Author of the great new Duke Ellington biography Terry Teachout, who’s also the extraordinarily prolific WSJ drama critic and regular blog-reporter on the NYC arts scene, has some good words on not overdoing one’s intake of and praise for pop culture . These thoughts were initially prompted by the accolades given Elmore Leonard upon his death, but Teachout only aired them in a column last week:

When Elmore Leonard died in August, the papers were full of obituaries that described him as “a novelist who made crime an art.” . . . and the Library of America announced that it would be bringing out a three-volume edition of his work . . . I didn’t want to rain on his cortege, so I didn’t say what I thought, which was that he was one of the most overpraised writers of our time. A very good one, mind you—I’m a passionate fan of Mr. Leonard’s brisk, funny crime novels—but overpraised all the same.

. . . So why grump about his obituaries? Because they exemplify a trend that has gotten out of hand. It used to be that we didn’t take popular culture seriously, but now we don’t take anything else seriously.

Fitting that a man whose best jazz writings (on Louis Armstrong, aka “Pops”) sought to teach us how to see past false pop v. fine distinctions, the better to appreciate how great the art of the apparently jus’ hucksterin’ n’ laughin’ Louis really was, now warns us against abandoning most all distinctions, in a way that will leave us floundering about in a nearly featureless sea of all is pop and all is fine.

. . . The problem is not that pop culture doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. It’s that a culture totally dominated by popular art is by definition limited.

So any suggestion, including mine own, that all is being taken equally is too strong. Rather, what he’s saying is that our culture, while it still leaves some room for those oddballs who want to (and can afford to) cultivate Teachout-type tastes, is dominated by pop.  And we should fight that, for despite our culture’s egalitarian hostility to definition itself, reality remains reality, so that pop culture is by definition limited.   It leaves one feeling unsatisfied, or slightly sick.

Let’s go back to Mr. Leonard’s novels for a moment. Sure, they’re superbly crafted, but they’re all pure melodramas whose subject is crime, with a little romance thrown in for seasoning. So, almost without exception, are the television series that have come of late to be widely regarded as the best that America’s storytellers have to offer. . . . in the end, somebody always gets shot, just as a pop song, no matter how good it may be, is almost always three minutes long.

Our Peter “Watch-More-TV” Lawler might have a response to make to that, as it seems a tad too sweeping, but let’s let Teachout continue:

. . . there’s more to life than getting your head blown off in a drug deal, and more to be said about love than can be crammed into a 32-bar ballad. Novels like Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” plays like Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” ballets like Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering,” paintings like Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” musical compositions like Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata: These are large-scale works of art that aim higher than their popular counterparts. (In fact, that’s not a bad rough-and-ready definition of high art.) Mere ambition, mind you, is not in and of itself a good thing, . . . . . . but we’re cheating ourselves when we direct our attention solely to less ambitious art.

Amen. Reminds me of what I said in the Rock Songbook #14 “Rock, Rock, Rock, Rock n’ Roll Grad School” where one of my several charges against typical rock intellectualizing , particularly on the part of rock “critics,” was that it involved a strange refusal to consider the claims that the availability of fine arts music might put upon the educated person. There I gave a quick definition of the fine arts that is much like Terry’s here.

But let’s give Pops the last word on a healthy cultural diet:

. . . A masterpiece has, as Louis Armstrong said of the trumpet playing of Bobby Hackett, “more ingredients.”

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Articles by Carl Scott

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