Pedestrian Pleasures

Posted: January 12, 2009 in Culture, Idle Nonsense, Taste

The tag line Are you climbing or descending? was originally intended to be a challenge to readers along the lines are you contributing something positive to the culture or dragging it down? There may be an argument for stasis, but if one isn’t moving forward, stasis is tantamount to steps backward. Now that my blog archive goes back nearly three years (go ahead and investigate!), it’s clear that while that overriding concern is still present, it has only been articulated rarely.

Myriad influences push up and pull down on our cultural sensibilities at any given point, and it’s safe to say that nothing stands still for long in the cultural moment. Further, tensions have always existed between good taste and pedestrian taste (such as my penchant for alliteration), just as intellect has ever been in conflict with ignorance, or to use a more charitable term, folksiness. The culture used to reward those who strove and attained good taste with some measure of esteem, but the imperatives to develop refined sensibilities have largely disappeared. Put a different way, people usually grow out of the simple pleasure of straight sugar (think of pixie sticks or cotton candy) toward more a sophisticated palate. Similarly, many of us start out liking soft, buttery cheeses and medium roast coffees with lots of cream but progress to hard, bitter cheeses and black, dark roast coffee or even espresso. In music, we begin with nursery rhymes and camp songs and eventually discover pop music, rock music, and perhaps jazz and/or classical music.

I don’t mean to suggest that simpler tastes borne out of childhood and adolescence are inferior to adult tastes; they have their place in the normal development of adult sophistication. However, many adults live in a cultural space that’s a clear example of arrested development — they’re stunted. As adult children build to critical mass, the demographic effect in many fields, especially popular entertainment, is the so-called race to the bottom. This can be witnessed readily by the most successful offerings of the Hollywood system. Despite what critics tell us, the best films (in terms of box office, which is what gets films made) dispense with story, character development, and insight into human nature — all hallmarks of classics of literature — and become vehicles for delivery of pure spectacle to stimulate the adrenal gland.

My tastes even from late adolescence veered heavily toward refinement. That’s what attracted me, though it doesn’t make me better than others precisely, just more … refined. So, for example, I read literature and nonfiction rather than potboilers and Harry Potter books, I favor wine over beer, I listen to classical music and jazz much more than pop or rock, and I ignore TV and professional sports altogether. And I’m critical about what I allow into my consciousness, meaning that I don’t trust the obvious propaganda machine that the news and dominant culture clearly are (and probably always were). Pedestrian pleasures no longer work for me.

The argument could be made that the baseline level of culture has risen over time and that producers of popular culture, especially movies and music, have become more sophisticated. I agree to a point: purveyors of crap have gotten more effective in their manipulations of mass market taste. But they’re still bottom feeders, supplying cultural products aimed at the lowest common denominator. One point I sometimes make, usually lost on others, is that by allowing so much visual stimulation into one’s consciousness, the emotional centers of the brain/mind are stimulated, as opposed to the linear and rational thinking encouraged by verbal media. A conversation is superior to a YouTube video; a book is far superior to a movie; nearly everything is superior to TV. There is science to support this, of course, but really few care because most are more persuaded by their own seat-of-the-pants experience than by some abstract appeal, meaning truth.

This is a rant without a purpose, really. I am well acquainted with being in the minority opinion and being ignored when my blog posts gore someone’s ox (but I like Adult Swim!) Go ahead and comment. We’ll have a conversation.

  1. I commend you, Brutus, for grabbing the bar and trying to raise it. Your post suggests several perspectives.
    Such as, before elite became a political handicap, it sometimes defined a clique anxious about its superiority and loath to allow outsiders in. I hate that. And I hate feeling left out while (what looks like) everybody else revels in entertainments I find low.
    Yet life necessarily carries a lowest common denominator. Possibly our society is encouraging adults in “arrested development” because the population is aging. It has fewer true adolescents. And, despite all the double wide strollers, fewer babies.
    Of course this must be a problem only in spots. Otherwise, half the world’s population would not be younger than twenty-five (a statistic I recently read.)
    Educate the world but respect our diverse cultures. No one knows whether the pendulum metaphor applies or not. If it does, let’s assume this is the nadir.

  2. Brutus says:

    Thanks for your support, Kathleen. In other corners of the Internet, I’m being denounced for being a snob, and the argument is being made that levels of excellence and mediocrity (and of course decrepitude) are present in all human products and activities and that discriminating among those products and activities doesn’t really matter so much. I don’t subscribe to such relativism.

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