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.
Andrea Rich, publisher of Laissez-Faire Books, once recalled the covert joy of reading early libertarian book galleys before they hit the press and pitied my generation's lack of any equivalent insider experience. Stumbling on George Gilder's Web archive of recent writing, however, evoked precisely that same private exhilaration. Published originally in Forbes ASAP as a serialized version of his forthcoming book Telecosm, the Web archive gave me the sense of having discovered a secret gold mine. Though Telecosm is primarily about technology–and thankfully steers clear of Gilder's more peculiar notions of race and gender–Gilder fully understands the symbiotic relationship between high-tech and the creation of culture. Gilder hammers home the point that plummeting chip prices increase access to the toys of cultural production.
I first found Gilder's site a few days before a conference in Martinique. Curious about his work, I printed out the entire series of articles and lugged several hundred pages to the French West Indies. Between excursions to the gorgeous beaches, I devoured articles with titles only a nerd could love: pieces such as "Into The Fibersphere" and "The New Rule of Wireless." Unlike most technology writers, Gilder has a clear passion for the underlying scientific forces driving innovation. With arrogance and poetry, he brilliantly articulates a vision of the future of computing and communications.
Gilder leans heavily on the phenomenon of Moore's Law (which posits that chip prices will halve every 18 months). But his true insights revolve around dramatic improvements in communications technology (and the less dramatic, though nevertheless beneficial, changes in regulatory policy). Gilder argues that bandwidth costs are now falling even faster than chip prices, which in turn are leading to a "bandwidth tidal wave." As communication costs approach zero, the costs of distributing text, music, movies, and newer media will also drop precipitously. In the section "Life After Television, Updated" Gilder notes, "Today some 70 percent of the costs of a film go to distribution and advertising. In every industry–from retailing to insurance–the key impact of the computer networking revolution is to collapse the costs of distribution and remove the middlemen."
Will film studios, record labels, and book publishers disappear? I doubt it, but certainly ownership of shelf space, trucks, and burly men to move product will decline in importance, allowing for a far greater variety of creative content to reach mass audiences. In fact, I think we are about to witness an inversion of the meaning of "mass media." Where once mass media meant made for the masses, increasingly it will mean made by the masses. Whether you're looking at the impact of desktop publishing in nurturing underground 'zine culture or weighing how cheap synthesizers and DSP chips allowed multi-platinum rap acts to emerge from basement parties, it is clear that as the cost of creation and distribution gets cheaper, everyone becomes a media maker.
Gilder does a superb job of weaving into each tale of tech breakthrough a case for the moral and intellectual basis of free markets. Though he's too exuberant at times (one critic hilariously complains that "Gilder never met a technology he didn't like"), I found his energy intoxicating. Check out the site. Then do what I did. Go buy and read the rest of his books the old-fashioned way.
Omar Wasow is the founder and president of the Web site developer New York Online and a regular contributor on the cable TV channel MSNBC.
The standard map of cultural production is vaguely Marxist. There is high culture, which is upper-class, individual, and arty. There is the people's culture: working-class, communal, and folky. And there is pop culture: middle-class, commercial, and crappy. In this model, pop culture is a parasite; it steals from both of its rivals, waters the booty down, and sells it all back to the compliant masses.
Let's start by admitting that there's some truth to that picture. But as relentlessly mediocre as the culture industry's products can be, some very good, very individualistic art does get made in those allegedly unlikely pop-culture settings. Spike Jones, Alfred Hitchcock, Philip K. Dick–there's a lot of great stuff out there in the so-called trash.
So the first "book" I'm recommending isn't a book at all. It's a CD, albeit with lengthy liner notes. The Carl Stalling Project (1990) collects scores composed for the great Warner Brothers cartoons of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Performed in a symphony hall, this music would be considered wildly experimental–and some of today's most interesting avant-garde composers, such as John Zorn, have cited Stalling as an influence. Yet it is remarkably accessible listening.
