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bart

Everything Bad is Good for You

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A number of threads recently have flirted with the the influence of pop culture on ballet, music, and the other arts.

In this week's THE NATION, there's an interesting review, by Russell Jacoby of UCLA, of two books on the subject:

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Pop Cutlure is Actually Making us Smarter (Steven Johnson, Riverhead)

Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way you Live it. (Thomas de Zengotita, Bloomsbury).

Here's the Link

The starting point appears to be the thesis of Josef Weber, described as "a forgotten essayist who pondered, among other things, popular culture, which did not please him." (This was back in the 1950s). Among Weber's points, apparently, is the idea that people increasingly know about things and decreasingly about social reality." Jacoby paraphrases: "Later reformulated as the law of the falling rate of intelligence, it posits that intelligence sinks in society as the production, selling and advertising of commodies rises. We face a cris of the overproduction of idiocy."

Recent Ballet Talk threads on the topic leave the impression that several of us seem to take an intuitively Weberian position, while others are more tolerant. This review -- thoughtful and very shrewd indeed -- helped me in my own attempt to reach a balanced view.

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The link only gives you the first two paragraphs, unless you subscribe to The Nation.

So, not being able to read Mr. Jacoby's more balanced position, I'll stick with my own intuitively formed one :)

More seriously - is the full article available online, or only in the print edition?

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Sorry about the link. In the interest of full disclosure, I shouldl have included myself among those who are "intuitively Weberian."

I tried to find a way to download the full article, but you need a subscriber's registration. The site has recently been redesigned. Some content is available to all -- but not this one.

Here are some of Jacoby's points:

"Steven Johnson, a savvy writer on technology and its pleasures, offers a thorough-going challenge to [Weber's] bleak outlook on popular culture. To be sure, Johnson's contrariness may be a pose, inasmuch as it depends on opposition that has all but melted away. Apart from a few depressed followers of Josef Weber and his ilk, who today believes in falling cognition?" Champions of popular culture can be found throughout this broad land. One need not venture very far to discover courses on soap operas, situation comedies of Star Trek offered by cultural studies professors... To be sure, doubt about the legitimacy of their subject matter haunts even the most avid boosters of popular culture. I sometimes ask my students a variant of an Internet dating uestion: Whom would you rather date, someone who indicates their favorite pastime is to stay home to play video games or to step out to a ballet or museum? Even the most avid enthusiasts of television balk at dating their own soul mates."

"Johnson tells a 'progressive story,' in which popular culture, far from dumbing us down, becomes ever more complex, intellectually stimulating and sophisticated each year." For instance, he compares the single narrative structure of an old Dragnet episode with new shows like The Sopranos which juggle numerous characters, plots, etc. He finds the Fox series "24" to be "at least three times as complex as the old Dallas." Films, Johnson says, are also becoming increasingly complicated.

Jacoby responds: "How complex is complexity? Or, more precisely, does an ability to master complex narratives and intricate games reflect an expansion of general intelligence?" The recognition of attention-deficit-disorder shows that many people today cannot focus on one thing for long -- not usually associated with high levels of "intelligence" Jacoby: "The new complex intelligence does not foster a capacity to follow the 'sustained' argument of a typical book. Johnson must make this concession -- after all, he offers us an argumentative book, not a blog or a video game." Jacoby's final word on the book, which he praises generally: "Media complexity may express the dwindling force of cognition in the era of attention-deficit-disorder."

Edited by bart

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One of the problems I have with the argument is that art (for which pop culture is being substituted) isn't supposed to make us "smarter." It is supposed to feed our imaginations and our souls and enrich our lives.

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I haven't read the book yet, but I haven't seen any reviewer state that Johnson's argument is that pop culture should replace high culture or that it nurtures the soul. The only point made is that pop culture is uniformly rejected as junk food for the mind, and that's the one he's trying to refute by showing the way it helps the mind.

I prefer a win-win situation: getting smarter and having my soul nurtured.

