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The Thinker and the Rapper: Shusterman on Popular Culture

Stefán Snaevarr

The beatnik has beaten the highbrow, the rapper has rapped the thinker.

I have mentioned the American philosopher Richard Shusterman earlier in this column. (See previous column, The Myth of Europe) Today, I want to discuss his valiant defence of popular culture, not least his defence of rap music. I will especially focus on his magnum opus, Pragmatist Aesthetics, a book published some ten years ago.

It is not by chance that Shusterman defends popular culture; after all he is one of the few philosophers of art today who has got any popularity. As a result, his work is widely read outside of the philosophical community. The reason is simple: we all love rebels and this American philosopher is a rebel with a cause. Shusterman wants to promote art as an integral part of the ever-changing stream of life, believing that popular culture provides ways of giving art a place in everyday existence. Shusterman does not hide the fact that his thought is heavily influenced by the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey.

In his book, Art and Experience, Dewey stressed the social and somatic side of art, while advocating the re-integration of art and everyday life. Further, he criticised elitistic and puritanistic attitudes towards art, defending popular art in the process. We will discover that Shusterman travels along the same road; he gives Dewey's arguments a cool and hip twist.

As I hinted at, Shusterman puts forth a spirited defence of rap-music. Rap ain´t no crap, he says. After all the man used to be a rap-critic. He argues that rap has a lot of the characteristics of "serious" post-modern art. It is made out of bits and pieces of older music in the best post-modern tradition from the avant-garde composer John Cage. The post-modern bit is, of course, the repudiation of originality as an all-important value. Furthermore, like popular culture in general, rap retains vestiges of pre-modern art: it is communal, emotional, and body-oriented like folk music tends to be — it can liberate our bodies. So Shusterman is blowing a fanfare for the common man and his "corpo-reality" (the last expression is of my own coinage). The veneration of the fine arts is class based; a part of the elite's attempt to distance itself from "the masses". The elite look down upon popular culture and commerces with art in an intellectualist fashion. In elite thought, telating to art in an emotional and somatic way is not really aesthetic.

Shusterman counters this claim and takes on the high culture criticism of popular art. This criticism can be treated roughly in terms of six charges made against popular art: the ones of a) spuriousness, b) passivity, c) superficiality, d) the lack of autonomy, e) the lack of form and f) the lack of creativity. Let us have a brief glance at Shusterman's way of countering these charges.

a) Spuriousness: Shusterman shows that it is extremely hard to understand, let alone substantiate, the charge that popular art is spurious. The high brows of high culture claim that whatever satisfaction popular art gives it is shallow or unreal. (I cannot for the life of me find any criteria for the discernment of "real" from "unreal" satisfaction.) If the alleged spuriousness consists in popular culture only being able to provide us with "washed out" or "faked sensations", the charge is unfounded. Witness the intense and absorbing experience of rock music.

b) Passivity: The highbrows maintain that we only passively receive the products of popular culture, understanding them needs no intellectual effort. To this Shusterman responds by saying that most of the high culture critics see intellectual thinking as the only game in town, the sole activity of any greater worth. But we have no reason to believe this to be the case. Besides, enjoying classical music makes one much more passive than the enjoyment of rock 'n' roll, which often manifests itself in exhausting physical activity. To make matters worse for the high culture stance, we have no compelling reasons to believe that the corporeal is of less worth than the spiritual. We have even greater problems in drawing a sharp line between body and mind, and by implication between the corporeal and the spiritual.

c) Superficiality: The critics maintain that popular art is superficial and ephemeral. Shusterman counters these charges by pointing out that surveys show that television audiences often respond to TVentertainment in quite a sophisticated way, understanding the shows to be multilayered and ambivalent. In a similar fashion, rap or rock lyrics can be complex and ambiguous. Besides, what is wrong with being ephemeral?, Shusterman asks. Transient things can have their own value, because of and not despite their transience. Brief encounters can be sweeter and more rewarding than lasting relationships!

d) Lack of autonomy: Typically, high cutlure tends to criticise popular art for not being produced for autonomous aesthetic ends, but rather being instruments for entertainment. It does not serve Art with a big "A", but instead serves human needs. But why should this view be accepted? It has its roots in dubious philosophical claims that art should belong to a sphere far removed from reality. Actually, art has always been used for practical purposes. Witness the function of lullabies for babies or poetry for courtship. After all, life forms the substance of art and artworks inhabit the world. So can life and art really be separated?

e) Lack of form: Popular art has been condemned for not achieving adequate form or even being formless, because it solely concentrates on content. Usually it is criticised not so much for lacking formal unity but for lacking formal complexity. Shusterman responds by pointing out that the products of popular art very often contain complex allusions to other works of art, both popular and high art. I think that the Simpson's can provide some excellent examples of this, not least a magnificint episode were allusions to Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" played a significant role.

f) Lack of creativity: In the first place, it is simply wrong that popular culture is never original or creative. The rock video was a new, genuinely original artform and entertainers such as the Monty Python groups certainly did not lack creativity. Secondly, it seems strange that we should criticise popular art for being standardised and lacking originality while venerating pre-modern art that was made by artists who had never heard of originality. For example, the sculptors of the Renaissance were not trying to be original in their work, but rather, they were trying to make art that reflected the spirit of Greek antiquity. Thirdly, the cult of originality has its roots in a veneration of individuality that leads us to ignore the communal sides of art, expressed for instance in the beauty of Greek temples (these temples had an obvious communal function). And why criticise popular art for being standardised when the form of a sonnet is rigidly standardised?

The upshot of Shusterman's criticism seems to be that the high culture charges against popular culture are either unwarranted or can be levelled against high art equally well. Moreover, a lot of what we now call "high art" used to be regarded as something vulgar. That was the case for Shakespeare's plays and even novels as such (witness the modern idea that TV is inherently bad). Actually, the same cultural products, for instance Shakespeare's plays, have both been used as popular and as high art (Shakespeare's plays were staged as pure entertainment in the vaudeville fashion on both sides of the Atlantic). Therefore, there does not seem to be any particular reason why we should condemn popular art or regard it as completely distinct from high art. The high culture criticism crumbles.

It would be unfair to say that Shusterman is uncritical of popular art. He admits that there is popular art which is aesthetically bad and has noxious social effects, especially when consumed in a passive, all-accepting way. He emphasises that he places himself between elitist condemnation of popular culture and wholesale celebration of it. It has enough good sides to merit being improved upon, enough faults to need improvement. Shusterman himself wants to work for its improvement. The American philosopher demolishes the "arguments" of high brows and snobs against popular art in a pretty efficient way. However, he does not seem to understand that the high brows of high culture have no power anymore, outside of sitcoms like Frasier.

The beatnik has beaten the highbrow, the rapper has rapped the thinker. Popular culture triumphed decisively in the eighties, while the sixties and the seventies where times of a fruitful interaction between popular and avante garde culture. Examples of such interaction can be popart or progrock. One of the few examples of such interaction in the last two decades is the birth of techno out of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen's avant-garde compositions. Another example is the way in which the Icelandic group Sigur Rós (well known from MTV) has fused age old Icelandic epic poetry with modern pop.

But these are the exceptions, not the rule; low brow entertainment rules and visual "culture" endangers the noble art of reading. Unfortunately, Shusterman seems oblivious of the dangers of visual entertainment, and the onslaught of the new barbarism. (See previous column, The Victory of Visuality) Despite this, Shusterman is a very interesting and challenging thinker. He might become one of our torchbearers as we walk the frail bridge to the twenty-first century.

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