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!)
Isn’t the existence of ‘formula’ or convention what powers all aesthetic production? Perhaps what makes a work ‘great’ in any art is when it uses convention or formula only as a path to transcend the formula. All classical period works rely on creating expectations and then smashing them with a surprise (for a clear example immediately in mind, think the first movement Beethoven’s violin concerto which modulates from D Major NOT to a restatement in the Dominant but to a restatement briefly in C major, modulating immediately to B minor and then going on from there…)–the classical sonata form was itself a modified formula from the baroque ritornellos, etc. Or for non musical examples take Keats’ odes or Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The pop culture — high culture divide doesn’t come from formulas. Perhaps two ways to distinguish it are 1) commodification — pop culture is geared towards mass production, with the goal of high sales influencing the content of the cultural product itself and thereby adulterating it or perhaps even making it more formulaic; and 2) the pop culture — high culture divide (Perhaps better conceived with the terms high brow-low brow?)is not inherent in the artwork but in the exclusionary intent of its consumers: that is, ‘high culture’ can only be distinguished by its preference by the ruling class as a way to distinguish themselves from other classes.
This is why high culture in its many forms often requires a degree of connoisseurship — frequent acquaintance with the music, education (both history and custom–think rules such as no clapping between movements), etc, that can help separate those with the resources to achieve this connoisseurship from those without. See the work of sociologist Paul DiMaggio for an examination along these lines of the creation of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts in the late 19th century.
An interesting post.
When I heard Arriaga’s symphony, I thought immediately of Gossec’s hunt symphony. This could be minor artists using similar forms and idioms, or it could be one great artist paying sophisticated homage to another.
The distinctions in popular culture versus its highbrow counterpart can be either subtle or massive depending on what medium one speaks of; a sort of “artistic relativism” if you will. Clearly the differences between rap and poetry are clear, but music is not as clear because it is not nearly as based around concepts or ideas (although it can be, of course) as poetry is.
I believe that, when people complain about popular culture being “formulaic”, they do so with implications about the content. To be sure, classicism and neoclassicism are formulaic, but only structurally. They work within a form. The common popcorn film is formulaic in content, as it works with the same content that others have worked with. Film, being literary in content, has much potential for expression and a critic can tell the difference right away; this ability is not so prevalent in classical and popular music.
You know, it’s especially absurd to point to film, of all things, as being an example of an art form where the difference between high and low is clear-cut. Are you freaking kidding me? Film is — thankfully — the one art form that is actually mostly free of the pointless meta-bickering about what is and isn’t capital-A art that animates something like 90% of online discussions about classical music. Instead, film buffs actually like to talk about the merits of specific films, and everyone basically agrees that films should be judged on their own terms regardless of what kind of audience they are aimed at or how accessible they are or what genre they inhabit.
I mean, look at the usual list of Top 10 Movies of All Time — you’ll likely find nothing but a bunch of disreputable, formulaic, crowd-pleasing genres: a gangster flick, a samurai adventure, a comedy of manners, a fictionalized biopic, a mystery, a psychological thriller, a sci-fi picture…
In my opinion, any attempt to draw a bright line between “popular” and “serious” art forms will be fruitless. But don’t take my word for it! In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, George Lakoff spends 600 pages demolishing the idea that rigid divisions between categories – in nature and in conceptual thinking – are meaningful or workable. What we can do instead is identify prototype members of a category, isolate the characteristics that make them prototype members, and then see whether and to what degree non-prototypes share them. These eternal debates about who belongs in what category won’t be resolved because they can’t be resolved. Now that does cause insecurity in people who identify with membership in one category or another. But that’s how life is: You can cling to simplifications to understand things, or you can immerse yourself in and wrestle with the actual ambiguous substance of the world.
For what it’s worth, if your prototype member of the rap category is Lil’ Jon, it’s easy to say that the rap category is distant from the poetry category, but if your rap prototype is Talib Kweli or Rakim or even Eminem, it becomes more difficult to elucidate the differences. As an actual enthusiast of both rap and poetry, I feel confident on this score.
David Cavlovic says
Well, at the risk of broad-brushing myself, why, then, do the spandex-wearing (and PLEASE stop wearing that stuff!) trailer-mommas not listen to Vanhal, or Stamitz, or even Gottschalk, to keep it American? Why are they tuned only to top 40?
