Unreal Nature

September 7, 2015

Knock, Knock

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… we propose to go downstairs and knock.

This is from High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… In 1910 the cartoonist George Herriman created a comic strip, The Family Upstairs, that ran for two years on a single premise. In this strip, a family named the Dingbats, who live in an apartment in an unnamed city, are obsessed with curiosity about the goings-on of their upstairs neighbor. The Dingbats are convinced that some mad, enormous world of dangerous licentiousness and wonderful possibility exists right there above their heads. The attempt to get one small, fleeting look at the Family Upstairs becomes the Dingbat family grail, involving in the quest policemen, private detectives, Rube Goldberg-type contraptions, and endless strategizing. The Dingbats will do anything to find out — anything, that is, except simply go upstairs and knock on the door.

Much writing on the subject of modern art and popular culture has tended to have somewhat the same persistent but static plot — only here the mystery has always resided downstairs, below the floorboards of those who write books and undertake social theorizing about the literature, imagery, and amusements of the “common people” of mass society. And while the Dingbats obsession lasted only two years, the debate over popular culture — about where it comes from, what it means, and what effects it may have both on its participants and on those who try to resist it — has been going on at least since the Romantic era, when modern democracy and modern industry together began to change life in the Western nations.

… For all the sweeping ideas, subtle nuances of analysis, and arresting personalities involved in theorizing about high and low culture in modern society, it seems that a few stereotyped responses are repeated over and over again, with a dismayingly permanent narrowness.

A large part of this tradition of writing rests on the idea that low, popular culture in modern society constitutes a separate, definable body of phenomena, with its own essential nature (however bastardized or inauthentic); and on the belief that this nature is not just irredeemably inferior to the spirit of high culture, but intrinsically noxious. The world of cheap pleasures is a bad thing, we are told, because it supplants something precious we once had, or at least puts it in imminent danger of extinction. In this view, popular culture is essentially parasitic in nature and inevitably trivializes the true culture it draws upon.

… Others with more egalitarian convictions, though, welcome the demise of the castle and the court, and regret instead the passing of the cottage and the village: what they see imperiled by modernity is the possibility of any genuinely popular folkways or common culture of customs, generated by the people themselves or answering to their real needs.

… Modern popular culture is scorned, then, both because it menaces true high art and because it overwhelms true low customs. It is feared for its addiction to novelty, which seems bound to chase out tradition and overthrow established values; and at the same time (and often by the same critics) damned for its profoundly conservative tendency to swamp or co-opt any genuine alternatives, and to maintain the interests of its makers against any possibility of meaningful change.

[ … ]

… we are going to try to forestall the construction of any grand theoretical frameworks, and indulge instead our curiosity about particulars. We want to go back [to the turn of the century] and … learn more about the histories of those mundane things that lay on the fringes of [an urbanite’s] visual consciousness and have since, in part because of modern art, become so central to our vision of the world we live in. When Picasso and Braque started clipping Parisian newspapers, was there anything special about those papers, and if so why? What did graffiti look like then? When did people start paying attention to it, and who first thought it might be like art? Is caricature just a part of graffiti, and an immemorial bit of human malevolence, or does it have some history we can chart that would help us understand some of the strange faces and bizarre bodies in modern art?

… what made the differences? Individually, some of these inquiries may seem a little blunt, even simple-minded, but collectively, they and others like them may save us from the stalemates of empty theorization, and from the self-imposed plight of the Dingbats. The best big answers often arise from the smallest and most obvious first questions; starting with the turn of this page, we propose to go downstairs and knock.

-Julie

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