There is nothing more melodramatically insipid than an educated man lamenting the death of culture. Mark Judge’s article, “Star Wars and the End of Culture” is an almost painfully predictable example of the genre.
The perennial whining of the intelligentsia that nobody is willing to do any intellectual heavy lifting, or listen to really great music, or make really great art anymore has been going on for pretty much all of human history — and human culture has absolutely succeeded in thriving, renewing itself, perpetuating itself and finding new forms of expression regardless of the belly-aching.
At the heart of a critique like Judge’s, and indeed at the heart of all snobbish lamentations about the state of the culture, is a pining for a fictitious Golden Age. He writes, “While culture can certainly be comic books, movies, and pop songs, we have increasingly lost sight of, and appreciation for, the more complex and challenging works of art that can more deeply change us.”
My question is just who, exactly, has increasingly lost sight of, and appreciation for, these complex and challenging works? Judge cites examples of popular cultural crap — the music Nicki Manaj for example — and from the popularity of these productions leaps to the improbable conclusion that there has been an overall decline in the culture over the past couple of decades. (Apparently he’s forgotten that great precursor to Manaj’s “Anaconda’ — the classic musical masterpiece of a more enlightened decade: Sir Mix A Lot’s stirring and timeless magnum opus, “Baby’s Got Back.”)
And of course, he uses the insipidness of the new Star Wars movie as a cultural peg upon which to hang his battered old hat. Now, being an inveterate aesthetic snob myself, I agree with his appraisal of the movie. It is “mediocre…There is no exposition or backstory to explain the characters’ motivations. The action is relentless yet somehow boring. The destruction of yet another Death Star is particularly lazy…Star Wars: The Force Awakens is cotton candy”.
But so what? Did Shakespeare never rehash the same tired plot conceits? Did he never write anything with poorly motivated characters? Or appeal to populist sentiments? Oh wait, he did — and he is none the less almost universally hailed as the greatest writer in the English language. And you know what? When he wrote a play that kind of sucked, it didn’t cause culture to end. Even if the critics loved it. Neither did the fact that many of the people alive at the time never went to the theatre, and got their jollies flinging dung at folks who had been imprisoned in the stocks.
Here’s the thing: there was no great historic period, not twenty years ago, or a hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago, or in Rome, or in Greece, or ever, when the tastes of the majority aligned with the aesthetic sensibilities of the elites. The simple fact is the majority of people can’t understand The Brothers Karamazov, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or the philosophy of Kant, or the music of Shostakovich even if they try — and they never could.
It’s okay for the same reason that it’s okay that I don’t understand particle physics, can’t design an airplane engine, don’t know how to manage a five star hotel, can’t sew a neat French seam, don’t understand the rules of football, and will never bench-press an automobile. If nobody knew how to do these things, then there would be a genuine cultural loss — something in the panoply of human accomplishment, knowledge, achievement and culture would have slipped away into obscurity. But to imply that the majority of human beings have some kind of vague obligation to be accomplished in one particular sphere of culture (almost invariably the one particular sphere in which I personally happen to be accomplished) is simply not a maxim that is even remotely universalizable.
Judge is right in saying that “culture should not merely be passive entertainment, but an active (and often edifying) journey toward a better understanding of what it means to be human.” He is wrong in assuming that culture, in order to do this, must involve a lot of intellectual and aesthetic heavy lifting. The fact that “The Force Awakens” wasn’t heavy enough fodder for Judge to find it satisfying does not mean that our culture is in decline, it just means that today, as always, those who have sunk a lot of their character points into developing a refined aesthetic sensibility find the artistic preferences on non-aesthetes unpalatable.
Yet the truth is that many people — including intelligent, well educated people who have read Kant and Augustine, and who can tell the difference between Monet and Seurat — found the new Star Wars movie edifying. I’ve seen deeply insightful comments made about it by people whose interpretation of the characters and of the script did indeed involve an active reflection on what it means to be human. I’ve seen fathers who were deeply moved by Hans Solo’s desire to save his son, who found in that moment a deeper engagement with their own fatherhood. I’ve seen people inspired by the idea that even a Storm Trooper could chart a moral course. I’ve seen people who, in their own imaginations, invented motives for the characters that gave the story existential weight for them — and not just for them, but also for the wider circle of friends and readers with whom they shared their interpretations.
These people are doing exactly the same thing that Judge does when he finds “deep metaphors in the music of Taylor Swift or an epic like The Dark Knight Returns.” They are using a rather mediocre artistic production as a launching pad to engage with exactly those “big questions” that our culture is supposedly neglecting.
Herein, I think, lies the great discovery of the postmodern experiment: the troubling and yet exultant truth about human culture. Nothing can limit the human capacity to find meaning, beauty, pleasure, love, solidarity, and all of those great spiritual ideals in the artistic productions of our own kind. We are by nature ordered towards the perception of these goods, which is why banal art — whether it takes the “highbrow” form of a self-consciously superficial Warhol print, or the “lowbrow” form of a derivative space epic — still excites our capacity to penetrate the mysteries of the human condition.
Human culture will always strive, instinctively, towards the very ends which the aesthetic elite fears are being lost. It will do so as it has always done, amid a great deal of banality, imbecility, foolishness, cupidity and poor craftsmanship. It will do so because it is a reflection of the human heart, which strives, seeks, and finds beauty and meaning without end.
Image source: Pixabay.