One night last week, Kathy and I watched Martin Scorsese’s documentary, Public Speaking, a film about the life and opinions of writer Fran Lebowitz. Among the many hilarious and pointed remarks Fran Lebowitz makes in the course of the movie, my favorite is this: "There's too much democracy in the culture, not enough democracy in the society."
What she meant was that in matters of art and literature, our public taste seems to have flattened out. Everybody seems to be writing a memoir, tweeting their opinions, expressing themselves in blogs, Facebook postings, and on urban walls. At the same time, our democratic institutions and their processes seem if anything to be less representative, and the enormous amounts of money in our political system increasingly skew the legislative results toward favoring the powerful and connected. What we need, says Lebowitz, is a return to what she calls the “natural hierarchy of talent” in our culture and a revitalization of participatory democracy in our society.
As I was ruminating on this pair of ideas, I chanced on a couple of articles about a new collection of book reviews (called Reading for My Life) by the late critic John Leonard, familiar to many from his time as editor of the New York Times Book Review and his regular appearances on CBS Sunday Morning. I always liked John Leonard’s criticism: it was marked by an original ability to appreciate both high and pop cultures. As he aged, though, Leonard became less satisfied with the pleasures of the latter. As I read a recent review of this new collection, I found myself nodding in eager assent at one of his observations:
"Popular culture is … like going to the Automat to buy an emotion. The thrills are cheap and the payoffs predictable and, after a while, the repetition is a bummer. Whereas books are where we go to complicate ourselves."--John Leonard, "Reading for My Life"
When I read this passage, I almost shouted aloud, “Preach it, brother!“ As much as I love popular culture, I find myself more and more dissatisfied after partaking of it. Following a movie or a television show, I often feel the way I do after eating at a fast-food restaurant: full, but not satisfied. More and more, what we’re offered by mass entertainment (and I’d include many contemporary novels, plays, films, and even much poetry in this category) is cheap thrills, predictable payoffs, and third-hand ideas.
One of my favorite pieces in the history of literary criticism is a 1911 essay by the British critic T.E. Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism”. (For the full text, go to http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/238694) I don’t entirely share Hulme’s taste, but he expresses, as no critic before or since has done so well, the difficulty of saying something beyond what we call “conventional wisdom”. He’s especially good on how difficult this is in writing. Here’s a sample:
The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description. The first thing is to recognise how extraordinarily difficult this is. It is no mere matter of carefulness; you have to use language, and language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise—that which is common to you, me and everybody. . . . Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas. It is only by a concentrated effort of the mind that you can hold it fixed to your own purpose. . .
There are then two things to distinguish, first the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are, and apart from the conventional ways in which you have been trained to see them. This is itself rare enough in all consciousness. Second, the concentrated state of mind, the grip over oneself which is necessary in the actual expression of what one sees.
What differentiates high art and popular culture has little to do with aesthetic style. There is schlock classical music and sophisticated rap music. What differentiates high from low art is the willingness of its maker to say something precise, fresh, and true. And both Hulme and Leonard would agree that when we are awash in a cultural sea of conventional wisdom the rare experience of the precise, fresh, and true is as welcome as a lifeboat.
Why does this matter to Christian people? It matters because, especially in Lent, we are embarked on a journey of discovery of what God is doing in our interior lives. For many of us, art is a clarifying mirror in which we see the depth of ourselves reflected back to us. Chances are, I’ll get a truer picture from Hamlet than from CSI Miami.
We are complicated creatures. After all, we’re made in God’s image. As St. Augustine said, because God is mysterious, there will always be a part of us that is mysterious, too. We get access to that hidden, divine part of ourselves through works of art that strive to break free from the bonds of cliché and convention and say something to us precise, fresh, and true. As Lent moves forward, take some time to attend to something worthy of your inner complications. In doing so, you’ll see more deeply into yourself and into the One in whose image you’re made.