The Defenders of Pop Culture vs High Culture 

By L the Fox, and The Good Student/Otaking

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L the Fox: It all begun with Starship Troopers and the relative merits of speculative science-fiction compared to the Classics of literature: we were talking about how not even the attempt of the first movie's director (a famous member of the loathed cult of the "enlightened" and perhaps not coincidentally a member of that famous tribe of warriors and merchants hailing from the Middle East with whomst surely gentle reader will be familiar) to present the source material unflattering due to ideological reason, the movie is still loved an unironically appreciated to this day since it is FUNNY (Something extremely rare when we talk about "enlightened" movies) therefore inviting the audience to look favourably towards the funny protagonists and their parodied society.

The Student, the Scholar with whomst I was matching wits tonight, brought up the laicist nature of such society and the unflattering similarity between it and a certain East Asian modern country which our reader SURELY will recognize, but in my opinion that was by design: Heinlein, the author that the movie aimed to malign, after all was a man of letters but only inside of the canon of modern genre fiction; ideological as any modern, his letters couldn't move him towards a truly deep analysis of human society and convictions.

In my humble opinion there's nothing to be ashamed of in this: if even one of the best and most influential works of modern science fiction, the Lensmen series by "Doc" E.E.Smith, proposing something of an Arthurian cycle analogue in space, while being a very worthy attempt, can't hope to substitute the Holy Grail with the "Visualization of the Cosmic All" and Avalon for "Arisia" without something difficult to quantify but nevertheless important being lost in translation, then surely Starship troopers while funny and interesting likewise can't ascend to the Elysium of Literary Classic and must remain confined in the space of regular secular genre fiction literature. A lesser field but not without honor.

But ah! The surprise! The student would then link this conversation with recent circumstances inside of the gentlemanly community of letters inside of YouTube!

It just so happens that Academic Agent, as the Persian gentleman wishes to be called, has recently been harassed inside of his own streaming program by personages begrudging him his choice of subject: none other than the famous and controversial Andy Warhol, whose fame in my opinion is in part merited since it could be said that none like him could criticize the Absolute State and Sad, Tragic Circumstances of the modern and contemporary art world by mean of holding a mirror high to its face and shouting inordinately "As you are, so were we! As we are, so shall you become!"

You would think, dearest reader, this would make him sympathetic to a large host of connoisseurs of the good and gentle arts; but AA's public proved unreceptive and ,apparently loaning certain national-socialist terms of endearment such as "degenerate art", they begrudged him the time lost talking about Warhol…

The Good Student/Otaking: There are those defenders of pop culture (such as Zarathustra’s Serpent) who might say that Andy Warhol, was closer to the spirit of his time, closer to the present and so truer to the hearts of the people of his time than any “serious art” or high art made at the time. That those classically trained artists were just aping the masters of the past to recapture a moment that had already gone by and for this reason Andy Warhol is remembered and these classically trained artists are forgotten.

The implication is that great art does not reflect the same eternal universal truths but different truths for different times… By believing this then the defenders of pop culture are able to place pop culture, pop art if you will, above high art - since the superiority of high art hinges on its ability to capture eternal unchanging truths about the human condition.

Starship Troopers is genre fiction and genre fiction can be good, in so far as it apes high art - this is what Zarathustra’s Serpent and maybe even Warhol (to the extent he believed himself to be an artist) is rebelling against. Of course Zarathustra, or Warhol, have nothing against popular culture being derivative of high culture, most popular fiction is proudly and openly derivative and referential (even of traditional art).

But the defenders of popular culture do not want to believe that their efforts amount to little more than the enabling of mindless consumption and the crowding out of superior high art from the public’s mind with their inferior dross. No, the most bold among these Defeners want to believe for instance that things such as comic books can have as much literary value as the Iliad and certainly as much cultural influence by the vast reach afforded to them by the curse of mass culture and Capitalism.

I am not sure Andy Warhol was really critical of mass culture - he was ambiguous, in part his art was critical of mass culture but in part it was celebratory or indifferent. Warhol wouldn’t say why he made art, when an interviewer asked implied his art was basically degenerate and asked him why he made it still, he simply replied “That’s just something we do.''

“The defenders of Pop Culture” would accept that, “only time can tell which works made today are masterpieces, 99% of every medium and of every era is trash,” but they would also add “you can’t say that the quality of art made today is worse than in the past, only in the future will we know which art made today are masterpieces and classics.” They would flatly refuse to accept that we live in an artistically inferior era of mass culture.

The more combative among  them might even say, once they have lost their patience, that “you are not looking hard enough for great art made today or you are looking to put modern culture down for your ego or to elevate trad art with a more esoteric aesthetic, again for your ego! Your entire personality is based on liking things which are not popular!” In short basically calling (you), a rightwing hipster-poser. This is the fashionable view to dismiss people who for instance oppose the abominations of modern architecture.

