In Defense of Popularity

Anyone who has paid attention to the Academy Awards over the past few decades knows that Hollywood prides itself on showering awards on films that hardly anyone even saw, let alone liked.

Philosophically, this trend is nothing new—elites have always felt the need to distinguish themselves as elites.  When one thinks in these terms today, it means this: the rarer and less accessible the emotion, the greater the art.  Love songs that appeal to everyone? Bourgeois.  Gay love songs that hardly appeal to anyone?  Sexy.  Why?  Because anyone could write the former, and only a fortunate few could write the latter.  As Bryan Wandel recently reminded us with regard to indie musicians, “whatever happens to have permeated popular culture most, they hold to be the most ‘fake’ or at least trite.”

Yet in their quest to avoid popular things, the new elites have missed the bus just as much as the old elites they despise—and both of them too often miss the value of art that children can catch.

The Elites

The elitist snobs of yesterday prided themselves on their ability to recognize superior skill.  Art communicated truth—on one level mathematical, such as in the skillful proportions of Athenian columns; on another level theological, such as in the inescapably Christian architecture of the Renaissance Italians.  A truly great artist brought the accumulated artistic knowledge of Western civilization to his work, so the full depth of its brilliance was inaccessible to the untrained mind.  Elites tried to prove their superior minds by filling their houses with the stuff.

Today, art is meant only to communicate the subjective feelings and experiences of the artist.  Thus the truly great artist is discoverable by the utter, off-the-wall uniqueness of his work.  An “artsy” person is somebody who dresses and decorates totally unlike everyone else (or at least, that was the theory before people noticed that most artsy people dressed and decorated like Forrest Gump’s girlfriend).  Great art is that which separates itself from the rest, not by building upon existing knowledge, but by divorcing itself from it.  But within this premise, the new elites (as I hope I demonstrated earlier) are no different from the old, and they still like to fill their houses with the stuff the commoners “just don’t get.”

The Bus

In treating art this way, the new elites seek to distance themselves from the “objectivism” of “old” art, while promoting truly unique art.  This is partly unfair to the “old” art, which never discouraged uniqueness, but rather demanded that an artist build on the accumulated wisdom of mankind in the same way as a scientist or a political thinker.  But the greater tragedy—in the actions of both eras’ elites—is that great art is not supposed to be inaccessible.

T. S. Eliot is, I think, the crucial figure in understanding this.  Eliot thought that art that only seeks to demonstrate skill will fall mostly on deaf ears (because there are so few skilled artists)—but so will art that only seeks to be the expression of one person’s experience (because its popularity will rest on how many people happen to have shared that experience).

Truly great art, Eliot believed, tapped into universal human experience.  The skill involved should tap into the wealth of human knowledge and development, but the emotion likewise should stir something in the human soul—not the gay soul or the capitalist soul or the female soul.  Each piece of art did not need (by itself) to prove the existence of God, or have a happy ending.  But great art did not seek merely for people to understand it—it understood people.

The Academy

One of the easiest proofs of this is comedians.  As one of Shakespeare’s characters put it, “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear of him who hears it, never in the tongue of him who makes it.”  Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby make their audiences laugh, not by sharing their unique experiences, but by telling stories of experiences to which their audiences can relate.  I recently watched an old video of Cosby telling stories of his kids’ misbehavior.  Though not everyone in the audience was a parent, every one had (I presume) once been a child.  And every laugh wordlessly said “That’s so true!” just as much as it said “That’s so funny!”

“Great” art need not cater to the masses, or the lowest common denominator.  It need not drag the best down to the level of the worst.  Because something is popular does not mean it is great, and because something is unpopular does not mean it is worthless.  But while the Academy and the NEA preserve the legacies of artists’ self-expression, great artists tap into human experience—popular experience—to convey something permanent outside themselves.

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