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Aesthetic Authenticity and Not Being a Good Cultural Citizen

July 14, 2011

To say that humans are fond of self-delusion would be something of an understatement. Lacking the sort of all-encompassing social meta-narrative that delivers us a pre-packaged sense of place and identity, many of us choose to define ourselves through what we do. Some of us sing, some of us paint, some of us write and some of us have anonymous sex with multiple partners. We define ourselves not merely by doing these things but through a process of emotional investment whereby how well we are doing as individuals becomes intimately tied to how well we are doing at a particular activity.  This process of emotional investment offers us some respite from the postmodern condition but it is also a minefield of self-delusion.

The more commonly travelled path to self-delusion involves becoming so emotionally invested in your undertakings that you become blind to your own inadequacies. This generally results in a hideous Catch-22 whereby people are doomed to mediocrity by their unwillingness to recognise the areas that would benefit from more work. The more areas of human undertaking I rub up against, the more I become convinced that this sort of thinking is endemic to the human condition. We all like to think of ourselves as special snowflakes and snowflakes tend not to fare too well in the baking heat of self-doubt. This, however, is not the sort of self-delusion that I want to write about today.  I want to write about the need to be a good cultural citizen and to, as Dan Kois put it in a piece for the New York Times, “Eat Your Cultural Vegetables”.

There’s a wonderful and rarely seen candour to Kois’ admission that he really struggles with slow-paced art house dramas:

As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?

Kois is mired in cognitive dissonance: He does not like these films and yet, because his peer group enjoys them, he reasons that he should like them too.  In an attempt to square the circle, Kois introduces us to the baffling concept of ‘aspirational viewing’:

In college, a friend demanded to know what kind of idiot I was that I hadn’t yet watched Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” “It’s so boring,” he said with evident awe. “You have to watch it, but you won’t get it.”

He was right: I had to watch it, and I didn’t get it. I had to watch it — on a laserdisc in the university library — because the intimation that there was a film that connoisseurs knew that I’d never heard of was too much to bear. I didn’t get it because its mesmerizing pace was so far removed from my cinematic metabolism that several times during its 165 minutes, I awoke in a panic, only to find that the same thing was happening onscreen as was happening when I closed my eyes. (Seas roiling; Russians brooding.) After I left the library, my friend asked me what I thought. “That was amazing,” I said. When he asked me what part I liked the best, I picked the five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway, because it seemed the most boring. He nodded his approval.

Forever after, rather than avoiding slow-moving films, I’ve viewed aridity as a sign of sophistication. Part of being a civilized watcher of films, I doggedly believe, is seeing movies that care little for my short attention span — movies that find ways to burrow underneath my boredom to create a lasting impression.

On one level, Kois is describing a moment in his life when he knuckled under to peer pressure.  Faced with a choice between getting in with the ‘cool kids’ and being honest about his tastes, he chose to win the cool kid’s approval by pretending to enjoy a film that put him to sleep.  However, to read this as a simple act of conformity is to under-estimate what is actually quite a complex issue.

Our culture is very much in love with the decidedly Protestant notion that the most rewarding things that life has to offer are the things that require most work in order to achieve them. Once our culture deems something to be rewarding, the assumption is that, if you do not ‘get it’ then the failing is yours and your failure to ‘get it’ is simply a reflection of your need to put more work into understanding the thing deemed rewarding.  Don’t like opera? Go and listen to the Ring Cycle until you start to develop a taste for it.  Don’t like art house film? Go and watch Solaris until you start to see the beauty that is hidden beneath the glowering Russians and the extended car journeys. Somewhat oddly, this Protestant work ethic cuts both ways in so far as stuff that is immediately rewarding tends to be either viewed with suspicion or dismissed outright as unrewarding and unworthy of our attention.

Of course, what our culture deems to be rewarding is entirely socially constructed.  There are no objective reasons for thinking either that Solaris is an inherently better film than Transformers or for considering The Magic Flute a finer piece of music than the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Katy Perry parody ‘Equestria Girls’. The only difference is that certain works are produced within certain traditions and in accordance with certain aesthetic principles while others are not. Which traditions are deemed ‘rewarding’ and which are deemed ‘shallow’ is a fluke of historical happenstance. Somewhere out there, in the mists of possibility, there is a Britain where the crowning of the monarch is accompanied not by Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ but by The Wurzels’ ‘I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester’.

The fact that aesthetic principles are socially constructed makes it almost impossible to tell (A) when it is that we are putting in the work in order to ‘get’ something worth getting and (B) when it is that we are knuckling under to peer pressure and forcing a change in our aesthetic sensibilities for the sake of fitting in or living up to some ideal of what we ‘should’ be liking. The difficulty in telling the difference between these two possibilities raises the question of whether there is something inherently inauthentic about setting out to acquire a particular set of tastes.  In other words, is it only sell-outs and fakes who eat their cultural vegetables?