Another more pernicious criticism that these Defenders might make, is that even if you let time pass you are still measuring popularity, because popularity over time is still just popularity. Or in other words that it doesn’t really matter if something is long-lasting or just a trend - you can just move from trend to trend which mass culture and capital push out without any love (or a love which does not last) and call that art.

An easy counter to this pernicious criticism would be that the classics are not popular among the “general public” (i.e. plebs) but then they would counter this by saying that if it is not popular among the general public across ages but only popular among a small group of people then this classic art cannot contain universal values - because otherwise it would not just appeal to small sector of the population.

Of course as L the Fox had an answer to this, that even though these classics of the canon might not be popular, their indirect impact on other art is great and it doesn’t matter that this goes unnoticed by the plebs, that this proves that the classics have staying power and as such are on a higher level than mere entertainment like comic books. This does indeed prove that these classics have historical value but does historical value translate to artistic value?

To use anime merely as a metaphor for this situation, Sword Art Online will have historical value because there’s so many anime and novels and games which were affected by it, but does this make SAO a “classic”? Maybe so but it certainly does not make it good art, in fact SAO is notorious for being based on a badly written web novel by a young writer writing in a hurry for a competition.

I guess the last answer left to these “defenders of popular culture” would be to say they have no taste, ThatAnimeSnob loves to call modern anime fans “tasteless casuals” and “plebs.”  But what is that supposed to mean?

Snob would simply say that because he has reviewed almost 900 anime and watched many more this makes him an “expert” on the subject and so what art resonates with his feelings must be more universal, similarly someone who is more well read in the classics might say that he is an expert on literature, and apply that to every medium of art, but isn’t this a judgement of art which is purely referential on other art, purely derived from that medium of art rather than from something coming from within him taken out into his consciousness by that art? Surely if these standards for art were universal they would be inherent in all of us, they wouldn’t need to be learned and taught, would they?  

L the Fox: ...Quite Rightfully so, you could accuse such people of having no taste, and yet what is it meant exactly by such colloquialism?

I propose that in this case lack of taste manifests as absence of perspective: truly you could say that SAO's influence on other anime makes it relevant to the anime world, beyond the quality of the craftsmanship with which it was produced, but how long yet will anime as an artform even exist? Will people remember SAO in ten, twenty years?

When we speak of classics that the plebs won't appreciate we speak of the poetry of Aleksander Pushtin or of the Maligned Ezra Pound, the greatest poet of the twentieth century (as even Zizek would be forced to admit), we speak of works steeped into a deep knowledge of the Human Condition, a knowledge that we modern have largely repudiated, in a long process which started at the times of the early enlightenment, with Weishaupt and others, which hadn't come to complete fruition until recent times.

The Good Student/Otaking: Those whom I have taken to call “The defenders of popular culture” would reject the idea that the knowledge of the human condition is complete and something that is unchanging - that it can just be learnt by heart, listed and categorised systematically, or even forgotten, rather than felt. They might claim that the onus is on the art to invoke something in them which is already there by nature and happenstance, that like reality, art too is a changing river in time to reflect the people’s fickle and unfaithful hearts.

Or in other words that what matters in the end is that the popular culture is closer to their hearts. In fact these defenders are totally unphased by the totally trend-based nature of commercial art which Warhol was criticising, celebrating, and wallowing in, because they accept that their own tastes and nature while not totally malleable changes over time, and is not more or less valid at any time - though few of them can grasp that to accept this foreclosures any possibility for grown.

For how could they grow? Is this not why there are so many bug-men whose lives revolve around buying the product by some corporation like Marvel and getting excited for new product? If there is no objective standard for art then their taste in the past and in the present is equally valid, they are just moving from one novelty to find the next “high,” I suppose if the next “high” is greater than the previous “high” this would constitute growth to them.

I suppose in the end they would say that the mere fact something is popular now must be because it reflects something in the human condition now. It can’t just be that it has been astroturfed by corporations to turn us into the perfect consumers, i.e. geeks.

The Defenders might say that the fact that the classics are infrequently read now but the people influenced are read more means that the things which were influenced reflect the themes better in a truer and more relevant manner than in the classics because otherwise people would be reading the classics rather than the people that were affected by the classics. Or in other words, they would say it doesn’t matter that it was the classics that were the first to do something.

I suppose one answer to this would be to say that bad art appeals to the hearts of a morally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually decrepit people but is this really different from saying “you have bad taste”? After all, isn't it because all this is implied why people get offended often online when you tell them they have bad taste? That the bad taste they have might say something deeper about them.

The Fox says that the metaphysical dialectic, the conversation we are carrying ourselves as a species through art, requires you to know each step of the way if you want to participate.

Or in less kinder words if you haven’t read the classics and so are not an expert on art, shut the fuck up, or at least stay in your special ed lane and don’t pretend to be doing anything nearly as good as high art.. You need to have read the classics so that you have a frame of reference to judge other art, if you want to have an intelligent conversation about art.

