Perversity

The intellectually tireless arranger, composer, saxophonist, leader and writer Bill Kirchner called to my attention an important essay by Martha Bayles. Under the same artsjournal.com umbrella as Rifftides, Ms. Bayles is the proprietor of Serious Popcorn, a web log devoted to film. Her March 31, 2005 piece titled “The Perverse in the Popular” touches on matters of interest to anyone concerned about the size of the audience for serious art and about the quality of music, movies, television, and the internet as a source of entertainment. Here are two excerpts:

The entertainment industries are full of cultivated, intelligent people who think about their work in a much more traditional way than academics do. Recording artists ponder melody and rhythm; film and television scriptwriters wrestle with plot and dialogue; production designers worry about color, texture, and line; actors and directors compare themselves with admired predecessors in film and theater. The language these people speak is a craft language, directly descended from that of the older performing arts. In other words, each craft has its own center of excellence.
These people understand the depredations of commerce. But they also strive for that rare prize, the chart or ratings or box office success that is also a work of art. Such miracles don’t happen every day, or even every year. But they do happen. And what’s more, they last. In this time of dispute over the elite cultural canon, there is surprising agreement about what belongs in the canon of popular culture. The songs of Cole Porter, the compositions of Duke Ellington, the films of John Ford, the comic strips of Walt Kelly, the novels of Dashiell Hammett, and the 39 episodes of The Honeymooners that ran on CBS between 1955 and 1956 are just some of the works now described, without irony, as classic.

Perverse modernism would be a nonstarter today without obscenity. Gone are the days when audiences could be provoked by free verse, loose brush strokes, pounding rhythms, or vivid descriptions of lovemaking. In America, most people accept the right of the artist to do whatever he or she wants, because they know all too well that even if some fussbudget tries to drag an artist into court, the law contains a loophole big enough to drive a Hummer through. If 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty As They Wanna Be,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, and other controversial landmarks of the past 20 years can all be said to have “serious artistic value” in the eyes of the law, then blood-soaked video games and pornographic Web sites are home free.

You can read Ms. Bayles’s entire piece here. It ran originally in The Wilson Quarterly, a fact that makes me think it is time to resubscribe to that valuable little journal.

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