Culture “of the people, by the people, for the people”
Browne, Ray B
Culture, to many people, was still rooted in the past, in the observations of British poet and essayist Matthew Arnold, who in the middle of the nineteenth century defined culture as “the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world.” This statement was generally confused with his definition of criticism: “A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” Arnold’s viewpoint, it seemed to be forgotten, was clouded by nostalgia and fear. His world was a “darkling plain…where ignorant armies clash by night,” and his sense of obligation to civilization was limited.
Culture: An Anachronistic Definition
Despite the apparent anachronism of Arnold’s point of view in the late twentieth century, many academics clung to it in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and some at least into the 1990s. In her Humanities in America: A Report to the President, the Congress, and the American People (1988), Lynne Cheney, then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, reported one professor’s lament over the state of American education: “Students are not taught that there is such a thing as literary excellence as they were twenty years ago. We are throwing out the notion of good or bad, or ignoring it.” Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which became almost holy writ to countless academic administrators, advocated turning academic classrooms into Shakespearean Greenrooms where Caucasian gentlemen sat around and discussed Shakespeare’s plays and Plato’s work, with Bloom leading the discussion, as the only needed canon in modern society.
Cheney’s Report, again, quoted educator Jacques Barzun advocating “grace and beauty” as criteria for the value of literature, though he did allow that “excellence is found in many forms, some of them unassuming and even fugitive. The specifically literary qualities can grace a detective story by Dorothy Sayers or a farce by Couteline, a ghost story by M.R. James or a poem by Ogden Nash.” Barzun seemed to be concerned that Gresham’s law applies to literature as it has been said to apply to economics. But “bad” literature does not drive out “good.” The 50,000 titles published annually in the United States in at least 4 billion copies demonstrate that the world of literature “as well as literacy among many people” is rich for all. It is not “bad” literature that shuts out “good,” but “dead” ideas that often shut out new ideas and innovative ways of thinking and acting, as in the study of a people’s popular culture.
Popular Culture Studies: A Historical Perspective
There is nothing new in the study of popular culture. American academics up until the beginning of the twentieth century recognized, with Emerson, the oneness of culture. The better sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and literary critics used popular culture in their analyses throughout the early part of the century and stressed its importance.
A.O. Lovejoy in his monumental study The Great Chain of Being (1936) observed that many of us are not interested in ideas unless they come to us dressed in full war paint, when it is the small ideas or the accumulation of them that becomes significant. T.S. Eliot in his Essays Ancient and Modern (1936) recognized the importance of popular culture, on which he learned to write and which he used throughout his career, in one important testimonial: “I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for ‘amusement’ or ‘purely for pleasure’ that may have the greatest…least suspected…earliest…influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, require to be scrutinized.” It is both ironic and somehow appealing that, like Shakespeare in he electronic age, Eliot has come to be known and appreciated by the masses he despised and feared in the stage production of his work Cats.
Richard Hoggart, one of England’s perceptive cultural analysts, remarked on the same subject, “Literature at all levels has the unique capacity to increase our understanding of a culture.” To him, “The closer study of mass society may make us have sad hearts at the supermarket, but at the same time it may produce an enhanced and tempered sense of humanity and humility, instead of the sense of superiority and separateness that our traditional training is likely to have encouraged.”
Time marches on in academia, and attitudes change. “Each generation must define the past [as well as the present] in its own terms,” said the editors of the Literary History of the United States (1955). John G. Cawelti astutely observed (in The Six-Gun Mystique, 1970, one of the early studies of a popular culture subject, the Western), “Whenever criticism feels the impact of an expanded sensibility [which often is tied in with a political thrust] it becomes shot through with ideological dispute.” The study of popular culture in the 1970s was surely shot through with ideological dispute.
Students of popular culture and the popular arts keep constantly in mind the functions of the arts, and all culture, in a democracy, a point that generally has been ignored by the elite. The popular arts are always pragmatic and functional. Alan Gowans, art critic who has spent a lifetime demonstrating his point, says in The Unchanging Arts (1972), “To know what art is, you must define what it does. You can define art only in terms of function. High art historically grew out of low art, and the functions of low art have remained unchanged throughout history.” That function is to get something done–to convert the sinner, to explicate the human form, to perpetuate power–to say something about human experience. This bubbling flow of ideas applies equally well to popular culture.
The pragmatic relationship between popular culture and education was addressed directly by Ernest L. Boyer, former U.S. Commissioner of Education, in “Toward a New Core Curriculum” (NEA Advocate, April/May 1978). In this article, he sharply criticizes those educationists who speak about “liberal versus vocational” education to the disparagement of the latter. “Education,” he says, “has always been a blend of inspiration and utility, but because of tradition, lethargy, ignorance and snobbery, mindless distinctions are made between what is vocationally legitimate and illegitimate.” Boyer insists that the work ethic should play a strong role in the true meaning of liberal education. His foresight is being borne out in the workforce today, as companies and corporations now report that in our world of restricted job opportunities, three out of four people successful in getting jobs for the first time have had internships and on-the-job training.
Leading literary critic Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation (1976) observed, “One cheats oneself as a human being if one has respect only for the style of high culture.” Roger Rollin, writing in the Journal of Popular Culture (1975), argued against any form of evaluation. To him the only real authority on beauty and excellence is not the critic but the people, especially in the popular arts. “In literature,” he points out, the rule is “one person–one vote.” Popular culture represents the triumph of the democratic aesthetic. Mark Twain, Rollin might have reminded us, was proud of the fact that whereas his contemporary Henry James wrote for the select few, he, Twain, wrote for the millions. One mark of the tenacity of democratic literature is seen in the comparative numbers of those people today who, not forced by academic pressure, read Mark Twain and not Henry James.
