February 5, 2005

The high art of pop culture

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:42 pm

Hypocrisy dwells deep within me and plagues my soul.

On the one hand, I preach the importance of creating, participating in and celebrating the arts in our everyday lives. I despise elitism in the arts. I cringe when I run into someone who feels Artist A is more worthy of time, attention and financial reward than Artist B simply because a handful of snobs gave Artist A some wall space in a chic metropolitan gallery. I wince when opera is held up as a higher musical pursuit than doing Broadway shows. I particularly dislike when the world of dance is broken down into echelons ranging from classical ballet to street dancing. And I abhor when the art forms of Western civilization get more credence than the splendors of other cultures.

On the other hand, I am an elitist myself, particularly when in comes to the dreadful direction in which American popular culture is heading. It feels like the bar is set very low right now for American music, movies, theater and television. For instance, the “American Idol” phenomenon alone could be a sign of the Apocalypse, at least from an arts perspective. From what I can tell from one viewing during the first season, millions of Americans idolize young, hip-looking people who can adequately carry a tune loudly. “American Idol” has spurred myriad ruminations about how I must be more highly evolved than the lowest common denominator faithfully sitting in front of tube each week.

I’ve been reading a portion of “Common Culture: Symbolic work at play in the everyday cultures of the young” by Paul Willis, a professor of Social and Cultural Ethnography at Keele University in Staffordshire, England. His words mirror both my Jekyll and Hyde halves.

My Hyde self is ashamed when Willis describes “The institutions and practices, genres and terms of high art are currently categories of exclusion more than inclusion…If some things count as ‘art,’ the rest must be ‘non-art.’ Because ‘art’ is in the ‘art gallery,’ it can’t therefore be anywhere else. It is that which is special and heightened, not ordinary and everyday. The arts establishment, by and large, has done little to dispel these assumptions. It prefers instead to utilize or even promote fears of cultural decline and debasement in order to strengthen its own subsidy, institutional protection and privilege. In general the arts establishment connives to keep alive the myth of the special, creative individual artist holding out against passive mass consumerism, so helping to maintain a self-interested view of elite creativity.”

Ouch! Professor Willis just shoved me in with all the snooty snoots I purport to despise. But Jekyll gets out the cheerleading pom-poms when Willis goes on to discuss his theory of symbolic creativity. He defines symbolic creativity as the multitude of ways in which young people in particular “use, humanize, decorate and invest with meanings their common and immediate life spaces and social practices.” Willis says symbolic creativity is expressed through personal style, selection of clothing, TV shows, music, print media, room décor, dancing, drama or music-making. Willis says these pursuits are not trivial or inconsequential because “symbolic creativity is not only a part of everyday human activity, but also a necessary part.”

Since I whole-heartedly agree that art and creativity are a vital part of everyday human existence, I am re-examining my elitist tendencies in terms of Willis’ assertions. Everyone’s artistic inclinations are completely individual, which is what makes the world an interesting place. Right now, much of American pop culture may not be speaking to me, but it did 10 years ago, and it may again in another 10 years. I don’t have to be elitist about it, but rather speak the mantra “Not everyone is like Christina.” It would be very boring if America were a country full of Christinas.

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