Friday, May 09, 2003

Slumming: Newsweek takes up the defense of "high" art through Peter Plagens, who writes:
High art versus pop culture is no longer a matter—let me switch metaphors here—of fancy French restaurant cuisine versus mom’s home cookin’ or a juicy cheeseburger at the corner diner. High art’s opponent is the equivalent of 10 billion tons of ersatz potato chips made from a petroleum derivative, flavored with a green “sour cream and jalapeno” dust manufactured in the same vat as the latest hair regrower, and served in little silver bags through which not one molecule of air will penetrate until 2084.
If this is so, it is only because, for so many years, high art accepted -- nay, cultivated -- the elitist attitude Plagens shows when he says
High art is elitist. Only a relatively few people have the educated taste for it, the patience to enjoy it and, frankly, the ability to get it.
This assumes, of course, that high art means that there is something to "get." I think that this is true of modern art (in which it is, in fact, only an affectation) but not necessarily of high art. Do we suppose -- in a culture that sports rising literacy, sophistication, and disposable income -- that erstwhile museum-goers have slowly been slipped the Folger's Crystals of pop culture instead of the "real" thing? Plagens obviously does, based on that first quote, though the second quote is off the mark on the wherefores. First, modernists (and their children, the post-modernists) brought pop-culture into the high arts, blurring the distinction. Second, as the distinction was blurred, the elite artists felt more of a need to segregate -- via ironic detachment and an ever increasing resort to "shocking" an anaesthetized public -- those who "get" it from those who don't. In other words, don't create art that is intentionally about "getting" some ephemeral obscurity ("Oh, I love how you deconstruct the prevailing paternalistic meme by transgressing the implied phallo-yonic dialectic so prevalent in the classical still life!" -- as she looks at a textureless sea-green and dun smear) and then bitch because "Mr. Harry Twelvepack," as Plagens patronizingly paints him (people who get it drink wine -- get it?), would rather not pony up $35 for the exhibit -- only to be told, if he questions, that he doesn't get it.

Look a little closer: What is there to "get" about Beethoven? Nothing, it seems, that isn't somehow present in human nature. What is there to "get" about art in general? In it's power to move us, art is anti-elitist, anti-intellectual. The Arnolfini Marriage doesn't require any particular need to "get" in order to appreciate its beauty, despite the "hidden transgressives" that pop up. That is to say, the intellectualized bits, interesting as they may be to scholars, are not what make art. A great example is Dickens, who was an incredible sell-out -- in both senses of the modern word. He was popular, beloved, widely read by all classes. There was nothing to "get" about it. Art invites one in. Let me say that again: Art invites one in. The "get" is simply the burden that modernists have put on art, the sign that says, "Stay out, you don't get it."

More: By chance found this on Lileks's site: "Real art has to be explained, patiently, like the dangers of a hot stove to a small child." Goddammit! Why can he say in one line what it takes me a page to vent?

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