The Range of Popular Culture Studies
In the early stages, then, the field of popular culture studies was filled with considerable questioning of its validity, of its role, and of its definition. At first many scholars, basing their definitions on the most powerful elements of culture they experienced every day, defined popular culture as the electronic media–TV, movies, radio, MTV. Now, however, most agree that such a definition was too restrictive. Normally we see popular culture as including all aspects of the world we inhabit: the way of life we inherit, practice, and pass on to our descendants; what we do while we are awake; the physical conditions in which we sleep; and the dreams we dream while sleeping.
It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments, diversions, heroes, icons, rituals, psychology, religion–our total life picture. It may or may not be disseminated by the mass media. Most important, the popular culture of a country is the voice of the people, the lifeblood of daily existence. In the United States, popular culture is presumably the voice of democracy–what makes America the country she is. It is, to paraphrase Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, culture “of the people, by the people, for the people.” As such it thus becomes America’s statement of humanity.
Popular Culture as the New Humanities
Popular culture is more and more being equated with the humanities, or what could more properly be called the “New Humanities.” The realization continues to grow that the conventional humanities have not succeeded in their function and are now either ignored, outmoded, or at least in desperate need of renovation. Acceptance of popular culture studies as the “New Humanities” arises from the ever-widening belief that in a democracy the democratic institutions, as well as the ordinary people, should be a main focus of attention and study.
As Robert Coles, psychologist and Pulitzer Prize winner, recognizes, “The humanities belong to no one kind of person; they are part of the lives of ordinary people, who have their own various ways of struggling for coherence, for a compelling faith, for social vision, for an ethical position, for a sense of historical perspective,” for a meaning–a raison d’etre–in life. If the ordinary people are searching for a true meaning of life, it seems logical for them and us to search in their own democratic culture.
Historically many academics–as well as non-academics–have looked upon the humanities and the study of a whole culture from an elitist point of view. They have insisted that the humanities teach us how to live life fully but have treated the humanities as though they were designed exclusively for the educationally, socially, and financially privileged and were to be denied to the ordinary taxpayer.
Those of us studying the “New Humanities” believe that this traditional elitist point of view is tunnel-visioned, myopic, and ultimately dangerous. Studying some aspects of culture as though in a vacuum separated from the whole society in which they existed is misleading. The “New Humanities” are all-inclusive, just as popular culture by definition is.
To many of us the humanities are more than beautiful and true statements. The humanities are those aspects of life that make us understand ourselves and our society. They are a philosophical attitude and an approach to thinking and behaving that interpret life in a human context. In other words, the humanities humanize life, make it more understandable, bearable, and ultimately meaningful in some way. In the words of British critic Fred Inglis: “The humanities are the materials with which humanity gains knowledge of itself.” The humanities cannot exist without some kind of human compassion about the experiences of life, without some kind of “togetherness” or connectedness either physical or emotional. If we understand our strengths and weaknesses and our roles in the great scheme, presumably we will have enough intelligence to develop a useful and helpful attitude and behavior toward the world. If we know the truth, or even a portion of it, we may behave sensibly. The more we understand the humanities, the more likely we are to be more nearly fully human and humane.
The humanities are the whole humanities, not Western humanities, not Eastern humanities, not African-American or Women’s humanities, but all. It is true that we are in the tradition of Western civilization and humanities, with the many biases and prejudices inherent in that tradition. Undoubtedly that tradition has many treasures that we should hold dear. But the world is much wider and more complex than we might recognize. It seems logical that new concepts be tested to see how valuable they are in enriching our understanding. Maybe it will be found that the “eternal truths” that the humanities are supposed to reveal have more effective spokespersons in sources that we have not yet recognized.
The Growth of Popular Culture Studies
In the last few years popular culture studies have received much wider and more enthusiastic acceptance in all areas of academia. Anthropologists, sociologists, communicationists, medical doctors, lawyers–everybody is turning to the broad field to help them understand humanity. At the national conference of the Modern Language Association, up to 25 percent of its papers are related to the field. “It is clear,” says Donna C. Stanton in her Editor’s Column in PMLA (May 1994), “that in various forms and degrees cultural, historical, and popular studies are shifting the scholarly and curricular concerns of some teachers of literature and that PMLA, the journal of an association of such teachers, will inevitably reflect those concerns.” “Popular culture is a mainstream field in American history now,” says David Thelen, editor of The Journal of American History (Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 16, 1994) The Popular Culture Association continues to grow, with more than 3,500 members now, and the Journal of Popular Culture, the official publication of the PCA, has over a thousand articles a year submitted for publication, of which, because of space constraints, only some sixty can be published.
Not all people have been convinced, of course. In a society where freedom of thought and expression are encouraged, many academics (among whom one always finds cautious and conservative thinkers) protest and drag their feet as they are brought screaming, as it were, into the twenty-first century.
But by and large, popular culture studies have been and continue to be an immense and expanding success. They have broken down barriers around elitism and proven that by including all aspects of and areas of everyday culture, the fields of education and the humanities can be enriched. They have demonstrated that culture “of the people, by the people, for the people,” which for better or worse is not going to disappear from the face of democracy, needs to be understood and appreciated if the democratic government it represents is not, in Lincoln’s memorable phrase, going to “perish from this earth.”
Ray B. Browne founded the Journal of Popular Culture, which he edits. He also created the Popular Culture Association, the Department of Popular Culture and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University, and the Popular Press. He is the author or editor of more than books about all aspects of culture.
Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 1994
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