I’m thinking a lot these days about popular culture, and how to compare it to high culture. Many people, I think, would assume that there’s some intrinsic difference. And if that’s true, we ought to be able to say what it is — we ought to be able to find some irreducible quality in any sample of popular culture, which wouldn’t be found in any sample of high culture. And samples of high culture, of course, would have some irreducible quality of their own, which wouldn’t be found in any example of popular culture. (Jump down three paragraphs, if you want to avoid some fairly abstract discussion of this, and get right to my main point.)
When I put it this baldly, the assumption seems fraught, to say the least. Would anyone really put money on being able to nail any quality so unanswerable and absolute? I tend to make the opposite assumption, that there’s really no irreducible difference between high and popular culture — no quality, present in any example of either that we might study — that we can unquestionably attribute to the high or popular status of what we’re looking at. We have to look (in my view) at individual cultural things — 1970s TV shows, 17th century operas, abstract expressionist paintings — and find out what their individual qualities are. We then could generalize (carefully!) from what we’d find.
Some people, of course, think the answer is simple, at least in a rough way. Popular culture is shoddy, shallow, and careless. This is easy to refute, as are so many hasty generalizations in the arts, by finding counterexamples. (It’s even easy to refute thoughtful generalizations, as the voluminous debate about the nature of a musical work can demonstrate. See Lydia Goehr’s essential book, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.)
But this is a labored introduction to a simple point. Some people, wanting to show how supposedly shallow popular culture is, will say that much of it is produced by formula. TV sitcoms would be a standard example.
So. I’ve been listening, on and off, to 18th century symphonies written by composers other than Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. That’s partly because I’ve written an 18th century-like symphony myself (more on that another time), and partly for other reasons, which concern someone else, so I won’t go into them here. And so the other night, driving from New York to the country, I put on a CD of symphonies by Leopold Kozeluch, who more or less ruled musical Vienna in Mozart’s time, and had such a high opinion of himself that he’d point out passages in Haydn that he himself, Kozeluch, thought Haydn shouldn’t have written.
In spite of that presumption, Kozeluch isn’t a bad composer at all. And as the first movement of the first symphony on the CD unfurled, I sort of leaned back in the driver’s seat, savoring all the standard sonata form moves. First subjects…transition…second subject in the dominant…
And then it hit me. What is all that, if not a formula? This summer I listened to 40 or so Haydn symphonies, from number 22 up through the late sixties. All of them follow various formulas (most noticeable in the minuet movements, of course, whose form seems just about invariable). And here was Kozeluch (just like Vanhal or Rosetti), using the same formulas. Of course I’ll get a big objection from the hardcore classical music crowd — it’s not the formula itself, they might say, but how you use it. And so why isn’t that true of a sitcom as well?
I’ll formulate my own principle. If you like a formula — or the artworks using it — you’ll look at how skillfully it’s used. If you don’t like it — or don’t like the works that use it — what you’ll mainly see is the formula itself. And you won’t like it. Which is perfectly fair. We all have our tastes.
But if you use the existence of a formula to bash an entire genre, that might be dirty pool. (I say “might be” because there surely are genres so ruled by formula that they’re largely hopeless — pornography, maybe. But even then, someone’s going to give m counterexamples, and I think it’s better to avoid the question completely, and not the existence of formulas as any criterion of aesthetic judgment. Especially since the genres you think are too formulaic are probably genres you haven’t spent much time examining!)