There was a slightly bizarre article about ‘elitism’ and popular culture in the New York Times a couple of days ago. At least I thought it was bizarre, but I don’t know, maybe it’s not, maybe I’m the one who’s bizarre. Or elitist. Or both.
Elitist pop-culture critics must, in the end, be mindful of what large numbers of people actually see and read and listen to. Because the underlying mythology of pop culture is still the idea that the approval of large numbers of people validates that culture and the society that produces it. If something is truly loved by millions of people, it has touched those people, has tapped into some stream of universality that indicates a life force attenuated in more elitist art…No single work of art can appeal to everyone. But when a movie like “Titanic” is seen all over the world, it suggests that its director, James Cameron, has reached down to artistic bedrock. Or when people throughout the United States, watching at home on their isolated television screens, are riveted by the final episode of “Sex and the City,” that helps bind us together.
Um…a movie like ‘Titanic’? He couldn’t have come up with a better example than that? Because I gotta tellya, the fact that that movie was seen all over the world (and multiple times by girls age 12-15) doesn’t suggest to me that James Cameron has reached down to artistic bedrock (whatever that might mean). But then I guess I don’t have to buy that idea, because I also don’t buy the idea that the approval of large numbers of people ‘validates’ anything, frankly. Whatever ‘validates’ might mean. No – I’m afraid I hold the heretical view that even large numbers of people can be wrong about things. Maybe I’m too familiar with opinion polls and surveys – you know, the ones that say 47% of Americans think human beings were created by the deity six thousand years ago, and 90% of us (or is it 95, or 99) believe in a personal god. Not to mention whatever enormous percentage it is that can’t find the US on a map, and doesn’t know what century the Civil War took place in, and don’t know who the Allies were in WWII. But that’s only part of it. There’s also the fact that tastes change, and that some kinds of taste or appreciation are cumulative and are not universally taught, and that mawkish sentimentality for instance can have very broad appeal but that doesn’t make it good, or even ‘validate’ it.
There’s a sly equation that often gets made or assumed in these discussions. The fact that the popular is not automatically bad becomes another fact (which is not a fact) that says the popular is automatically good. But guess what, those are two different ideas and the one doesn’t follow from the other. But dang the people who like to beat up on putative elitists sure rely on it heavily – as Stephen King did in his notorious recent outburst at the National Book Awards.
And as for being bound together by the final episode of – oh well. I suppose I know what he means about that. However reluctantly. I have to admit I was pleased when ‘The West Wing’ once made a big fuss about the fact that they were going to re-run the show that the public had voted their favourite – and I watched, curious to see if I had the same favourite as other people, and found that I did. Okay, I like to be like other people once in awhile, as long as it’s not too often. As long as it’s not too often and not too ridiculous – but I’ll be damned if I’m going to like ‘Titanic’!