The model breaks down in other places, too. It isn't just popular culture that raids its rivals for inspiration; highbrow and folk arts happily steal from commercial culture (and each other) as well. Actually existing communities (as opposed to the static entities of media myth) often appropriate the pop icons that they supposedly just docilely consume. In Invisible Governance: The Art of African Micropolitics (1994), David Hecht and Maliqalim Simone explore how Western pop detritus has fluidly mixed with African folk cultures, to the point where images from The Little Mermaid turn up at shrines to the mer-goddess Mami Wata.
But the greatest problem with the semi-Marxist schema is that it ignores art that is both autonomous and individual. Folk art must be communal and anonymous, the thinking goes; creative individuals require commercial sponsorship or aristocratic patronage. (The National Endowment for the Arts has presumably taken over the latter role.) So I'm tempted to suggest, instead of a third book, that you find a store that sells 'zines and there browse the wares of America's self-directed self-publishers. A lot of their stuff is crap, of course, but then, so are a lot of Random House titles.
But I do have a third book for you–a guide, of sorts, to the 'zine world. Bob Black's Beneath the Underground (1994) subjects the "marginals" scene to the kind of critical scrutiny it has thus far mostly escaped, and while I disagree with some of his conclusions, I nonetheless enjoy watching him reach them. Whatever you may think of Black's ideology or personal behavior, he approaches the critic's tasks with the well-honed, witty knife of a Twain, Bierce, or Mencken.
None of whom really fit into the standard cultural map either–but that's a topic for another time.
Jesse Walker is writing a history of the micro-radio movement and its historical predecessors.
Good art and bad art really exist; and there really is a faculty by which human beings can recognize the difference. Moreover, a life surrounded by good music, books, visual art, performance, and architecture is a better life than one that is not.
Taste is the word we use to refer to the faculty by which we recognize good cultural productions. True taste has nothing to do with snobbery, as true goodness has nothing to do with hypocritical moralism. Taste is no more mysterious than the subtle ability of a good sports scout to recognize baseball talent in the rough; but like a sports eye, it takes cultivation.
The conventional wisdom on culture is that, while the free associations of a market society can generate wealth, they cannot generate taste. Left to itself, the market creates only schlock and kitsch. Even good artists can be ruined by "selling out" to "commercialism." Thus the government must assure that the populace is culturally educated and that good artists are commissioned even if their works would not make it on the free market.
There is enough truth in this argument to make it a serious challenge. The burden of proof is on those who believe as I do, that a reasonably prosperous and stable free society, experiencing the economic progress and accumulation of wealth that the free market provides, will eventually create by itself the civil institutions of education and patronage that it needs for the production of culture.
Some might argue that institutions for the cultivation of taste, even nongovernmental ones, are unnecessary. But the problematic assumptions of this position are revealed by the new academic fashions of "cultural studies" and "popular culture" that celebrate the collapse of traditional canons of taste, reducing all works of human expression to the same level, and that offer only political correctness and gender/ethnic/class identity as ways to choose one artwork over another. Throw out the devil of the bureaucratic state and seven worse devils rush in, it seems.
The key recognition, it seems to me, is that cultural value and economic value ought to be connected–wealth over time creates taste, good taste can make someone wealthy, good art should be expensive, and the rich should become patrons of the arts.
The great cultural savants of the 19th century have given us some fine books–Friedrich Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, the cultural theory of Goethe, Hegel, Pater, Ruskin. They tell us much that is valuable about the amazing powers of art, the genuine reality of taste, the wonderful combination of the moral, the intellectual, and the aesthetic that characterizes high culture. But all their work presupposes the state, the politically centralized cultural nation. None of them realized that true political democracy would degrade the power of its elites and spend the grease of its cultural taxes on the squeakiest wheels of ethnic/gender/disadvantaged grievance. Nor did they see that government-sponsored elites could themselves stunt and limit the culture they serve, like the Académie Française and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Thus, the best I can do is recommend cautiously some books that at least outline the minimum requirements for the development of taste.
The first is Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929). Its value in this context is to show what Shakespeare's brilliant sister would have needed in the way of social encouragement, patronage, and education in order to contribute her genius to the culture at large.