I always thought the distinction had less to do with formula and more with intent: popular culture has the goal of being popular, other culture has the goal of, well, anything else (although popularity, if bestowed, is always nice). One of the reasons there’s less overlap than in centuries past is the combination of mass electronic media and free-market capitalism: because the primary measure of popularity is now financial, market forces regard any popular artifact as a spike in demand, and a lot of imitative, formulaic supply inevitably follows.
David Cavlovic says
“[Springsteen is] a guy who certainly didn’t mind being popular, and hoped he’d be popular, but didn’t write his music with the idea of writing things that would be popular. Like any serious artist, he wanted to be accepted only on his own terms.”
Springsteen is America’s greatest Lieder composer–an interesting cross of Schubert, Wolf, Mahler, and good ol’ rock’n’roll.
Galen H. Brown says
The “irreducible difference between high and popular culture” is simple — if most people think it’s high culture, it’s high culture, and if most people think it’s low culture it’s low culture. And if opinion is divided, it’s ambiguouos. This logic may sound circular at first glance, but actually what’s going on is that the criteria we use for making the current judgement is based on which superficial criteria we used in the past and how that worked for us. Different superficial characteristics signify “high” or “low” and that assignment of meaning and our weighing of the different characteristics in our high/low judgement evolves memetically. Mozart is “high art” because his music sounds like other music that we’ve declared to be high art. Britney Spears is low art because it sounds like other music we’ve declared to be low art. Film is harder to pigeonhole in part because it’s a new enough genre that we don’t have as much of a history of making the distinction, so the highness and lowness signs are less clearly defined.
That was a redundant sentence of mine, saying “clearly” twice by mistake!
I’ve heard Rakim, by the way. Maybe being young and in the collegiate years has something to do with hearing rap more and appreciating it less, but I personally find the form of rap extremely limited. There is an expectance to rhyme on every line, and the rhythm never uses anything adventurous (one sees 3/4 every few blue moons).
Lindsey Eck says
Since you sometimes resort to analogies between music and the visual arts, here’s one: In essence, pop music is analogous to cartooning, the symphony to a fine painting.
I do a bit of cartooning myself (but I don’t paint) so I’m aware of the distinction. In a cartoon, one reduces the drawing to the fewest lines needed to get the point across, whereas the fine artist has other aims.
Similarly, the classic rock ‘n’ roll song uses just enough forces, but no more, to express the various melodies, harmonies, descants, etc. in its arrangement. The purpose is to deliver the message of the lyrics, with the music either reinforcing or undercutting the message. (This is similar to the role of the small orchestra in opera, too.)
What bedevils critics is that, starting in the late 1960s, rock groups started confusing the issue. Now a ditty like “Lovely Rita Meter Maid,” still cartoonish in its aims, is underscored by large forces including electronica and strings. Elton John upped the ante with immense orchestration on Madman Across the Water and so on. The examples are legion.
The result is as if, say, Mike Lucovich started doing his political cartoons in a chiaroscuro oil-painting style based on that of Caravaggio. There is a deliberate disconnect between aim and method, typical of postmodernism. The quandary is deepened when postclassical musicians such as Philip Glass, sensitive to the lack of any apparent direction forward or the impossibility of an avant garde in these postmodern times, begin appropriating the ideas of such quasi-serious rock compositions into their formal art music. An analogy might be Roy Lichtenstein’s canvases that wrench ideas from comix out of context to create “fine art.”
I think high vs. popular art is a continuum, not a dichotomy, but you’ve hit upon the fact that many compositions labeled as belonging to either category confuse the issue, either by adopting the methods of high art in the service of pop culture or vice versa.
Greg, the book “Everything Bad is Good for You” is very apologetic. It omits negative traits about popular culture that are negative and only focuses on the positive. His book is akin to talking about the “positive traits of drinking alcohol”, but forgetting to say that it’s only in the form of red wine and only in the amount of 1-2 glasses per day. Additionally, most of the traits that he attributes to being positive are only slightly positive – watching “infotainment” television won’t give one the same amount of information that one gets from reading a history book, thus one’s time could be better spent. Here are some reviews that address Johnson’s book.
Lindsey Eck says
Okay, let’s explore this a bit. Let me offer myself as an example. I’m a semipro rock musician with some classical background who owns a digital studio. I’m also engraver and musical amanuensis to an Austin-based post-Romantic composer of orchestral, choral, and piano concert music.