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What about this point about weak concentration and attention-deficit. With an art like ballet, isn't so much of the beauty in the details? Doesn't ballet require precisely the kind of extended concentration (as well as cognitive knowledge) that Jacoby claims is in deficit in our culture?

Much of the popularity of show dancing, interpretive dancing, Fosse movements, acrobatic dancing, etc. -- as well as the sexualized dancing now being discussed on another thread -- is precisely that it is easy to follow, oddly predictable and familiar from other parts of our daily dose of culture. And you can often tune out for a while in the middle of a performance without missing anything essential. I would imagine that Balanchine -- or Taylor for that matter -- or even the complex steps in story ballets like Swan Lake or Sylvia -- would be very tiring for some people to follow, if they tried.

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What about this point about weak concentration and attention-deficit.  With an art like ballet, isn't so much of the beauty in the details?  Doesn't ballet require precisely the kind of extended concentration (as well as cognitive knowledge) that Jacoby claims is in deficit in our culture?

I don't think that is a generational thing. I've been attending performances of ballet and opera for almost 35 years, and there have been nappers and snorers of all ages.

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Unfortunately, it may not be possible to have it both ways. That’s the danger.

As the review bart quotes points out, many people have observed that pop culture is not always and only junk food for the mind, so I think that is something of a straw man.

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One of the problems I have with the argument is that art (for which pop culture is being substituted) isn't supposed to make us "smarter."  It is supposed to feed our imaginations and our souls and enrich our lives.

Which makes us not exactly smarter, but wiser, or at least offers us that possibility.

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For those interested in a conservative perspective on the issue of changing culture, David Brooks had a recent op ed piece in the New York Times. This was reprinted in my local paper under the title, "Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack". If you don't have access to the NYT site, you can find it at:

www.palmbeachpost.com

Go to the bottom of the main page and hit Opinion -- this leads you to David Brooks's columns.

Brooks begins with his redisovery of an essay on Hemingway from a 1961 issue of Time Magazine. Among his points:

"If you read Time and Newsweek from the 1950s and early 1960s, you discover that they were pitched at middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of convesations as the New York Boston elite. The magazines ... devoted as much space to opera as to movies because an educated person was expected to know something aobut oepra, even if that person had no prospect of actually seeing one."

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Thanks for finding that, bart -- it is an interesting essay. Here's a direct link; the piece is in the NYTimes today.

Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack

It's interesting that Brooks, rather than attacking pop culture as being what corrupted us, or blaming Joe Six-Pack for being dumb, seemed to place most of the blame on intellectuals in the 1960s who attacked middlebrow culture. Tom Wolfe has written and spoken on this -- that prior to the 1960s, the great writers and musicians and painters wanted an audience, or perhaps needed an audience because somebody had to pay the bills, and though art could be excellent, it was also accessible. When art became deliberately rarified, when artists started making work for each other rather than us, people turned away.

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I'm not a fan of David Brooks. Be that as it may, who is Joe Strauss?

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I think Brooks outlines the situation reasonably, and succumbs to his own prejudices when discussing the cause. No great surprise there, he's a political columnist who masquerades as a social commentator. If only leftist eggheads like Lincoln Kirstein and Morton Baum weren't out there trying to get the State Theater built instead of combatting the pernicious influences of Stockhausen and Yvonne Rainier, we wouldn't have this problem. He's putting the cart before the horse. I think you'd find as much evidence that artists got self-referential when their audience declined as much as the other way around.

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I'm not a fan of David Brooks. Be that as it may, who is Joe Strauss?

Joe Sixpack's middlebrow-striving-for-highbrow forbearer.

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I thought it was Jo[hann] Strauss, a/k/a the Waltz King!