The second is Victor W. Turner's classic work of comparative social anthropology, The Ritual Process (1966), which shows how the fundamental spiritual and aesthetic roots of culture are necessarily outside the realm of the official power structure.
The third is the complete works of Shakespeare, who is for me, with such figures as Verdi, Rembrandt, Dickens, Robert Frost, and J.S. Bach, and certain contemporary filmmakers, a touchstone for how great art that is popular and lucrative can emerge by demand from relatively free-market societies.
Contributing Editor Frederick Turner is an internationally known poet and Founders professor of arts and humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. His ninth book of poetry, Hadean Eclogues, will be published by Story Line Press next year.
I have always been interested in how technology and culture affect each other and, in particular, what the word interactivity really means. The more I read and experience, the more I've come to believe that culture is affected much less by technology than it affects technology. These five books–I never could follow directions very well–have helped me explore that relationship and isolate some central ideas:
Art and Physics (1993), by Leonard Shlain, is one of the most interesting books on how we've developed an understanding of our world. It is the best book on physics you will ever read–and the best one on art history. By digging into our past, Shlain gives you a sense of how the politics, emotion, theory, and inspiration of art, science, culture, and technology mix. Also look for his forthcoming book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess.
The Meaning of Things (1981), by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, presents a taxonometric study of the relationships people have with things on many levels. They explore what–and why–objects have mere utility for some people yet are cherished by others; they examine how objects define us and are defined by us. While parts of the book get a bit off-track, the core research is important and fascinating.
There are many different cultures in what we call our society. The novel Generation X (1992), by Douglas Coupland, gives insight into the motivations, dreams, frustrations, and reactions of an important and growing segment of our society that is trying desperately to build culture. Most of us are too old, jaded, distracted, or ignorant to build culture from scratch. Instead, we tweak it from time to time as it flows by us, usually only choosing from the alternatives created for us. Don't read the story itself, but the stories within it. We build culture by telling stories to each other, and the characters in this novel successfully build their own culture in reaction to the one around them in a particularly interesting, inspiring, and emotional way.
Identity is an important part of culture, and ours is a culture that is increasingly allowing many different identities to coexist and thrive–even within the same individual. Life on Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), by MIT's Sherry Turkle, explores how and why we build identities and how we use those identities to affect and integrate our cultures.
The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places (1996), by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, is a rare and disturbing look into the dynamics of power in culture and society–from intimate, personal interactions to those that affect our society as a whole. It will engage you, enrage you, scare you, and give you a sense of control over the invisible pressures you feel every day.
Nathan Shedroff is creative director of San Francisco's Vivid Studios. He maintains a Web site with resources and thoughts about interactivity at www.nathan.com.
Contemporary poetry mostly exists outside the marketplace. Thousands of new poetry collections appear each year, but most sell only a few hundred copies. Even critical successes achieve circulation mainly through compulsory sales to students. And yet a few poets still prosper by attracting a voluntary audience of readers willing to spend their hard-earned cash for the pleasure, enlightenment, and conciliation genuine poetry provides. I want to recommend three poets who in different ways have built considerable readerships without academic support.
My first recommendation is the late Philip Larkin (1922-1985), who is in danger of becoming academically respectable despite his unreconstructed Tory politics. Look for his Collected Poems (1989), but any of his books will serve as an irresistible introduction. Larkin published only four proverbially slim collections in his lifetime, but on the basis of that tiny output, he is universally recognized as the best British poet of the past half-century. Larkin's poetry, which is mostly in rhyme and meter, is often simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. "Deprivation to me is what daffodils were to Wordsworth," he once remarked. Near the end of his life, the queen offered him the coveted post of poet laureate, but he declined. "I dream of being poet laureate," he told reporters, "and wake up screaming." Larkin had the essential poetic gift for memorable language. He is one of the few contemporary poets whose work people know by heart.
