When he came out to see the new version of Dune, by Denis Villeneuve, the columnist of the Financial Times Janan Ganesh sat down at the computer and sent a piece to his newspaper, as so many of his colleagues surely did. He began by summarizing the argument, but stopped abruptly: “No, I’m sorry, I can’t go on,” he wrote. After composing hundreds of similar comments about the movie or series of the year, Ganesh slammed the table and wondered what the hell his generation – millennials or 40s – was doing with pop culture. Was he going to contribute to the babbling himself with another review full of clues, quotes, references, contexts, and interpretations? Had just seen Dune and he had liked it, but that was no reason to write about it as if it were a Schoenberg opera or a refutation of Hegel’s phenomenology. It was a funny and entertaining movie that only aspired to amuse and entertain: why intellectualize it so much?
Ganesh’s article bears an imperative and militant title (Stop intellectualizing pop culture) and it opens an uncomfortable spigot in the cultural debate. On the one hand, it forces us to ask ourselves if all that rhetoric with which we talk about television (as a popular phenomenon par excellence), comics, pop and cinema that does not want to be art or essay is nothing more than empty pedantry to elevate guilty pleasures to sublime aesthetic experiences. On the other hand, that mania of making intellectual readings even of Peppa Pig perhaps it is a symptom of a certain cultural illiteracy: scholarship on The Simpson can fill serious gaps in film and literature. There is a lot of presumption about knowing everything about adult cartoons to disguise that a Dickens book has never been opened.
The Monty Python humor was based on dislocating the codes of pedantry. His parodies of scholars who analyzed any nonsense with the seriousness and pomp of a Cambridge professor were recurrent. A dirty joke was treated like a Shakespearean sonnet. Have we become those Monty Python characters? Every time someone quotes Michel Foucault or Walter Benjamin to analyze Marvel’s latest blockbuster, or uses Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil to interpret the docuseries of true crime in fashion, aren’t you making the same fool of John Cleese with a monocle parodying the literary critic of the Times?
The question is all the more pertinent as the most famous professor in Cambridge today, Mary Beard, is a flat and smiling lady who travels the archaeological sites on her bike, wearing colorful sports shoes and telling jokes about the fecal customs of the Romans. Perhaps, when everyone is serious about being a scholar, true scholars have no choice but to be simple and popular, but it is very disturbing that there are so many geek experts in Star Wars with the airs of a solemn sage and both a sage of classical letters with the appearance of the neighbor of the sixth when he goes out to tend to the patio.
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The time has come to make myself foolish and summon the authority of the philosophers. Ultimately, this debate indicates that at this point in the 21st century we have the 20th century half-digested. More than 70 years after Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment, more than 80 since Walter Benjamin wrote The work of art at the time of its technical reproducibility and almost 100 after Ortega y Gasset got ahead of the German philosophers with The dehumanization of art, we keep going around the same mill. The canon, good taste and criteria are still the subject of dispute: today as then, we fight to define what is culture and what is not. In appearance, the border with walls, vigilantes and sentry boxes that existed between high culture and popular culture has long since been demolished, and any cultured person can mix in a conversation their enthusiasm for the essay passages of War and peace with his admiration for The Madrilenian, by C. Tangana, and only an uptight elitist of the worst and most rancid stuff will dare to make the combination ugly. But this harmony between high and low eyebrows is just a pose. Following Bourdieu (the last recurring philosopher that remained to be cited), pop culture is presumed to be in tune with society and the social class to which it belongs. Today it brings more distinction (and allows more flirting) to quote phrases from Mankell’s crime novels than a stanza from The wasteland [de T. S. Eliot].
Should we stop intellectualizing pop culture? No way. As much as this intellectualization produces tons of imposture, pedantry, ignorance and prejudice, the serious analysis of contemporary popular culture is an inalienable intellectual conquest. Putting up with marisabidillos geeks is a small price in exchange for enlightening and understanding the importance and influence of some creations without which nothing of our time would be understood. Without a doubt, George Lucas did not want to subvert the limits of art with his films of spaceships, but his influence has been so enormous that he deserves an identical attention to that which is devoted to Homer, who also did not think of breaking the schemes of the literature of avant-garde when he compiled those popular verses that the aedos sang from town to town.
It should not be forgotten that ballads, medieval legends, and even Shakespeare’s tragedies were the popular culture of their time. They were conceived for the thoughtless and spontaneous enjoyment of all types of audiences. In many cases, they have passed into the canon of the high eyebrow by the mere passing of the centuries, just as ugly and anodyne buildings become admirable and worthy of study when they become ruins. If the gallitos and señoritingos poets of 100 years ago had not approached cante jondo with the same admiration with which they listened to Mozart, today flamenco would not be the indisputable art that it is and its stars would not appear in the culture pages of this newspaper. The same fate would have been for jazz without the intellectuals who sublimated it in Paris in the 1950s, and perhaps the cinema would not be art (not even the seventh) without the plasta enthusiasm of the writing of Cinema Notebooks. You have to intellectualize, because today’s bullshit is tomorrow’s cultural monuments.
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