I can't site the source, because I learned of it in a conversation some years ago with someone who was writing about the American arts in the 1960s rather than my own reading, but there were studies in the late 1950s that predicted a rosy future for the arts, because of the GI Bill and the liberal arts education they were receiving. Union victories had given the "working class," as it was then called, more leisure time, and this time would be spent on ... the arts. The frame of reference for these deductions were the same as Brooks cites describes -- that the middle class was always striving to better itself, to learn about high arts and culture -- going back to the New England Lyceum movement -- and that the culture changed. Now, that model would be considered paternalistic, by both the left and the right, I think, but for different reasons.

Editing, because I forgot, as I often do, to tie my point to the discussion :). City Center was one of the prime venues of "art for the middle-class" -- middlebrow art, if you will and it was in that post-war spirit of arts optimism that City Center was born. And now we're in a period of rabid anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, and I think it's interesting to look at some reasons for why and how that happened. Is it TV? Or advertising? Which led to "target markets," which led to the obliteration of anything that doesn't feed a prime "target market" happening at the same time that cultural relativism (which, I've always thought, has about the same relationship to Einstein's theory of relativity as social Darwinism does to Darwin's theory of evolution)?

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If we're laying the entire blame on Americans' presumed laziness, I think that's unfair. There are many factors at work here.

1. A large portion of the target readership for the magazines cited were stay-at-home moms, who make up a much smaller demographic group now.

2. Both the average work week and commuting time for middle class Americans are longer now than 40 years ago. For people working 50 hours and commuting 15, there's not much discretionary time left.

3. After a day of staring at a computer screen, the eyes may not be up to reading.

4. There were strong pressures towards conformity through the mid-60s. Ethnic pride was discouraged, as were subcultures of all kinds. This tended to make the pool of shared knowledge smaller and less diverse. As our multi-culti environment has continued to spread into more and more niches, the choices are greater and the Things We ALL Should Know give way, piece by piece, to Things We [Latinos/Asians/Assimilated Jews/Gays] are added in.

5. People are devoting more of their "enrichment" time to learning new skills demanded for career advancement.

6. Even as consumers of leisure activities, we have become more specialized, as evidenced, for example, by this very board.

Of course we should set our intellectual aspirations higher, but the world we live in militates against it.

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All excellent and accurate points, carbro. I especially appreciated #6, to which I'd add the opportunities to delve deeply into specialized interests, something made possible by internet and other forms of technology.

Regarding dance, there's an implication that the previous generations lived in a relative golden age. Do we know for a fact that there are fewer people participating, supporting, attending, and writing-thinking about ballet today than in the past. I find that hard to believe.

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Thank you, bart.

Another thought:

I grew up in the '50s and '60s. Art and music classes in the public schools were givens. As these programs were cut back, then cut out in so many places, is children's desire to learn to sing or play an instrument, to draw being left to wither? What about the offerings in colleges? Are there as many arts appreciation courses as there were 30 years ago? As many literature classes? Or is there increased emphasis, even in the liberal arts, toward more potentially practical courses?

Maybe some of the parents out there have some perspective on this.

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During the Great Depression, the bust wreaked havoc on music and gym in New York State, but they left the art classes. This left a generation of performers and athletes without a school-supplied outlet. Their resolve not to let their children be deprived led to the arts boom of the 50s and 60s and the concomitant rise of professional sports. Unfortunately, the arts slumped, but the sports have morphed into something like a religion, at least here.

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Thanks, Mel, for that information. It helps explain why so many of the new suburbs built in the 50s (in my family's case, Long Island) invested so heavily in public school performing arts programs and facilities.

I'd be interested to hear some answers to your questions, carbro. What alternatives do you people have in a time of declining investment in non-essential (eg. arts) education? Do-it-yourself garage bands? Synchronized swim teams?

My perspective is a little cynical, since I now live in Florida, a state which so underfunds public education that it actually gives public schools the option of giving driver's ed credit without without having to provide cars and real driving time.

(On a positive note, Palm Beach County has a superb arts high school and middle school. But next year, funds are being cut, as are highly successful programs.)

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Much of my solution involves doing things that have a distinctly political cast. I can say that much and no more without violating a Board rule.

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