Conservatives are “losing a whole generation of students or are severely impairing their ability to speak to them by not being able to speak to students in their own terms,” warns conservative-cum-libertarian cultural commentator Paul Cantor in a recent interview for a campus newspaper. Mr. Cantor wants conservatives to stop ignoring pop culture, although he joins with conservatives in choosing moral rather than aesthetic arguments to support his passion for programs like “The X-Files” and “The Simpsons,” the latter of which needs no defense. (“The Simpsons” is by far the finest satire on the satire-starved American TV.)
Still, the notion that conservatives are engaged in a losing battle is hard to sustain, given that they’ve been barred from the battlefield for so long. How can one lose footing one never had? The kind of teacher the Lost Generation has been exposed to is more likely to have been a progressive teacher. Furthermore, for decades, progressive schools and colleges have made it practically impossible for a conservative tutor to speak to students on any terms other than “their own.” It’s been some time, for example, since the “damaging” mention of a literary canon has been made around America’s curriculum-averse youth. Content-based, top-down education has long been supplanted by pop-culture-friendly, non-hierarchically delivered flimflam.
Besides which, reaching or teaching students by using their frame of reference rather than imparting one is an unmistakably progressive idea. Progressives have always insisted that learning must be made natural, organic. On the other hand, classicists, as E. D. Hirsch Jr. points out, see effective, analytical, and explicit instruction as very definitely not a natural but a highly artificial, often unintuitive process.
The idea that learning flows from the child is vintage romantic nineteenth-century progressivism, the hangovers from which are still with us. Mr. Cantor is probably correct: If they had access to the youth, (evidence for which, as I noted earlier, is lacking), principled conservatives ought not to be at ease with Rousseauian anti-intellectualism. Like moral arguments, however, arguments that appeal predominantly to cultural context in assessing popular culture are also insufficient.
Cantor points out that Shakespeare in his day was considered popular culture, while today Shakespeare is high culture. To say that in different eras different cultural products were varyingly endorsed or not endorsed is as meaningful as saying Dickens was popular because he was popular. Cultural relativism can end up in just such a tautology.
Moreover, should we ascertain the quality of pop culture from its popularity? I don’t think Cantor means for us to do that. When it comes to a widget, high demand would indeed reflect quality. But when the product engages man’s higher faculties, arguably not. If Shakespeare was the Seinfeld of his day, could this be evidence not only of changing standards, but perhaps also of a more elevated state among the masses in days of yore?
An insistence on cleaving to cultural context in assessing pop culture might have a chance of working if the cultural products under review are accurately labeled. The Eminem argument, for instance, would move along swimmingly if what Eminem does were labeled as street theatre—Eminem is not a musician. A more impressive form of this art is observed in Africa, where the tradition of a praise singer or a tribal poet laureate still flourishes. The tribal poet is a splendid performing artist. Mr. Cantor prophesies that “the video game is going to be the major art form of the twenty-first century.” No doubt there are some very well made video games, and, doubtless, these, like Yoko Ono’s concept art, may gain the status of art, but this doesn’t—and never will—make them art.
Incapable of systematic thought, lesser libertarians, the kind Professor Clyde Wilson has recently dubbed “dubious hangers-on,” are forever poised to turn intellectual dissent into wedge issues. Contrary to the compliance the movement’s groupies exact, Mr. Cantor does not appear dogmatic about the interesting themes he wrings from “The X-Files,” among which are globalization, affirmation of Christianity and liberty, and the end of the nation-state.
I would certainly disagree politely with his contention that “The X-Files” is “one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 1990s.” I agree with Mr. Cantor that, with a stretch, the program can, albeit unflatteringly, be conceived of as conservative. It is important to recall, however, that the show was chockablock with mysticism and mythical thinking. Those aspects suggest that the show’s conservatism is at best a highly idiosyncratic one. It seems very unlikely that liberty could flourish in such an atavistic atmosphere thick with conspiracy, emotionalism, superstition, and a cult-like obsession with the freaky and the bizarre.
Neither is it clear why faith in the free market must require a nearly equal faith in popular culture. Why does it follow that a product produced and exchanged in the process of making a living must inspire faith?
More often than not, the marketplace doesn’t adjudicate the quality of art or pop culture. Thus one’s artistic judgments must be animated by something more, if one thinks that there are objective standards by which popular culture or art can be judged—as the great art critic Robert Hughes seems to think (rather uncontroversially, I might add).
The market does no more than offer an aggregate snapshot of the trillions of subjective preferences enacted by consumers. Aguilera (Christina) probably sells more than Ashkenazy (Vladimir) ever did. Britney outdoes Borodin. For some, this will be faith inspiring, for others deeply distressing.
Irrespective of cultural ordination, high and low art have always mingled across time. Hungarian Magyar folk songs are used to great effect in Bela Bartok’s music. Hughes points to the influence of jazz on Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky. Andy Warhol may have made a younger generation slobber but, says Hughes, Vincent van Gogh was eighty years ahead of him: “He loved not only Japanese prints, whose color was highly sophisticated, but also the crude, discordant, and even brutal colors of mass industrial printing.” And how good would it be if the classical timpanist would finally incorporate the complex rhythms of modern-day drum virtuosos like Neil Peart and Virgil Donati.
Yes, Cantor is right to note that many older conservatives dismiss popular culture and come off as old fogies. But for those of us who are willing to see the good in pop culture, the important thing now is to discuss the standards by which we will judge it. In the words of Hughes, the task has always been and is still to distinguish between the good stuff, the absolute crap, and everything that lies between.