Monday, May 22, 2006


It is a common feature of traditionalist critics that they will attempt to theorize that traditional high art is objectively good and that anything else is objectively bad. This is amusingly constricted by one's tradition, so that for instance Russian harmonized chanting can be good or bad, depending on whether you are embracing that tradition or rejecting it as an innovation.

So here we have Daniel Mitsui railing against popular culture. Well, specific media, at any rate, as proxies for it. I'm surprised he doesn't take a few swings at modern high culture, but as he hasn't I'm to be deprived of the amusement of watching him try to drag himself out of that intellectual swamp.

Popular music and popular culture, as it is, presents enough problems. One only has to look at the situation of music in the early 20th century, particularly as it involves Americans. The class meanings of different categories and even nationalities are bloody obvious. Folk music of the period doesn't exist as, well, folk music; it exists as a sort of upper class archaeology, rendered acceptable by the suave touch of Vaughan Williams or Grainger or Sharp or Child. Gottschalk was reduced to popular music by dint of being an American. Gershwin, writing for the theater and the "dance" orchestra, swasn't respected as high culture.

Is American shape-note music folk music, or not? Well, it doesn't neatly fit into any slot. On the one hand, it is an isolated subculture; but on the other, it has from the beginning relied upon the technologies of printing and travel. And while we're at it, relying on the technology of music for income can be traced right back to Byrd and Tallis getting a monopoly on music printing.

What about Tchaikovsky's church music? Is it an imitation, or the real thing? Is the distinction even meaningful? I would say that it isn't.

And so, on it goes. It's very hard to point to popular culture as anything different from low culture-- which is to say, as a class difference-- before the late 1800s. Popular culture is a function of prosperity, of the lower classes being able to purchase art as easily as the upper classes. In music, it is closely coupled with the appearance of pianos in middle class homes, and then with recordings. But a funny thing happened: middlebrows took over the old high culture, and therefore the high culture had to invent something new-- preferably something that the middle would not appropriate. That's how we ended up with 20th century "epatez les bourgeous" "High Art With Furrowed Brow" (Peter Schickele, with lots of reverb). This freed pop culture to be the anti-culture that it is today.

But then again, the notion of artists as "humble craftsmen" is laughable. Artists as a group are notoriously arrogant-- often with some reason, of course, inasmuch as they express their talents. They are also prone to theorizing, a trait particularly evident starting in the 1800s, but also conspicuous in the theory-happy middle ages. Nor is the artist-superstar a particularly modern idea. Nodern communications and prosperity simply allows the lower classes to participate in the phenomenon, and thus amplify it.

If there is an argument to be made, it is in the totality and immediacy of film. I have always sensed something akin to envy on the part of wordsmiths in particular when they talk about music, and some of the same feeling I sense in discussion of film. Music is granted a gateway into the psyche that is barred to mere talk, a channel deemed dangerous in its power and disrespectable in its "irrationality". I see that film gains the same power.

But the notion that one will put such time to better use is verging on juvenile in its laughability. Some of us are destined to be polymaths, and some of us just need a break from shovelling coal. And a lot of us who fancy that we might be polymaths are destined to be no more than dilletantes.

Over in Serge's blog, where the real action on this seems to be taking place, Mitsui said (among many other things), "I see natural traditionalism as the primary way that the faith is preserved, not catechisms or papal pronouncements (the metaphor I use is that those are part of the armor, not part of the knight). Catholic art and liturgy and music and culture are part of Catholicism - to reduce the "teaching of the Church" to the moral and doctrinal precepts is to ignore the Church as an incarnate reality and an actor in history." Natural tradition is "doing what you've always done", and that's not Catholicism. Roman Catholic art is every bit as systematized as Roman Catholic doctrine; indeed, the schoolmen didn't see a distinction between one and the other, nor did their followers in later days feel any much compunction to halt its development at any given point. Going "back" to the middle ages was the province of Anglicans, not that they ever succeeded in truly doing so. But for many years the division between Anglican and Roman art ran neatly between Abbot Suger and Palladio, with the Romans firmly on the side of innovation in this.

I'm not going to see The Da Vinci Code. partly it's because, having children of a certain age, movie going has to be carefully rationed, and by most accounts this one isn't worth the aggravation. Part of it is because I would have to resist throwing rotten tomatoes at all the misrepresentations. But I'm not going to reckon this as unto righteousness.

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