My Views on Pop Culture and High Culture

25 Apr

By: Andrew Schuster

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was an example of a book that takes a popular concept, in this case magic, and putting it to use in a deeper situation than simply casting spells.  A truly good story either makes something go from very complicated to very simple or the other way around and this book did just that.  Magic is used as a sort of cop-out in some cases to explain a phenomena that wouldn’t normally happen (see: Deus Ex Machina), but in the case of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, actual social consequences and moral choices are brought into the playing field, which make a simplifying mechanism more complicated.  The ability to complicate something just by adding human context is one of many aspects which make pop culture versus high culture such a tricky subject. 

            The easiest way to differentiate popular culture and high culture is to first define them both.  Popular culture, by my own definition, is created for entertainment purposes and is usually marketed it a way to be sold.  It can cater to select audiences or it can try to be as broad as possible to include everyone.  Popular culture isn’t necessarily studied or analyzed and sometimes is molded to be what the public expects it to be.  An example of this would be the romantic comedy where the loser ends up with the hot girl and the mean guy gets tossed aside.  The genre of romantic comedy is very much a part of the pop culture scene.  By my definition, a piece of pop culture does have the potential to become high culture, basing that fact on whether the work has some sort of credibility that boosts it beyond mere words (or pictures, or sounds, or whatever medium chosen).  Superficial equates to being nothing more than pop culture.

            High culture is almost as difficult to describe as pop culture.  First and foremost, a piece of high culture has withstood the greatest test of all: time.  A piece of high culture, through some great chance, was found to be important enough to be passed along to the next generations because of something it invoked.  High culture is often associated with some sort of board of smart people who assign what is and isn’t important, but I find that to be a bit of misunderstanding.  Many works teach different lessons and especially in literature, there may be different lessons that pertain more to the academic world.  This can explain why 1984 is high culture while Fight Club is not.  The difference in time frame for both those books also comes into play.

            The grey area, the spectrum between popular culture and high culture, is the point of extreme difficulty and makes specific classification difficult for many works.  It also brings a lot of questions to the table.  Does making reference to “high class” sources make it more credible?  Is there such thing as being trashy and sophisticated?  If something is bad, can it still be high culture (such as many of Shakespeare’s less interesting plays)?  This makes pinning any piece of work to a category very difficult; even assigning it a place on the spectrum can be difficult because that results in trying to find some kind of measurement to decide what makes something worth reading and what makes it just a phase.

            This course has made me reevaluate how I view pop culture and high culture and that both are capable of coexisting.  Fight Club was both an interesting and very thought provoking read, but it also garnered a cult following due to its prevalence on the big screen and in pop culture.  I find that pop culture is really just an ephemeral assignment to whatever is popular here and now.  Whatever wasn’t important or is forgettable is eventually weeded out and in the end, the true masterpieces stand taller among the rest.

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