Monday, November 6, 2017
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
AN ELITE FORM OF DUMBING DOWN
Recently, I came across the following quotations from the philosopher and cultural critic Hannah Arendt. They appeared in her essay “The Crisis in Culture”, first published in 1961 in her collection of essays Between Past and Future. At this point in her essay, Arendt was distinguishing between “culture” (basically great and challenging works which have come to us from the past) and “entertainment” (what is ephemeral, undemanding and basically intended to fill up our spare time).
She wrote: “those who produce for the mass media ransack the entire range of past and present culture in the hope of finding suitable material. This material, moreover, cannot be offered as it is; it must be altered in order to become entertaining; it must be prepared to be easily consumed.”
Of real works of art, she goes on to say: “their nature is affected when these objects themselves are changed – rewritten, condensed, reduced to kitsch in reproduction, or in preparation for the movies. This does not mean that culture is spread to the masses, but that culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment. The result of this is not disintegration but decay, and those who promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers but a special kind of intellectual, often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organise, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps as educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.” [Underlinings added for emphasis.]
Of course, after most of 60 years, there are some things here that now sound a little dated. Perhaps we could substitute something like Mamma Mia! for My Fair Lady and we might say “the music industry” rather than “Tin Pan Alley”, a phrase which means little nowadays. We might remark that it would be television and the internet rather than “the movies” which now do most of this cultural simplification, although the movies are still part of the process. If we read only these quotations, we might also think that Arendt is attacking pop culture and the mass media per se, and in therefore (to use the easy insult word) an “elitist”. In fact she isn’t. The essay as a whole makes it clear that she understands the legitimate functions of the mass media and also the necessity for “entertainment”. Then we might consider how, over the past haf century, television and film have been more readily recognised as media capable of rising to the status of real art.
But having said all this, I think the substance of these quotations still stands, is still a valid and accurate comment on our current cultural situation, and has stood the test of time.
I could break off my remarks at this point, and simply say “I agree” or “Well said” to Hannah Arendt. But you know the sort of verbose and pompous chap I am, so I cannot refrain from amplifying her comments by giving modern examples of the deleterious process she describes
Item: Concerning “a special kind of intellectual” I am so tired of hearing academics on radio and elsewhere informing the masses that “poetry can be FUN!!” I have never doubted the literal truth of this statement – since when has there not been a rich tradition of light and amusing verse? But the subtext of this statement now is “Let’s forget that wearisome, serious thing poetry is. Let’s make it easy-peasy. Let’s not produce anything that requires serious reading and thought.” So roll on academics producing light, whimsical verse designed to grab Demos. Result? Demos thinks that this is all poetry need be. After all, isn’t that what Professor XTZ said?
Item: “Let’s produce operas in such a way that they are relevant; that they speak to people now; that they don’t trouble people by getting them to decode in any meaningful way what the opera really has to offer.” Result? Patronising modern-dress (or undressed) productions of classic operas that narrow their meaning to something topical and often trivial. Audiences are not invited to enter into the imaginative world of the composer or librettist. They are invited to see a show similar to a “musical” or to a soap-opera such as they can watch any evening at home. We don’t want all this high culture stuff, do we? The whole process is patronising inasmuch as it assumes that the audience of this particular art form is too stupid to themseves be able to pick up whatever modern resonances an opera, produced in traditional style, has to offer.
Item: “We have to get the youth audience. We have to get a new generation acquainted with the great plays of Shakespeare. So let’s produce Shakespeare’s history plays on television as if they are Game of Thrones. Lots of power plays. Lots of sex. Lots of violence.” Thus was born the Hollow Crown series, filmed in 2012 and 2016. Sure, Shakespeare’s plays are indeed full of sex, violence and power plays – but this series stripped back and greatly abridged the texts whenever there was the opportunity to show the blood and guts, and filmed them like a horror show. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that I quite enjoyed the two seasons; but there is absolutely no way that this will get young people pursuing Shakespeare seriously. More likely, when confronted with a full Shakespearean text or an uncut production of a Shakespeare play, people who have seen the Hollow Crown series are more likely to yawn and ask “Why isn’t this more like Game of Thrones?”
Thus I could witter on with more relevant examples, but my basic message should be clear. “A special kind of intellectual” is still on the loose, and Hannah Arendt is still right.