catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 12 :: 2008.06.13 — 2008.06.27


Pop culture = low culture?

Recently my husband and I started a blog in the hopes of encouraging critical cultural engagement and generating conversation about the media in our lives. When writing our “About” page, my husband, who majored in Communications with an emphasis in Film Studies, waxed philosophical about what he considers to be false categories: “high” and “low” art/culture. In the end our bios took a less theoretical direction, but the discussion left me wondering…if “high” and “low” are inappropriate labels for classifying cultural media, then where does that leave us? Are there other labels we could use more accurately? Or are categories just inherently problematic? My questions prompted me to conduct the following interview with my film-nut, pop-culture-loving husband. (One note: We use “art” and “culture” fairly interchangeably.  We’ll save the debate over those labels for another time.)


What is wrong with using “high” and “low” to categorize cultural media?

“High” and “low” are pretentious labels and patently unfair categories for evaluating culture. Using these labels creates a false line of demarcation where what’s “popular” can’t be considered “art.” They are especially unhelpful because they are so relative; things once considered “pop” (i.e. “low”) culture are now “high” culture.

Give me a couple of examples of this relativity.

Shakespeare wrote for the cheap seats, but now his work is the crème de la crème in English Lit. classes. And jazz was once considered a low form of music, now its regarded to be a higher class of music. That just shows how arbitrary and unfair those labels are.

What about the term “pop culture”?

It’s accurate as a general category for contemporary art and culture; whatever is contemporary is what’s popular, so in a sense it’s a redundant term. In any case, its use shouldn’t be as a diminutive category of overall culture, that is, “pop culture” shouldn’t be another way of saying “low culture.”

Are there any labels or categories that can help us think about culture?

In any cultural medium, there are good ways and bad ways of producing that particular art; it should be judged as a matter of its quality. If the medium is true to its genre and its forms then it is good. The debate should be good vs. bad, not high vs. low.

But aren’t the categories of “good” and “bad” just as problematic as “high” and “low”?

No. In order for art to be good, it must have an element of both aesthetic good and moral good. Art that exploits the human condition—for example, most reality TV or even game shows—can’t be considered good. But engaging storytelling in a half-hour comedy or hour-long drama on television might very well communicate truths. If the show also bears good production value, acting, etc., then it could be called a good show. But using “good” and “bad” as one’s only rubric for critique can quickly just turn into a thumbs-up/thumbs-down review, which I would also discourage. Taking into account a work’s whole package when critiquing is crucial; thus just dismissing something because of nudity or swearwords is also unfair. But that’s a whole other can of worms for some Christian circles in their approach to art.

Still, can’t “good” and bad” be as relative as “high” and “low”…

I’m not saying we should rely on “good” and “bad” as replacements for other labels. I think culture should be critiqued. We should ask what works, what doesn’t; what’s done well, what’s done poorly (based on the genre and its forms); and our criticism should call out the exploitive, the honesty and truth, and the challenging.

So really for you it comes down to an emphasis on full, honest critique?

Every mode and genre has its experts, but none of it [culture] is out of the average person’s understanding. Justin Timberlake may create music that’s less complex than Bach, but both operate within parameters that are teachable, understandable. Therefore, both can be critiqued by musical standards, by professional critics and individual participants alike. To dismiss popular things because of their mass appeal is then just poor criticism.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “How self-indulgent to share this interview,” and “Who made these two the authority on cultural labels? I disagree with their conclusions.” Well, that’s just it. We aren’t experts, but we believe every individual who participates in culture should be their own best critic. We hope that any individuals interested in art and culture will take the time to ask the same sorts of questions of themselves, that they will think about the labels they choose to use, and that they will thoughtfully engage the medium rather than allowing obtuse categories to take the place of honest critique.

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