My next recommendation is a starker poet: Weldon Kees (1914-1955). Although Kees has never been a big seller, his work has steadily stayed in print–without any scholarly support–for the 40 years since his mysterious disappearance and presumed suicide. (His first editions, in fact, command huge prices in the rare-book market.) If Larkin is alternately wistful and stoic, Kees is wryly apocalyptic. You may have trouble finding a copy of his Collected Poems, even though the book was reissued both here and in England in 1993, so let me explain why searching it out will be worth the effort. There has never been an American poet with fewer illusions about life than Kees. He makes his tragic worldview, however, not merely compelling but darkly attractive. "It's good to be deaf," he observed, "in a deafening time." He is the laureate of gallows humor and fatalistic ingenuity. Academic critics have little use for Kees. He rarely appears in the official anthologies, but writers and artists adore him. For many readers, discovering Kees becomes a conversion experience; they are drawn completely into his imaginative world. (This is similar to what science fiction fans undergo reading Philip K. Dick–an experience that changes their notions of the medium.) BBC television even did a film, Looking for Robinson, depicting an obsessed British poet traveling America to search out clues about Kees's disappearance. Kees is a poet who requires a psychic warning label.
Finally, let me recommend Wendy Cope, a poet who offers pure pleasure. Cope is currently Britain's best-selling poet, but she remains almost unknown in America. She is probably the best living comic poet in English. She is also a superb love poet. Her first book, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986), would be my top recommendation. Among its many delights are "Waste Land Limericks," which summarizes Eliot's Modernist classic in five bouncy light-verse stanzas, and "From June to December," possibly the best sequence of love poems written in the past 20 years–by turns comic, erotic, romantic, and vengeful. Cope is so ingenious and funny that you won't be able to read her alone. You will soon be in the next room or on the phone reciting her to someone else.
Dana Gioia is a poet and critic. He is the author of numerous books, including Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture. He lives in Sonoma County, California.
I know a man who does not like Shakespeare's plays. The unusual Elizabethan syntax throws him, and he will not learn how to listen to it. What's more, he insists that no one else understands it either. He says that anyone who says they enjoy Shakespeare is faking it. Why should they do that? Because they're snobs.
The last time we were trawling Walt Disney World's Epcot Center together, I tried telling him that everyone needs education. Education is the prime technology, the prime politics, and the prime defense against exploitation. "I agree," he said. "Everyone needs it. Conservatives need it to tell people what to think, socialists to tell people how to think. Fundamentalists need it to fill up people's heads until they can't think at all, and the market needs it to trick people into choosing one thing instead of another."
"And liberals need it, too," I said, because that's what I am. In England, a liberal is someone who wants a bill of rights to protect individuals against the majority. "Liberals need education because people need it. Without liberal education our beautiful, heterogeneous society, which has taken so much to construct, will dissolve back into tribal strife." He reached for his gun; he always does when I talk like that.
This is about the idea of education as cultivation, the bringing of wild minds to utility. It's an agrarian analogy, which reminds me of the culture dishes in the biology labs–which is agriculture of a different sort–and of Voltaire's gardens. If cultivation is what culture is, I think that means that culture is not something we all share. It means many things and has many modes. So what's my mode? Freethinking, by which I mean trusting my own insights to found my reasoning. Here are three collections of essays, from three sublimely cultivated minds, all of them profound freethinkers.
The first is William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the Enlightenment Age journalist who writes more buoyantly and transparently than any other writer in English I can think of. He describes the enormous 18th-century revolution in thinking as though it were a personal matter. His collected essays are published by Penguin.
The second is Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), the great modernist, whose writing is harder to get used to than Shakespeare's, but whose analysis of what modern thinking was about is astonishingly accurate. Her essays "What Is English Literature" and "What Is a Masterpiece" transformed my understanding of what art is. They can be found in the British collection Look At Me Now and Here I Am (1967), also published by Penguin.
The third is Robin Evans (1944-1992). He writes about material form; the difficulty of which is that the complex relationships embedded in it have to be teased out in sequence. He does this with a measured grace that is a joy to experience. His great quality is that even while he sports an erudition that would blow your head off, there is not a trace of false claims. His collection Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays (1997) is published by MIT Press in conjunction with the Architectural Association, London.