Right now I’ve almost finished recording a song called “The Ballad of Ricky Williams,” about the nonconformist running back. In a few days, when I’m finished recording, I’ll post this as a free download. (So much for the profit motive.) The lyrics are already posted here.
My goal in “Ricky Williams” is much the same as in my political cartoon referenced in the last post: I want to make a comic-ironic statement about a famous figure because I’ve come up with a take that I think is original, entertaining, and funny. The subject matter demanded a reggae treatment (with a hip-hop vocal bridge in the middle). In recording the song, I realized that it would be funniest if I made the music a close parody of classic reggae. (What prompted my post yesterday was that I realized, in editing my recording, that I was erasing individual percussion notes in an analogous way to the way I had erased lines from my cartoon the day before, and for the same reason: not to distract from the main point.)
Though I think I’ve come up with original (as in not plagiarized) chords and melody for the song, they are not original in the sense of taking reggae to some new dimension. That would ruin the whole purpose. I want people to recognize the Bob Marley allusion and connect it with Ricky’s dreads and pot use.
My client just completed a piano suite whose movements allude vaguely to a program based on the idea of flight; it’s dedicated to her son, a pilot. Now imagine the roles are reversed: I try to write a serious suite about flight using my rock chops, instruments, and studio, and she tries to write a novelty song about Ricky Williams.
Even addressing a “serious” subject, I’m still going to try to minimize the forces used in order to avoid pretension. As for using orchestral forces in the service of a comical pop-culture reference, I doubt it could be done effectively. Reggae, for example, used in an orchestral setting, would be a radical treatment of reggae and the audience probably wouldn’t get the joke, which involves using the musical ideas of Marley and his compatriots, common folk who wrote radical lyrics about anti-colonial struggle and sprituality, in ironic contrast to a dreadlocked, overpaid celebrity who falls short as nonconformist hero because of his vanity and self-centeredness.
Several years ago, the National Symphony (I think) put on a PBS performance of black spirituals. It was all so feelgood liberal that few would dare to admit that the use of a symphony orchestra on such simple material ruined the songs because the forces were wasted; there was much unison writing but not enough harmony and counterpoint to justify the massive band. I was bored senseless.
Sure, Copland borrowed old folk tunes for “Hoedown,” but the brilliance of that piece is the cunning, Bach-like modulation and the way irregular strophes are used to add sufficient complexity to the fiddle tunes to make it worth having a whole orchestra play them.
You’re right, Greg, that the distinction between “classical” and “rock” is hopelessly muddled today. But for me this results from a misuse of the label “classical.” I played a collection of such “new music” to a couple of rock fans unacquainted with the label or concept. Judging it against the popular music they knew, they didn’t see it as a different genre, but they did see it as amateurish, weak, and pointless. It was a lot like rock, except it failed the most crucial test: it didn’t rock.
The fact that the high-low distinction has been muddled in our time doesn’t mean it never existed, though, does it? Consider Gilbert and Sullivan. I love their stuff but aren’t their aims rather like mine in “Ricky Williams”? That is, the music serves the entertainment function and, if it happens to be fine music that’s all to the good, but given a choice of comic effect vs. musical profundity they’ll go for the comic effect. Whereas grand opera of the period notoriously subjugated the story and even the comprehensibility of the lyrics to the value of the music itself.
Put another way, it may be difficult and require considerable artistic skill and talent to create high camp. But camp (as critics have defined it) operates by exalting what is unworthy and rendering unimportant what should be highly valued. In my opinion, this renders camp an inferior, a “lower,” approach than music that aspires to artistic seriousness. In our time, of course, a work of art can succeed as camp and serious simultaneously, but that’s a recent development. Even then the audience gets it that the work is ironically operating on two levels; they don’t really just accept it as a thing in itself divorced from all reference. (They understand it works on two levels; if it didn’t reference either level, if there wasn’t a knowing wink to the high-low distinction, it wouldn’t work at all.) I guess I disagree that there never was any distinction. Or do you not recognize the grand opera vs. operetta division that separates Verdi from Gilbert and Sullivan? They may be equally valid, but aren’t they two different things?
“Besides, people in trailer parks (if we’re going to stereotype them)…they listen to country, don’t they?”
Be careful Greg, Jerry Lee Lewis was “white trash” 😉
John Steinmetz says
Mabye this distinction is useful for snobs wanting to distance themselves from other people, or for populists wanting to distance themselves from snobs, but why are so many of the rest of us still interested in this issue of “high” and “low”?