risk the suggestion that what separates the artifacts of the two realms is embodied in the matter of transcendence, an admittedly highfalutin, high culture term, and one referring to what is itself an aesthetically and philosophically slippery concept.

But we won’t let that little consideration stop us from plunging ahead.

The singular hallmark of all artifacts of high culture is their aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture which produced them, and even of their very selves as works of Art. And that singular hallmark is what’s singularly lacking in all the artifacts of contemporary popular culture, their singular hallmark being an aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining.

Please note, I did not say all the artifacts of high culture lack entertainment value, nor that all such are transcendent. Clearly, only the greatest are. Rather, I said that, in themselves (as distinct from the intentions of their creators), their distinguishing characteristic is that they have the quality of aspiring to transcendence. That quality is unmistakable, and can be sensed almost palpably even in, say, the simplest cassation of Mozart’s even though Mozart himself intended such merely as an entertainment. Or, say, the sketchiest sketch of Michelangelo’s even though the artist himself may have just been idly doodling. There can be no meaningful aesthetic comparison of works that occupy such a realm with works that occupy a realm where their just as unmistakable and almost palpably sensed quality is their aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining. The former seem to be saying, “I am what I will be. Take me or leave me”; the latter, “I’ll be whatever you want me to be. Love me.”

Well, there’s surely nothing wrong about a work whose principal signal is that it merely wants to be popularly entertaining, and I don’t mean to suggest there is. What I’m suggesting is that, as there can be no meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting such works with works whose principal signal is their aspiration to transcendence, we drop the currently fashionable postmodern fiction that the works of both classes are fundamentally equals in the hierarchy of aesthetic value, and differ only in their details. Seems to me no more revolutionary or reactionary a suggestion than suggesting, say, that we drop the currently fashionable and comforting if manifestly false multicultural notion that all cultures differ only in their details, but are otherwise of fundamentally equal value.

In short, all I’m suggesting is a return to hierarchal sobriety.

And now that I’ve outted myself on this matter of contemporary popular culture, it seems I’ve also cleverly managed to dispossess myself of a useful rhetorical locution.

How very careless of me.

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