A report from the front, or at least from the recent past: 3 New York Times articles from this summer
What is particularly interesting about these articles is that they were not planned as a series. Rather, Dan Kois’s initial article from the Sunday Magazine provoked strong reactions with many people, including two of the Times’s regular Arts Section film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott. Since the series stems from a disagreement among the Times’s staff (what we would assume to be an extremely “cultured” or “highbrow” group to begin with), their discussion on how we are (or should be) experiencing the arts highlights how multivalent our current understanding of “high” and “low” art can be.
In Kois’s intial article, he focuses on a phenomenon he calls “aspirational viewing”. He suggests that we watch some of visual media specifically because we know it is more than we can understand, but that we want to try to understand it. Kois suggests that we watch unbearably slow films (or, in the case of his daughter, cartoons with referential humor like “Phineas and Ferb”) because of the social cachet they carry as important works of art. Kois may sometimes be moved by the films, “But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?” Kois concludes that he has less and less patience for “eating his cultural vegetables”.
Dargis and Scott passionately disagree, claiming, for example, that it is not slow films, but rather lackadaisical sequels like The Hangover: Part II that are truly boring cinema. I will let you read more of these articles for yourselves, and will instead note where I believe each of these authors make good points. While my knee-jerk reaction would be to disagree with Kois, his article does well to address how we perceive culture in our own experiences, rather than make statement about what art “should” be. The hierarchies within art set up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (as described by Levine) deeply engrained within us a sense of betterment through higher culture. We developed a sense that education was required to understand “higher” art forms, and the middle classes actively pursued this education to distinguish themselves from lower classes. Kois’s “aspirational viewing” speaks very well to this sensibility, as well as to a certain guilt that perhaps this is not the best way to view culture. We could certainly turn his discussion of film over to music: is there anything that you have “aspirationally listened to,” whether slow moving or not? If you have listened to or watched all of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, for example, were you attentive the whole time? Should you have been?
However, Kois is merely working within an understanding that certain types of films must be better than others. Are all slow films really better for you culturally? Are they really all harder to watch than faster fare? Obviously not, but Kois seems to suggest that we are simply stuck in these hegemonic views, without much way out aside from apathy.
One of A.O. Scott’s comments from the third article (“Sometimes a Vegetable is Just a Vegetable”), on the other hand, exemplifies the new pluralism that Levine describes in his epilogue. Scott specifically rejects the notion of “high” and “low” as useful to their discussion.
I guess my own aspirations are always to see something interesting, and ideally something that will challenge my expectations and prejudices and show me something new about life, love, art, whatever. I don’t believe that certain kinds of work have a monopoly on offering this kind of experience, and the history of movies as a popular art form proves as much. So I don’t want to get pigeonholed as a snob or an elitist, or as someone who believes that one kind of movie is a priori better than another. Thinking in categories — high and low, trash and art, entertaining and “serious” — is a shortcut and an obstacle, and it leads inevitably to name calling and accusations of bad faith. “You’re a snob!” “Well, you’re a philistine!”
The suspicion that only certain kinds of people like certain kinds of movies slides into contempt for the movies themselves, which flourishes on both sides of the supposed high-low divide, and other divisions as well. Action movies are for guys; romantic comedies are for girls; animation is for kids; subtitled movies are for skinny people dressed in black. And so on.
Scott’s democratic view of culture is laudable in many ways, especially that he goes beyond the slippery “high/low” divide to discuss cultural divisions that parse audiences by gender, age, or race. Scott’s view is ultimately rooted in a sense of individual agency in our ability to deconstruct long-standing categories. While Kois’s does not directly respond to this, his article suggests a culturally deterministic view that might criticize Scott’s individualism as naïve. In Kois’s view, cultural categories form a “habitus” from which we cannot easily escape.
Levine suggests that we are currently at a point of great deliberation and confusion over culture and hierarchy, caught between a variety of more or less democratic ways of parsing society. This series of articles epitomizes this current sense of uncertainty.