Last night I read this at the Daily Dish:
A reader reminds me, apropos this post, of the great quote from Philip Larkin on "difficult art." It's in his wonderful collection of music criticism, "All What Jazz." In it he writes that the great bane of modern jazz and other forms of modern art is that they "take what was once among our pleasures, and place it among our duties."Well, I have a lot of fondness for curmudgeons, but I had to hit the bed and sleep on it cause I was so worked up.
Rarely has the occasional wisdom of curmudgeonly prejudice been better expressed. Which goes for much of Larkin, of course, that crotchety, reactionary dreamer.
Here's a proposition I'm gonna put out there that you kind of have to just buy into, because it can't be proved: I like reading Ulysses. In fact, I love it. I get pleasure out of it. Now here's a thought that is a necessary adjunct: my liking Ulysses is not a statement of value about what other people like, or even worse, a statement about the value of other people who like different things. People take that for granted with 99% of the art and media we consume. But for some reason, when it comes to art that is considered high brow, avant garde, or difficult, people assume judgment. I can't help but think that this assumed judgment plays a big part in attitudes like Andrew's.
"Difficult," when it comes to art, is a difficult word. The idea that there is a contradiction between deriving pleasure from something and being challenged by something is undermined by anyone who has ever played a sport or a video game, hiked a mountain or done a 1000 piece puzzle, surfed or sailed or learned to play guitar. There are all different kinds of pleasures to be had in arts (literary, visual, film, musical, and whatever else). Sometimes what you want is art that announces its pleasures right away, where you can't miss what is enjoyable and where the gifts are immediate. Sometimes what you want is art that challenges and undermines your expectations, that gives its pleasures up grudgingly and in part, and that destabilizes you and what you believe. Both have value. The beauty of it is that, in theory, the choice is yours, and there's no penalty for sticking to any one path.
But only in theory. I would like to ask those who don't like difficult art to practice a little empathy. Because those of us who like books like Ulysses or Carpenter's Gothic, Japanese noise rock, the movies of Bela Tar, or sundry other art consistently labeled as intentionally difficult are constantly being denied that choice. I can't tell you how many times someone, in real life or on the Internet, says in one way or the other "you can't really like that" in response to a particularly challenging work of art. So many ideas seek to undermine the very concept of personal taste and idiosyncratic artistic desires: you only say you like this to be cool/appear arty/justify your graduate program/be a contrarian/feel smart, and on and on. It's not enough for people to say "this is bad" or "I don't like this," which is to be expected. For whatever reason, people feel compelled to deny the very existence of disagreement on the merits of these works. And you'll note that, despite the stereotype, the opposite attitude is vanishingly rare. I have certainly never said "you shouldn't go see Transformers 7, that's too lowbrow," and I find that sentiment almost totally absent from discussion. To say that the people going to see such a movie don't really like it is, I would wager, literally unheard of.
If I can't inspire any sympathy in you, please consider the question in purely practical terms. As someone who comes from a geeky/pop culture loving family, I have been sad to gradually become more and more disgusted by the edifice of pop culture fandom online. I have because I find ingratitude such an ugly failing, and if there is one thing that animates the geek/fanboy mainstream (lovers of comic books, video games, sci fi, fantasy, etc.), it's ingratitude. Everything that is produced in pop culture is made for you, yet the constant attitude is "nobody respects us." Every other movie is a superhero movie. TV is packed with sci fi and fantasy. Video games are omnipresent. And yet all I hear from fanboys (a term I have used in the past with endearment) is the idea that they are some terribly marginalized and oppressed minority. Bullshit. The respect that matters is respect from the commercial establishment, and they have given you everything you want.
Meanwhile, consider people who like the difficult, the abstract, or the obscure. Think of opera fans. Think of fans of orchestral music. Think of fans of live, non-musical, experimental theater. Think of fans of drama that centers on tragedy and adult relationships. They get so much less than those who love pop culture. Pop culture is inescapable; "high-brow" (or whatever) culture is hard to find. To act as though we have too many books like Ulysses and not enough like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is to take the conversation into the realm of fantasy. The continued existence of much traditional art is very much threatened. The continued dominance of pop/fanboy culture is assured.
I do like to talk up difficult and avant garde art. Not because I want to lecture or scold, but because there can be such pleasure in it, and pleasure accessible to a far wider array of people than you think. It will never cease to amaze me how many people claim not to like poetry until they have an enthusiastic guide sit down and explore a poem with them. Such a relationship can be a beautiful thing. Also beautiful is the fact that you never need to just choose one or the other. Lord knows I play too many video games.
Just like in politics, the idea that someone, somewhere is sneering at you is a terrible guide for your own behavior. You've got a lot to gain by abandoning the idea, and nothing to gain from keeping it. Personally, I think a lot of this stuff is wrapped up in attitudes that we've got to abandon-- conflating close-mindedness with populism and over reading cultural cues for fear of the dread "snobbery." Whatever the case, consider whether it isn't better simply to say that God made fleas and whales and pronounced both good.