In recent years, the production of "culture"--art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression--has exploded. There are any number of reasons for this, including technology that has dramatically lowered production and distribution costs, higher discretionary income, greater communication among peoples of the world, and the erosion of traditional "gatekeeper" authorities. REASON asked a number of writers, scholars, and new media specialists to recommend up to three books that explore, discuss, or exemplify the ways and means by which culture is, was, or could be created, circulated, and evaluated.
Despite an assumed antagonism, the marketplace for culture shares a lot with the marketplace for less rarified goods and services. Both embody an unpredictable mix of creative vision, technological innovation, sweat equity, and luck (good and bad); both are characterized chiefly by failure and manage to support all sorts of losing ventures; and both tap into a basic, often unrealistic, human urge for risk taking.
At rock bottom, the artist and the entrepreneur face the same dilemma: In a world of prolific choice, how do I cultivate, hold, and grow an audience for what I'm offering? Relatively free and unregulated markets in culture and commerce alike have helped create so much stuff that we sometimes take our aesthetic bounty for granted, much in the same way we take a supermarket whose shelves are overpacked with food for granted. But of course food doesn't just grow itself, much less make its way to the corner store.
I suggest those interested in how culture is created, circulated, and evaluated in an open society take a look at the Beat movement, particularly its three best-known figures: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs (the latter two of whom died just this year). Whether or not you care for their product, they provide a case study in the cultural marketplace: Like some ridiculously undercapitalized startup in an industry dominated by a few big firms, the Beats throughout the 1950s slowly built a market for themselves, eventually winning over an indifferent public, sidestepping a bellicose critical establishment, and even overcoming official state repression (Ginsberg's great poem Howl was the subject of a now unthinkable obscenity trial). True cultural entrepreneurs, they created the modern, wine-soaked poetry reading, utilized alternative publishing outlets (including the Pocket Poets Series started by poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti), and tapped into a real yet inchoate demand for something different in American letters. In relentlessly hustling after a public, in drawing connections to the past while breaking with it, and in moving from the periphery toward the center of the literary world, the Beats exemplified the process by which culture flourishes when left to its own imaginative devices.
The Beat Scene (1960), edited by Elias Wilentz, is a contemporaneous (and often comically hyperbolic) assemblage of writing, photos, and commentary that captures the energy and appeal of the movement, along with its sense of community and propensity toward myth making. As their subtitles indicate, Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America (1979, 1990), by Dennis McNally, and Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (1983), by Gerald Nicosia, focus on Kerouac, but both are excellent at tracing and explaining the various, dense, and often disturbing personal and professional relationships that helped create and promote what might be called the Beat franchise. For a taste of what people responded to in Beat writing, check out this alternative trio of books: Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, the 1958 follow-up to On the Road that illustrates how the Beats cross-fertilized and cross-promoted one another; Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems (1956), which features a shrewdly legitimating introduction by William Carlos Williams; and Burroughs's Junkie (first published in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee), a coolly compelling tour of the dropout demimonde that proved irresistible in Eisenhower's America.
Nick Gillespie is a REASON senior editor.
Charles Paul Freund
"Culture is a process, not a fixed condition," writes Lawrence W. Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988). Exactly. Control of that process is what America's "culture wars" have always been about. Levine's anti-canonical book describes the 19th-century cultural struggle, in which a moneyed and educated class took control of such once-popular forms as Shakespeare and opera, embalming them and arrogating to itself the arbitration of Taste.
Marxist critics regard this process as a form of class domination, but America's cultural gatekeepers usually use the arts as they do fashion and food: as levers of separation and status. Most people have by now been persuaded that culture really is a condition, one displayed in museums. The consequences of such cultural power are enormous. On the one hand, it underlies the pretensions (and budgets) of PBS and the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities; on the other, it obscures the actual workings of a vital and creative culture that, because it is an essential force in everyday life, shapes history.
Culture begins in pleasure. A useful account of the foundations of vital 20th-century culture is David Nasaw's Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (1993). Nasaw's book is about the revolution in leisure made possible by rising wealth and technological innovation: dance halls, vaudeville, midways, movies, night clubs, etc. A paean to old urban downtowns, this academic work suffers from its belief that the last Golden Age is past, among other problems. But it has real value as a portrait of the birth and development of cultural forms.
An audience seeking enjoyment, and the new cultural industries anxious to provide it, nourished an array of novel musical, visual, architectural, and other styles. Some of these were eventually noticed by the arbiter crowd, who adjusted Good Taste to accommodate them. Jazz and film are standout examples of forms that were originally considered contemptible by tastemakers but which later emerged as capital-A art, to their frequent detriment. Architecture too has been transformed by the midway. While elite culture was withdrawing into an increasingly cerebral and opaque discourse, vital forms laid the foundation for a culture that was liberationist and filled with individual possibility.
Nowhere is the power of these forms more apparent than in their challenge to the century's tyrannies. A thoughtful examination of this reality is Thomas Cushman's Notes From Underground: Rock Music Counterculture in Russia (1995). It is worth remembering that while such high-end Western forms as classical music and art-house films were the stuff of "cultural exchange," rock music and Hollywood kitsch (to say nothing of jeans style) presented the Soviets with insuperable cultural problems and were significant factors in the withering of Soviet domestic credibility.
Cushman understands very well what was wrong with managed socialist culture, and he also understands the benefits--social, economic, psychological--of a vital and creative culture under capitalism. Yet he persists in regarding the market as another instrument of domination, because, among other reasons, it fails to reward truth telling for its own sake. But artists only became free (of the church, state, and bourgeois patron) when they assumed risk. Anyway, isn't it at the point where the teller's truth meets the listener's pleasure, in all their respective complexities, that the secret history of culture is told?
Charles Paul Freundis a REASON senior editor.