People Need Escapism As Much As They Need High Art

Do you remember O Brother, Where Art Thou? It was a Coen Brothers
film based on The Odyssey, a book the two claimed they'd never read.
In fact, the movie took its title from a classic Preston Sturges film,
Sullivan's Travels, which, appropriately, I've never seen. The plot is
roughly as follows: a comedy director worries that the fluff he's been
making isn't important enough for society; he then gets accidentally
beaten up and sent to prison, where he learns from the prisoners that
his movies actually help them briefly forget their troubles and
preserve their humanity. Basically, people need easy escapism as much
as they need high art. As a defense of the social importance of
entertainment, it's a good way of framing this blog.

Now, entertainment is a fairly loose term for a very broad concept I'm
outlining. Any positive reaction that art engenders, that's
entertainment: the feeling of being moved or touched; goosebumps,
laughter or tears; increased understanding, knowledge or
self-awareness. If an audience member felt any of these things and
wasn't bored, then he or she was entertained, and the art did what art
is supposed to do. All art possesses this capacity. You can be as
amused by Rembrandt as by Groucho Marx, and as awed by Steven
Spielberg as by Arnold Schoenberg.

Nonetheless, most art is divided (by the snobs, anyway) into high and
low culture. "Low" comprises all mass entertainment and pop fizz, as
well as virtually everything that has ever been considered cool or
liked by anyone under the age of 30. However, there's a statute of
limitations of a century or two, so ancient low culture (like Homer or
Shakespeare) can ferment into high culture given the passage of time.
As long as snobs haven't mutated out of the gene pool, Roger Corman
and Green Day should be accepted into the pantheon somewhere around
2200.

Not that all pop culture is good. Some -- like Britney Spears, or that
abhorrent hotel heiress -- is less "culture" and more "direct marketing,"
and its existence doesn't uplift us, it demeans us. But the
distinction between good and bad has nothing to do with money or
popularity. As a general rule, a sleazy quick buck made by a guy on
his own is far better than a sleazy quick buck made under a Svengali
(or by a soulless nematode like Paris): at least there's poetry in the
soul of the individual, despite any coarse commercial instinct driving
the art. Think of Andy Warhol, or Philip K. Dick, or the Ramones. Even
though they wanted to make money, they stumbled into greatness despite
themselves. And that's as it should be. As Steven van Zandt has said
of the countless rock groups playing out of tune and dreaming of
greatness, "Keep in mind that, one hit wonders or not, every Garage
band wanted to be stars."

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be rich or famous, and nothing
wrong with loud, garish, cornball excess, to a point. (It's something
I admire about Russians, whose greats from Tolstoy to Tchaikovsky have
never hesitated to turn on the histrionics when necessary.) And there
isn't a thing wrong with enjoying having your emotions manipulated,
since that's the idea behind every romantic comedy and horror movie,
not to mention every grindhouse exploitation or softcore flick that
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez idolize. Art moves us, whether
it's high or low, no matter how grubby its intentions. Ain't nothing
guilty in that pleasure.

What's wrong is wanting your emotions manipulated specifically in
order to join a group or a crowd, not out of love for the art but out
of fear of being your own person. It's like the difference between
plaid and patchouli. Once upon a time, plaid may have been a fashion
statement, but now it just represents something hopelessly behind or
out of the times. Wearing plaid nowadays makes a fashion statement:
you're placing yourself in a certain era, time and place, wearing
something hopelessly unmainstream for effect, marching to a drumbeat
that only you hear. You're not joining a crowd, you're digging your
own weird retro trip, and more power to you.

On the other hand, patchouli oil is just as aesthetically appalling as
plaid, but it represents something far worse: the desire to smell
repellant solely in order to be a part of something you're not. It's a
political statement masquerading as a fashion statement. Even in the
'60s, being a hippie wasn't about not showering or shaving. It was
about believing in a better future through new music, new politics,
and replacing war with love. Over time, that notion got replaced by a
shorthand of incense and beads. When someone douses their apartment in
scented oil because they think they're striking a blow for nuclear
disarmament, that's when culture dehumanizes us.

So, better plaid than patchouli. (There's my Tom Friedman moment.)
You've gotta have the courage to be your own freak, and raise that
flag as high or low as you see fit. Power to the people.