How do we talk about popular culture? Too often, our praise is sheer self-indulgence and our blame a compendium of intellectual clichés half a century old. Let me illustrate not with examples but with counter-examples: three authors who treat popular culture with originality, intelligence, and taste.
Robert Warshow's The Immediate Experience was published in 1954, at the peak of the so-called mass culture debate. Unlike most parties to that debate, Warshow understood that while popular culture is a part of everyday life in a way that elite culture almost never is, our understanding of it cannot be reduced to sociology. For good and ill, popular culture claims our attention in ways that are more or less related to the claims of art. "I have not brought Henry James to the movies or the movies to Henry James," he wrote, "but I hope I have shown that the man who goes to the movies is the same as the man who reads Henry James."
Warshow also understood why so many intellectuals of the World War II generation refused (and still refuse) to acknowledge the artistic dimension of popular culture. Having witnessed the persecution of artists deemed too difficult for "the masses" and the forced imposition of a didactic "people's art," these intellectuals distrust all but the most rigorous aesthetic standards. The great irony, of course, is that "the masses" have never cottoned to the official culture fashioned for them by their totalitarian masters. Given half a chance, they have always gravitated toward the American alternative: a genuinely popular culture shaped not by ideological decree but by market forces.
On this subject I recommend S. Frederick Starr's delicious Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union (1985). With a light touch comparable to that of Josef Skvorecky writing about the forbidden jazz bands of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Starr's history of the Soviet regime's efforts to suppress jazz is a case study of how impossible it is for any state, even the most repressive, to engineer the arts in its own image. A genuine art like jazz is no more susceptible to such treatment than is the ebullience of human nature it expresses.
As for the nature of that expression, it has never been described as superbly as by Henry Pleasants. In four impudent and elegant books–The Agony of Modern Music (1955), Serious Music–And All That Jazz! (1959), Death of a Music? (1961), and The Great American Popular Singers (1974)–Pleasants combines a blistering critique of post-Webern serialism with a sophisticated appreciation of jazz as one of the most viable musical languages of the 20th century. Pleasants's argument, written in the peppery style he developed during many decades as the music critic of the International Herald Tribune, partakes neither of the jazz buff's hyperbole nor of the academic's dissection. Instead, it carves out the precise position that jazz occupies in the musical canon of our century.
One cause of today's "culture war," I am convinced, is our abiding misunderstanding of what is good and bad about popular culture. We respect what we do not love and love what we do not respect. We argue bitterly in language fraught with myths and shibboleths. And we forget what these three writers are at pains to remind us: That it is we, the audience, who make or break the arts. Not in the short run, where too often we grasp at fool's gold. But in the long run, where gradually, with the help of our finest critics, we learn to recognize the 24-carat real thing.
Martha Bayles is the author of Hole In Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (1994) which has been re-released in paperback by University of Chicago Press.
There's no doubt much American popular culture traffics in sex or violence. And for as long as there has been popular culture, there have been moralists who decry its effects on society. Fortunately, some researchers have bothered to actually examine such books, music, and movies–and the way audiences use these things. The two books discussed below provide a way of talking about sex and violence in slasher films and porno movies that is very different from the usual screeds against such seemingly unredeemable and undifferentiated "filth."
In Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992), literature professor Carol J. Clover looks at some of the most disreputable movies there are, the slasher films so enjoyed by teenaged boys. She finds that, far from critics' assertions, these films don't invite the audience to identify with the sadism of the villain. Rather, the audience puts itself psychologically in the position of the suffering victims.
