Popular culture is artistically bankrupt, so the common wisdom goes. When it is not preoccupied with the irrelevant, the inane and the sensational, it is bound up in the trite, the banal and the self-satisfied. At the same time, self acclaimed stewards of artistic legitimacy seem obsessed with all things bleak and dispiriting. The heart of the artist, we're told, is the one that knows pain, despondence and lack. Cultural critics insist that we must choose between the vapid schmaltz of prime time television and the intellectual agony of the gallery or salon.
But, this is a false choice. Wisdom, revelation, growth of spirit, antagonism of intellect are all abundantly present in the best works of popular culture. Granted, the majority of what we see on television, read in magazines and consume over the internet is garbage, but so is most of the stuff hung on the walls of art galleries, read aloud in coffee shops and performed under the lights of black boxes. Occasionally, though, for-profit television, top forty radio and pulp paperbacks offers us a glimmer of something both positive and profound, something that can lift the spirit, something that can teach us about ourselves.
I need to disclaim that I'm not really talking about Pop Art, those works that are afforded intellectual esteem and that garnered a place in popular culture at large because of this esteem. The works of Warhol, Dali and even Hundertwasser are obvious examples. They are a different animal altogether. I'm also not talking about those bits of historical Americana that have been retroactively elevated to the level of art, the recent addition of the "@" symbol to the MOMA and a recent touring exhibit of toy robots, for instance. I'm talking about mere entertainment, about distraction and fluff.*
I've been meditating on this often lately, on these rough-found diamonds amid the vast wasteland and on how they are so often ignored, dismissed or their wisdom unrevealed. I'm starting a new series of posts on exactly this. The idea is simple, find those ideas, those memes, those manifest moments in popular culture that say something truly beautiful. I'm not looking for hidden gems. No, I'm looking for works of popular culture with which any American-raised adult would be familiar. These are creations that teach us something positive about ourselves and that are generally not considered "high art" by the people who claim to understand such distinctions. John Lennon's "Imagine" springs immediately to mind but I feel that's a little too obvious.
I'm going to be working on this for the next bit. If you have any particular ideas, let me know.
*Now, if you want to make the argument that there really is no discernible or definable border separating High Art, Pop Art and Mass Media, you're probably right. This doesn't change the fact that the distinction is implicitly made in the minds of a plurality, if not a majority of people that lack a degree in cultural studies.