Sunday, February 9, 2014

Pleasuring Yourself

It’s been a while since someone got a missive against elitist taste posted in an elite publication, so clearly we were overdue. The latest comes from Adam Sternbergh, whose piece “All of the Pleasure. None of the Guilt” is in the New York Times Magazine. The arguments contained therein should come as no surprise to anyone who knows what “cultural vegetables” refers to: Sternbergh takes up arms against the term “guilty pleasure,” rhetorically asking, “Why not be done with the whole idea that certain cultural pleasures are more edifying than others? Why not retire the familiar labels that are simply remnants of a cultural caste system?”

Such talk, as well as inane flourishes like “With the exceptions of warmongering doublespeak and racial epithets, is there any more pernicious linguistic remnant of the 20th century than the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’?” (what a trifecta), immediately smacks of baiting, but in fairness to Sternbergh, his piece is far more equitable than, say, Dan Kois’ insipid insistence on the dullness of the highbrow. Sternbergh at least acknowledges that some people might read Moby Dick or À la recherche du temps perdu because they find them genuinely enjoyable, and his mantra is less a defense of the simple than “Can’t we all just get along?”

The problem with this line of thought, as ever, is that it addresses a pervasive social problem that, quite simply, does not exist. That is not to say that people don’t sneer at tastes they find inferior, but that to suggest that elitist tastes are infringing upon the persecuted masses of Dan Brown fans is absurd. Hell, take a gander at the comments section under any negative review of a Christopher Nolan film posted on Rotten Tomatoes to see who truly has to take verbal abuse when someone disapproves of something populist. This piece, like the rest of its ilk, ultimately illuminate only the insecurity of someone who has undoubtedly worked hard to get on the payroll of an exclusive, prestigious publication, where the staff are undoubtedly fiercely intelligent and well-cultured, but feels secretly like he does not belong. It’s a common impulse, typically felt by all but the most confident people, that sense that at any moment, someone is going to catch us out, ask, “Who let you in?” and throw us out on the street. It’s when being overcritical of oneself is externalized into imagined oppressors that this gets tiresome.

By framing his argument around conjured bands of highbrow enforcers, roving the land and slapping copies of Inferno out of people’s hands and giving them The Luminaries with a cultural misdemeanor fine stuck in as a makeshift bookmark, Sternbergh even fumbles the points with which I would otherwise agree. He rightly notes that criticism so often gets it wrong and regularly reverses itself, belatedly admitting that which was initially dismissed not only into the realm of acceptability but, occasionally, into the canon. His simplification of reactionary criticism, however, fails to offer the more serious indictments of consensus, namely being bound to its social moment. When Sternbergh says that jazz, rock and hip-hop were all ignored, even pilloried, at first, he ignores the blatant racial bias at work on such reactions; given the chance to make a truly devastating jab at the limitations of criticism and the arbiters of taste, that those entrusted to highlight the emergence of something new and revolutionary are so informed by studying past works that only the next generation will pick up on what happened under their predecessors’ noses, Sternbergh whiffs.

By the same token, what Sternbergh fails to understand is that the critical apparatus that often fails to adequately respond to emergent pop culture trends is also what ultimately helps to enshrine the more worthy elements of those movements. It is when some open-minded critics pay attention to the influence a band, a filmmaker, a book start to exert and dig into it that the lines are slowly redrawn. To speed that along, we need more people sticking up for their tastes, not relegating artistic preferences to the same conversational taboo heap as politics and religion. (If this keeps up, what in the hell is anyone going to have to talk to each other about? The weather?) And it’s not just critics who engage in critical speech: musicians, artists, writers, they grow by learning from what captures their attention, first ripping it off, then, if they are great, drawing something unique from it.

(On that note, when Sternbergh writes, “Jazz has been alternately labeled low-, then middle-, then highbrow, and hasn’t much cared,” he betrays that he has clearly never listened to jazz nor read up on even a cursory history of the artform’s artistic and social evolution from minstrel sideshow to the defiant soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement, with its key musicians, almost all African-American, refusing to be thought of as mere entertainers but forcefully situating themselves as America’s truest compositional geniuses.* In so doing, he discards the forthright social and political thrust of Mingus, Archie Shepp, Miles Davis and countless others by suggesting that jazz is just jazz, man.)

