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Whether High, Low, or Popular, Culture is All the Same to Me

July 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm

This weekend embodied, in a nutshell, the entirety of my relationship to culture (whatever that is).

Speaking, of course, as somebody whose entire knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons and Muppet Show riffs on famous performances.

On Friday evening, on my way back from the airport, I stopped in Bernalillo to visit the two intrepid Scotts of lost city fame.   Several hours — several heated hours — of KISS pinball ensued.  Yes, you read that correctly.  KISS pinball.

Oh, stop giggling.  Not that kind of "kiss pinball."  This kind.  As in, there was a KISS-themed pinball machine, and we played about 20 rounds on said machine.  (And I lost about 18 of them.)

And last night I attended a performance of Faust at the lovely open-air Santa Fe Opera.

Opera, pinball, high culture, popular culture from the better-if-they-were-forgotten-entirely 1970s... it's all the same from where I stand.  Which probably says a lot about me.  And none of it good.

Hmm.... I just realized there's a strange connection here.

When I was a very small child, KISS was downright scary to me.  Everyone knew they were Satanists, and they killed people on stage, and listening to their music made you a drug addict.  I steered clear of the kids who collected KISS trading cards.  But now I look back from the perspective of a few additional decades and think, "Oh, a heavy metal kabuki show.  How cute."  Yet meanwhile, the story of a man who sells his soul to Mephistopheles for the chance to seduce a young maiden has been considered high art for many, many years.


Steve Halter July 11, 2011 at 10:45 am
All aspects of "culture" being the same is a very good attitude sociologically speaking. Everything people do is culture. Now, some like to separate various aspects and call them high or low, but that is just arbitrary categories. It is a lot like tasting wine. There are various wines that some people will say that you are supposed to like and if you like others, well then clearly your palate is "unrefined." A while ago (15+ years?) I was at a wine tasting at the Mondavi vineyards in Napa. Someone asked what sort of wine they should like. The person in charge had obviously gotten this question before and replied that the wine you should like is the one that tastes good to you. Don't worry about what people say you should like. That has always seemed like good advise to start out with. So, KISS pinball--cool.
Melinda July 11, 2011 at 11:55 am
It's all about doing what you enjoy and having fun. I do think people ought to be willing to go outside their comfort zone, and I've finally taken that advice myself as regards music. I was a classically trained singer and I love opera and classical instrumental music. Rock and Roll baffled me and hurt my ears. But I've started listening to the pop stations, and now my IPod contains Lady Gaga, and Rhiana, and Taylor Swift in addition to Schubert and Mozart. And pinball is awesome fun just like my X-Box is awesome fun. It applies to books too. I like "low prestige fiction" ie science fiction, mysteries. Romances fall into this category too. I liked X-men: First Class and Spiderman, and The King's Speech and Pride and Prejudice.
Scott Denning July 12, 2011 at 12:27 am
(With thanks to [the man formerly known as] Cat Stevens.) Steve put it well: Everything people do is culture. It's only when people get too wrapped up in the high/low continuum bit that it gets to be a problem. I consider myself reasonably cultured, able to take in an opera (though I will admit to invariably falling asleep 2/3 of the way through, then starting awake shouting "20 dollars!", meaning how much I had paid for that nap) or a monster movie marathon with equal aplomb. What is it to be unreasonably cultured? When someone lets someone else see that they think them uncultured and therefore inferior. Elitism. Snobbery. That's unreasonable. Shakespeare has always been my favorite example of this effect. In our time, Shakespeare is held up as the epitome of English-speaking theater culture. All the great actors have performed the plays in all the great venues -- it is "uncultured" to not know the stories of the most popular works, and to be ignorant of the most famous passages. (It shares this distinction with opera, but I did specify English-language works.) Ol' Will would be pleased but startled at this elevation of his entertainments -- he wrote his works for the everyday person, to be enjoyed from a stage still damp after the blood from the bear-baiting had been sluiced off. Melinda is right -- it is sometimes good to go outside of one's comfort zone with popular culture, just to test to see if you are sliding down the slippery slope to elitism. Shakespeare's works were not for the upper crust but for the masses; he would not have trouble with them sharing a bill with a boxing match, just so long as they were seen. I've decided this is the year that I take in a mud bog/tractor pull and go to the funnycar races up the road. I realized a while back that I had always somehow thought such entertainments "beneath me", but then thought of some of the things I have done and realized that heck, nothing is beneath me. Or any of us. I used the term "uncultured" above. I think many people use that term as meaning "low-cultured", with an inherent value judgment that "high" culture is somehow more worthwhile and respectable. But from Steve's definition, that everything people do is culture, I must be considered uncultured. Whereas I can quote soliloquies from Shakespeare and perform bits of famous poetry, I am utterly clueless when discussion of popular TV shows comes up. Which is better? -- to be facile in a culture of centuries past that only a small percentage of the population recognizes, or to be conversant with things that are important to most of the people one meets. The jury is still out on this one. I'm not going to start watching reality TV just to have more to talk about with my co-workers. But it does give one pause. I think the distinction needs to be made that when many people say "uncultured" they in fact are meaning "unsophisticated". But when it comes to popular culture, the people they are so labeling are in fact more "cultured" -- acculturated -- than they.
Tengland July 12, 2011 at 12:48 am
It all depends on when you live. Once upon a time, Dickens was popular culture, as was Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, Byron, Austen, Brahms, Twain, even Homer. They had fans, they had groupies, they had salacious gossip about their private lives. Elitist wannabees just decided that these are "classical" and "literary" and must be boxed up and put on a shelf only to be brought out in careful circumstances, such as "literary" college classes or in fine leather books or in a hall with everyone in the audience dressed formally and sitting quietly listening to tuxedo-clad musicians perform. I would imagine there's plenty of dreck we never see or hear because time has eliminated the hack writers and sorry composers so we now get only the best that there was. The idea that every composer of the pre-1900s was a genius is ludicrous. So it is now: We have plenty of dreck now we can read or hear or see, but time will filter them out eventually. Contemporary popular culture is producing plenty of material with just as much insight, challenges, beauty and revelations as anything that's come before. Those self-appointed elitists hide behind Shakespeare and sneer at "pop culture," but I'll bet pop culture fans are having a better time (even with Shakespeare). Except, of course, KISS. Do you not know that the name stands for Knights in Service of Satan? They obviously subverted you to the dark side, and you'll spend the rest of your life painting your face, wearing dark clothes and sticking your tongue out as far as it'll go. What a sad end for such a nice young man. ("heavy metal kabuki" -- nice phrasing)
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