Friday, November 09, 2007

Pop culture can never be called quiet, yet the echoes immortal require quiet to be heard

While I revere her work, the one major divergence I have with Camille Paglia is that I do not share her view that American pop culture is the modern incarnation of “high art”, or pinnacle cultural achievements in experiential aesthetics. I simply don’t see any concrete trend that would allow one to reasonable conclude that. Sure, certain of Duke Ellington’s works will probably last the ages. Certain of the Romantic literati — including Poe, Emerson, Dickenson, perhaps Whitman — will, too. One could add more to the list, but “high art trend” none of that makes. Mind you, I don’t see any problem whatsoever with that fact, nor am I bothered. Why? Because I see rather a challenge posed, to help foster a genuine high art in America, a challenge that, as an artist, I take on for myself and invite others to, as well. And I think the emergence of high art in America will only happen after several decades, if not several hundreds of years, of classical education in at least some decent-sized segment of the population, through several generations. On this larger point, I would be surprised if Camille Paglia would disagree. After all, the seeds for the 15th century Renaissance were planted when liberal arts education — the trivium, quadrivium, via Latin and Greek and more — was perfected in Medieval times.
This is why the growing movement of American classical homeschooling is so important. It is preparing soil. Parents and independent curriculum providers are leading the way in this. This grassroots movement has the potential to replenish Americans with both classical learning, and knowledge about America’s own founding. (And, incidentally, that Fred Thompson has focused so much of his presidential campaign on discussing founding principles such as federalism is a large part of his appeal to me.)
My view on pop culture is that it contains seeds, or potential seeds, for a high art tradition, but that plenty of planting, tending, growing, harvesting, and replanting is necessary for genuine high art to flourish. Pop culture allows for hybridity, which further requires time to restabilize. From a certain perspective, in other words, high art grows out of popular art. Take Bach as an example, where he took popular dance rhythms, out of fashion to some extent by his time, and made them immortal. Or witness Grand Opera, taking popular themes of love and loss and raising them to eternal heights. Or witness stone sculptures of the nude (see Kenneth Clarke’s, The Nude): the ultimate pagan symbol, the naked human body, made sacred.
No, attention to pop-culture ideals, and some degree of participation in it, has its place. But the artist, not to mention the young classical learner, must be able to separate from it. Pop culture can never be called quiet, yet the echoes immortal require quiet to be heard. Boiling popular culture can provide learning, as can different types of “discovery learning”, but never can either offer classical learning. I don’t see why this can’t happen in today’s America, a country filled with innumerable open spaces, and with innumerable quiet places.
Practically speaking, the classical curriculum suggested by Andrew Campbell in The Latin-Centered Curriculum is, I think, perfectly in tune with today’s America, and its vibrant (and too-vibrant) popular culture. He captures this best the chapter, “Multum Non Multa” (available online here), exemplified by this moment...

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