Popular Culture Is Something to Celebrate

Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa is probably my favorite living novelist. His work is heart-wrenching and vivid, a celebration of the power of the individual — an island of true liberalism in the sea of Marxism that makes up modern literary fiction in Latin America.

So, I was disheartened to read his most recent collection of nonfiction, Notes on the Death of Culture. In it, he decries what he sees as a devolution of modern culture from classical forms of art, to a “civilization of the spectacle.” While I make no attempt to normatively evaluate the two stacked against one another, I do think there is a lot to celebrate in this “spectacle,” as he calls it.

Replacing Substance with Entertainment?

Having "a good time, escaping boredom" has become the "universal passion."Vargas Llosa’s spectacle can basically be defined as modern forms of entertainment and mass media, and the values underlying most people’s consumption of those mediums. Having “a good time, escaping boredom” has become the “universal passion,” has led culture down the path to banality and frivolity, and has given rise to tabloid-style journalism.

The two most important factors in these developments are the post-WWII economic gains experienced by the West and certain Asian economies, and the further democratization of culture, in which literature and the arts are no longer only the domain of the elites. Now, everyone gets a seat at the cultural table which, he contends, has caused a “cheapening and trivializing” effect that has downgraded the content of our cultural consumption, to the extent that “a Verdi opera, the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones, and a performance by Cirque du Soleil have equal value.”

Vargas Llosa goes on to talk about his own area – literature – troubled that it has fallen prey to these same market forces. The most popular works of our times is “‘light’, easy literature, which, without shame, sets out to be — as its primary and almost exclusive objective — entertaining.” He makes clear that he is not saying there are many talented authors doing this type of work, but that the culture encourages this at the expense of other, more serious work:

If today it is rare to see literary adventures as daring as those of Joyce, Woolf, Rilke, or Borge, it is not just down to the writers. For the culture in which we live does not favour, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers. Today’s readers require easy books that entertain them and this demand creates a pressure that becomes a powerful incentive to writers.

Precedent of Popular Culture

However, these are all things we should celebrate. A lot of aspects of modern commercialism are seen as crass and unsophisticated as they begin, but are in fact signs of a healthy transition from a more static, less exciting time to one where people are more fully integrated into complex social systems that create value on an unprecedented scale. Globalization, trade, and cross-cultural exchange have created an expanded “menu of choice” for cultural products, to borrow a phrase from economist Tyler Cowen.

Populist opera and jazz were first seen as unsophisticated too.This crass commercialism helped create the modern world. Historian Thaddeus Russell has called shopping “the real American Revolution.” Life for early 19th century Americans was dull, dreary, and boring. You worked all day, had to make your own clothing, rarely traveled far from home, and you believed leisure was bad. There was no weekend. The books that were available to you (the only form of entertainment you had) were mainly moral parables.

Today, we do the opposite of all these things. I understand Vargas Llosa’s impulse, and it makes sense given his status as one of the cultural elite. But these trends in entertainment and culture emerge through a decentralized network of choices and preferences exhibited by individuals in the marketplace. And those preferences evolve over time.

In 19th century Italy, opera was the popular music of the day. Jazz was incredibly popular in America in the mid-20th century. As these genres were growing, they too were seen as unsophisticated. Today, we have Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Netflix, a host of YouTube sensations, and reality television. They don’t have to be Mozart, Verdi, or Van Gogh in order to add something valuable to today’s world. Clearly, their consumers have already figured this out.

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