Clover came to that conclusion by literally watching teenagers as they view these films. What she found were not mindless zombies passively absorbing bloody images, but viewers who were aware of the conventions of the genre and who made watching such films ritualistic group activities: They talked to the screen and commented to each other on the action. Clover theorizes that such films offer moviegoers a way to deal with primal fears, especially their fear about the weakness of their own flesh. By identifying with the victims, viewers are engaging in empathy, not objectification. And, she points out, the appeal of these films reaches far beyond adolescent boys. While slasher films have typically been low-budget, independent efforts, Hollywood has tapped into the genre to revitalize its own efforts. Films as different as Thelma and Louise and The Silence of the Lambs have used narrative structures, camera angles, and themes common to the low-budget horror film.
In Hardcore (1989), film theorist Linda Williams tackles pornographic movies and shows that not all sexually explicit films are the same. Over the 80-plus years of the genre's existence, it has undergone a number of changes, responding to new developments in technology, to social and legal acceptance of sexuality, and to the evolving nature of its audience.
The earliest stag films were one- or two-reel affairs, usually nothing more than visual dirty jokes. They were designed to be shown in male gatherings such as lodge meetings or bachelor parties. There's no mistaking them for the feature-length films that came of age in the 1970s and that are still staples of adult pay-per-view TV channels. These were to be shown in theaters, often to mixed audiences, and they mimicked standard film structures.
Neither stags nor features can compare to the loops shown in peep-show booths or the all-sex videos produced today. Each serves a different audience and each serves a different need. It's this focus on the role of the audience that is the most interesting aspect of Williams's work: She shows that the viewer is far from passive but is in fact an active interpreter of the images, using them not just for sexual arousal but also to deal with his or her own questions about gender politics and sexual identity.
Contributing Editor Charles Oliver writes for Investor's Business Daily.
Cultural conservatives and NEA supporters may lament the fact for different reasons, but culture today is defined by a range of options that allows unprecedented room for more and more of anyone's version of the good, the bad, and the ugly. The contemporary scene supports an enormous range of cultural creators and consumers, and even carves roomy niches for commercially marginal products. Here are three books that give historical perspective, insider insight, and forward-looking examples of how our culture machine operates.
Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America (1984), by Kenneth C. Davis, tells the tale of a technological and marketing innovation–the paperback book–that changed the reading world by bringing both ancient classics and modern trash (and vice versa?) to more people more cheaply than ever before. Davis begins with the original innovator, Pocket Books, which started in 1939 with 10 titles that included Shakespeare's tragedies, an Agatha Christie mystery, Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, and Bambi. "This undertaking," Davis writes, "was another amalgam of that peculiar American genius for combining culture, commerce, and a little technology….[T]he world of books …would never be the same." Davis shows how cheap production techniques and wide audiences make room for more of everything, and he ought to soothe many a cultural crank's fervid agonies over the coarsening and limitations of modern culture: It's all out there for the choosing. Of course, to some folks, that's exactly the problem.
Virgil Thomson: An Autobiography (1966), is an elegant and witty insider account of how to thrive while purveying arts that don't set the commercial world on fire–in Thomson's case, modern American art music. Thomson relied largely on the time-honored artist's perquisite of patronage from wealthy people; he also received some government funds through the New Deal Works Projects Administration, which fired the free-spirited Thomson when he took an unapproved trip to Paris in search of various artist friends and muses. He later became a well-known music critic for the New York Herald Tribune and even helped create a performance-rights society for composers. Thus this book serves as a thorough, if idiosyncratic, account of how the machine of uncommercial music operates. In the modern cultural cornucopia–even in the midst of the 1930s Depression–"uncommercial" music can survive, when people have the wherewithal to follow their eccentric tastes.
The Factsheet Five Zine Reader (1997), edited by R. Seth Friedman, is an anthology of writings from modern 'zines, that latest example of the irrepressible outpourings of ground-level culture in a society where the means of (re)production are cheap and widespread. Not everything in the book is great writing, by any means. But it's a zesty smorgasbord of what's out there among unedited, un-gatekeepered one-man "publishing companies." And the collection's very existence, published by a Random House subsidiary, vividly illustrates that the dominant culture barons are indeed open to invasions from those who start as outsider barbarians.
REASON Assistant Editor Brian Doherty runs Cherry Smash Records, a small independent record company.