The response to Kois’ piece was far-reaching but distinctly reactionary in tone and procrustean in outlook.  Consider, for example, Richard Brody in the New Yorker:

That’s why Kois’s article is so dispiriting—not because he isn’t excited by movies that excite me, or even because he expresses pride in incuriosity, but because he seems to know in advance what kind of excitement he seeks; staying in his comfort zone, he can be sure that nothing will shock him, and that the future will best be served by remaining unchanged, as unchanged as he himself expects to be.

This is a response to an argument, an argument that frequently gets made.  But it is not an argument put forward by Kois.  In fact, Kois goes out of his way to describe his experiences in cultural vegetable-eating and his article is about his profound regret that all of that cinematic broccoli has not stopped him from preferring chips. Brody’s response, like that of so many others, assumes that Kois is attacking art house film and so he spring to the defence of art house by dismissing Kois as closed-minded despite the fact that Kois states quite clearly that he still goes to see art house film and his article is about his repeated failure to ‘get’ it.

As Andrew O’Hehir wisely points out, Kois’ article touches upon an argument that has been played out many times before:

But now we’ve reached a point where everyone in this dispute, me included, has been forced into positions they don’t actually hold. Dan Kois is not some boob defending every lame superhero movie, and Scott and Dargis are hardly nosebleed aesthetes immune to the charms of pop. This whole argument may stem from an ancient intra-critical disagreement that probably isn’t interesting (or shouldn’t be) to many regular people. On one hand we see critics whose theoretical roots go back to, say, Theodor W. Adorno and the unforgiving neo-Marxist philosophers of the Frankfurt School, who tended to view all aspects of popular culture as tentacles of a nefarious and monolithic machine. On the other we see the acolytes of Pauline Kael, who rejected all that for a passionate embrace of pop culture, albeit one that sometimes seems like the stalkerish love of a jilted ex-wife. (Late in her life, Kael famously said that she might not have defended trash culture so avidly had she known it would become the only culture.)

Like aged clubbers, the bloggers and critics hear the opening bars of a favourite tune and begin to grind their way through the same old moves and the same old beats. Authenticity in action, the defence of the art house as cultural shibboleth, debate as performance, dialogue as empty posturing. This is why Kois is right, there is something deeply unpleasant about a culture that fetishizes particular works as fetishes all too easily turn into monuments and monuments, though they last longer, are only ever the bones of a culture.  They are neither the brain, nor the heart.

My solution to the problem is simple: I agree with the Protestant notion that more work begets more enjoyment but I say that it is the work that sets us free and not the pay-cheque.  Being serious about anything is not a question of eating your cultural greens until you acquire a taste for them, it is about eating as many things as possible in order to ensure that (A) you have tasted everything that there is to be tasted and that (B) when you decide that you don’t like something, it is despite trying your best to find the beauty in it and the understand what other people like about it.  Seriousness and intelligence are not about what you like but about the way in which you like it.  You can sit through all the Meeks’ Cuttoffs and Solariss in the world and still know nothing about film just as you can spend all your time watching Michael Bay films and playing video games and still be as smart as a whip and twice as cutting.  Of course, this obvious truth is not necessarily a happy one.

It is difficult to build a community around a way of experiencing culture.  We can all point to DVDs and books on our shelves or talk about attending book launches and film festivals and say ‘I am like You’ but it is difficult to put into words how one sees films and ever harder to build a community around a shared sensibility and sense of seriousness. The Catholic church is held together not by faith but by ritual and the external trappings of religious sentiment.  Communities may well be powered by dreams but they are made up of earthly things.  Things held in common.  Things held in trust.  Things carted from pillar to post as a reminder of who we are, what we were, where we stand and who we stand with.  Thousands of DVDs of Stalker have been sold and yet there is only one object, an object shared by every person who decided that Tarkovsky’s odd and ponderous riff on an under-rated Russian science fiction novel deserves a place on their shelves.

This blog is a battlefield.  Scarred by a thousand skirmishes, it carries the marks of the tension between my desire to be true to myself and my desire to be a part of a wider community. My membership of the literary science fiction community is obvious from the links to the reviews and criticism that I have written for that that’s community’s organs. The glee and tetchiness of many of these reviews stand as proof of the tidal nature of my involvement in a community that steadfastly refuses to see the world in the same way that I do.  Not that they should… just that it would make my life substantially easier if they did.

Sadly, there is no reconciling the tension between our actual preferences and the preferences of communities that we wish to be a part of.  Some people surrender their authenticity to the whims of the field, others choose to forsake sociability in favour of an iconoclastically authentic life of the mind but neither strikes me as a particularly attractive option. The solution then, is to find a path between the two extremes… to be serious about cultural cuisine without forgetting what one prefers to eat and to know when to engage with a community and when to realise that you do not say things the way the community does and to leave it at that.

Of course, this is easy to say. The proof of the cultural pudding is in the eating and as much as I like vegetables, pudding is always more fun.

  1. July 14, 2011 7:31 pm

    monoculture is stifling and iconaclasty is lonely

    all the more reason to be tolerant of diversity, we can all belong, but not be the same



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