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October 21, 2008

Commerciality and high-low angst

Last week I posted an entry to this fine blog entitled "A Good Day," in which I waxed nostalgic about settling in with the good ol' print Sunday paper (in my case, the New York Times) and finding a bunch of articles I enjoyed. In it I remarked that back when, the paper had "less commercial pop-culture dross (by which I am careful to make a distinction from real criticism about real pop culture)."

The phrase nagged at me after I wrote it, and then Jeff Weinstein took me to task, also in this blog, writing that he read a lot of "commercial 'dross' about that other culture, the high-rent stuff, too. It's plenty commercial, with lots of bucks invovled, especially in museums."

True, but that's not the kind of dross I meant or what bothered me about what I had written. Whining about commerciality hearkens back to the bad old days when jazz buffs and folkies, let alone classical snobs, disdained rock & roll for making money. Or when the Frankfurt School, indeed any good Marxist, would complain about "the culture industry."

We rock critics back then made a point of defending commerce, as a mechanism for rock musicians to reach the masses, meaning The People, and argued (correctly) that great art could  be made under any circumstances, even it made oodles of money and emerged from the chrysalis of a corporation.

So what was I clumsily trying to say? Just, maybe, that the always delicate balance between art (by which I've always meant work from every genre and educational background and social class and geographical point on the globe) and corporate commerce has tipped over toward commerce. When corporate imperatives gain the upper hand, the "art" can become painfully formulaic, and to my taste a lot of present-day television, films and pop music is pretty formulaic. Which is not to say that great stuff doesn't still get made, and doesn't have a maybe greater immediate resonance by reaching millions of people.

The trouble with the arts journalism in a lot of print papers today is that the publishers and upper editors, never very cultured to begin with for the most part, have capitulated to their bottom lines and, to the extent that they need justification, excuse themselves by invoking polemicists like myself and others from the 60's and 70's. They rest content that they can pay whatever vestigial debts they owe to culture in general by confining their coverage to entertainment, or commercial pop-culture dross.

Or, in the case of the Times -- which certainly still pays a lot of attention to the higher, older, more traditional arts (capable of their own kind of dross, but pace Weinstein a different kind of dross than I meant) -- to "redress the balance," in the immortal words of Howell Raines, and to degrade their arts coverage with an imbalance of attention paid to commercial dross.

In the old, old days, pop culture was ignored. Then for a while, we flatter ourselves into thinking, we paid serious attention to it but kept things in better balance. Now, even with Raines off fishing, we chase after pop like a Bobby Soxer (I write as the author of a book on Frank Sinatra). But print's in trouble, so whatever works, I guess... 

October 21, 2008 3:43 PM | | Comments (0)

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