I don’t know why I let this piece get to me; after all, I’ve been more than content to make a few derogatory tweets about far more bilious, self-congratulatory articles along these lines and move on. But I think it is precisely this sweeter tone I find more potentially disrupting, its false kumbaya not promoting the admirable goal of broader tastes but of leaving everything alone. That caste system Sternbergh refers to won’t vanish by getting rid of the identified barriers that separate them, it will simply remain in place, invisible. I agree with Sternbergh that reading or listening to or watching something because one feels that one “should” is undesirable, but only because people made to feel as if they should process a fixture of the canon will do so perfunctorily, without engagement. But yes, quite frankly, some works of art are more edifying than others. Ulysses will demand a great deal from the reader, but it has infinitely more to teach than a Jack Ryan book. Similarly, Jean-Luc Godard is a more enriching director than Michael Bay.

Raymond Chandler, Die Hard, The Carol Burnett Show and whatever other enduringly popular and praised works of “disreputable” genres and platforms do not survive because they were popular in their day. They live on because they set themselves apart from the pack, and whether voiced aloud as criticism or simply internalized as preference, discernment is how they attain immortality. If we took Sternbergh’s pledge to remove the word “should” from his “cultural vocabulary” as a mantra to be followed, everything would be ephemera, with a few pre-existing canonical entries to be passed down as the rest came and went with the fashion. The world he envisions is a utopia only for the industrial side of art, constantly shoveling the latest thing down the throats of baby-bird consumers who will eat it, shit it out and fork over more cash for whatever else hits iTunes or a theater that week.

It's a wonderful society!
Far better is a world in which populist tastes are not mocked but self-examined, not for the sake of justifying them but to better understand what it is about something that proves so entertaining to the individual, if for no other reason than to seek like things to provide even more pleasure. Speaking personally, my goal as a critic (apart from wanting to be paid something, anything to do it) is to constantly find better ways to articulate my tastes, not just to a reader but to myself.

Often, that has led me to more challenging work by starting from something more immediately enjoyable, or vice-versa. I initially found Breathless vexing and not particularly engaging; then I fell in love with some of the cheap B-pictures of the ‘40s and ‘50s that the film uses as a critical foundation, at which point I returned to the film with renewed appreciation, which in turn helped me push forward with the director to the point he is now one of my favorites. Frank Zappa’s mockery of the Beatles somehow helped me recognize how great the Fab Four were, and when I springboarded from Zappa to Beefheart and recoiled from the sheer weirdness, I found myself listening to Ornette Coleman who, elitist pantheon member or no, struck me for the utter beauty of his sound, which in turn helped me hear the beauty of Don Van Vliet. On the other hand, I found the more popular, less heady punk of the Sex Pistols dull, then latched on to Public Image Ltd. and came to adore post-punk, as well as the Krautrock, dub and out-there disco that informed it. Though they share substantively little in common, trying to pin down in detail what I loved about Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray and the Archers helped me to spot things in Tony Scott and Paul W.S. Anderson that rewarded my attention when I’d otherwise expected nothing better than passably diverting entertainment. I'm not remotely an expert on any of these subjects, but I'm not content to simply let them pass in and out of my brain on my way to the next thing placed in front of me.

Sternbergh is right to believe that no one should ever be made to feel like a fool for liking something (unless it's revenge porn or Stormfront), but his envisioned society is one that never challenges itself, never thinks critically and thus stagnates, unable to tell wheat from chaff. Sternbergh casually references Jane Austen as an example of the highbrow that can exist alongside a fondness for Korean revenge movies, but Austen sits in the canon not just because her work is reflective of a historical/aesthetic period of literature but because she endures as one of the great prose stylists the language has ever known, a writer of such subtle but thorough wit that an entire way of life can be mapped out in the head reading her, then demolished by her critiques of it. And if John McTiernan does not belong in a Sarrisean Pantheon, the caliber of the work he does in his field distinguishes it from, say, a Len Wiseman movie. Numerous works of intelligent, probing, argumentative criticism have made strong, impassioned cases for everything from Neveldine/Taylor to the Twilight books. Their work should not be cast aside so that “mediocre minds” (as my web friend Danny Bowes put it) never once have to feel like they should think about something.

*Hell, even with an unabashed populist like Louis Armstrong, listening to the collection of his Hot Fives and Sevens recordings show him dragging the artform forward three minutes at a time, all while remaining utterly entertaining dance music.

No comments:

Post a Comment