That may be the case but suppose that one of the more cultured Defenders of Popular Culutre has read the classics (i.e. knows all the steps) and still rejects the Classics and embraces Popular Culture instead. Is he part of the metaphysical dialectic of art? Is it enough to “know all the steps” in the history of art?

The Defenders of Popular Culture might say that they are not against “knowing all the steps” but they are against using the classics as a standard because the standard should be their own emotions. Furthermore they might argue that the standard is rigged in favour of the classics always coming on top because in effect everything new will be judged by how similar it is to the standard classic making every new work merely an imperfect copy, an inferior derivative work, of the standard classic.

They might even go as far as to say that if human nature has already been decoded as best as it will be in the Classics then there isn’t any point in making any new art, to muddy the pure waters of High Art, because that only takes the limited attention people have away from the classics which already contain in them the sum of the human condition towards mere entertainment like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Besides if it is a dialectic, they might ask “Does that mean you believe in human progress?” and then, “If you believe in human progress, how can you not believe in human change, and if you believe in human change, how can you believe in an eternal human condition?”

The more perfidious among them might say that you are just sore that popular culture/art stole your “subjectively favoured” art’s thunder, that we are just jealous that they are popular and we are just seething hipsters that need to look down on them to feel better about ourselves.

Of course such cheap psychologising of the “real” motives of others can be done by anyone towards anyone so I would advise people not to do it, but it will be done anyway by people on all sides to every side.

As a resolution Fox suggested that it is not a zero sum game between high culture and pop culture at all, that people might use trashy literature like Game of Thrones to level up to Beowulf. I think he is too optimistic as more often than not people will just stay within genre fiction and become bug-men because it is easy and entertaining. But maybe that is just the natural role for the sub-human life-form that most people, the normalfag, the npc, that the herd, was created to suffer so we should feel no pity nor too much hatred for it. Or so goeth the cope, so verily let us not seethe yet not dilate. Amen.

L the Fox: That might very well be, that I'm being too optimistic: the school system focuses on making people memorize worthless details in order to pass tests, instead of teaching the love of Reading, the pleasure of creating art, or even the fundamental skills of rhetoric and dialectic, since the modern reacts to being told that he has bad taste by taking offense, as if it was a condemnation instead of an exhortation and a challenge to form a relationship with more challenging works…

And as we said in the course of our conversation, they would be wrong, exactly because "having bad taste" quite luckily isn't a function of being stupid or unable to appreciate something, but of having been neglected as far as proper education goes. Western Culture after all does have a Canon, with which very few besides John C. Wright and other alumni of St John College are familiar with nowadays.

This canon was compiled, in the course of quite a number of years, by the common opinion of the unbiased: many would say it should include a lot more works, and in some cases it is worthy to agree, but few would deny that those works that are there deserve their place.

They will ask then, maliciously, if a canon is there that contains the most influential and qualitatively better works produced by our culture, for what reason should we toil and write?

Gentle reader will pardon me if I scoff at such sentiments: certainly nobody was dissuaded by taking up the violin or the guitar by the fact that he'll never be a composer of such talent as Mozart? and if someone did, doesn't that betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and necessity of Art and of its expression?

Truly has the modern world; the Adam-Smithian turmoil that transformed our cultural landscape from a cathedral and a mausoleum of our ancients into a crass "marketplace of ideas'' wherein you might discover that Truth and Beauty and Freedom are not often in the same demand as soothing lies, hedonism and licentiousness, convinced everyone so totally of the necessity of Competing and Selling, that in front of the impossibility of truly Competing with Aeschilus, the only rational option is renouncing the Theater forever?

I say nuts to that.

The one key argument we can use is that of perspective. Nobody denies the value of genre fiction inside of its own context; nobody gifted by his Creator with any power of discernment, at least.

Nobody would deny that The King of Elfland's Daughter by the excellent Lord Dunsany should deserve a place in the same Canon inside of which the Arthurian cycle of poems by which it was inspired and upon which it improved in various ways, already rests.

What is frankly preposterous is this arrogance, the fundamental pretense of wanting to make art uniquely into a product sold for entertainment of the least common denominator, but having it still be treated as worthy of the same respect as art truly done for the sake of art, for the sake of one's loyalty to the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

Which leads us inevitably to the other conversation me and the Good Scholar we were at the same time having, which was about how these same trends play out in the political and social arena.

The Good Student/Otaking: Yes, the play must go on, there was never an option to stop it or to go to an earlier Act, even if all the world might look like a farce now, and by the Grace of God it will all turn out alright and we may be able to laugh at or even look back longingly at the abyss. I like to have my pessimism laced with optimism, or dare I say hope.

So too with culture, the decadence should accentuate the higher virtues within us, and so they, and we, retread steps of the Sacred in the Profane. I may not like Andy Warhol’s art, but I like his method. To misquote a certain Emiya Shirou, despite the fact that these Defenders of Popular Culture are incorrect that doesn’t mean they are wrong, so I am repeating the same point as the Fox in a more pretentious manner.

By Otaking, or The Good Student