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Brow Beating

December 20, 2011

I’ve always been wary of those who seem too smart to laugh or too cool to dance.

And I spend far too much time in my own head to appreciate those who act as if their bodies were little more than a way to walk their heads around.

I believe I posted not too long ago about finding myself at a dinner party during which the very highly educated, cultured and artistically refined people in attendance insisted that I must surely be mistaken in my appreciation for Lady Gaga.

“You think she produces these outfits? Crafts the sound of her songs? Stages those performances? Oh, she’s a good marketer,” one of them said, betraying perhaps a wee bit of envy, “but she’s merely an average singer with an entire entourage around her producing spectacles to promote the illusion of originality and talent.”

They seemed to pity me that I’d fallen for this razzmatazz. But actually, I pity them.

I’ve been a middlebrow kind of guy all my life, raised on TV (and why the songs from Captain Kangaroo, like “The Ill-Assorted Guard” and the show’s theme song keep bubbling up into my brain lately I can’t say) until I stopped cold turkey for about ten years starting in the mid sixties. I got into folk (middle brow) and rock (low and middle), and rode along with many others the arc of the brow from Presley to Paul Simon, from Janis Joplin to Janis Ian. 

I groked those who straddled brow and class, like John Lennon and Richard Pryor, whose outrage and brilliance introduced street freaks to primal therapy while making college professors and culture critics finally realize that the wisdom of the gutter could be illuminating. 

For me, if art’s not fun, it’s probably only interesting, and I’m not interested. Like with music —  if you can’t move to it, what the hell good is it?

Take opera for instance – please! There’s never been an art form I’ve more loved to loath!  I feel the same about madrigals, acid jazz, chamber music, Thelonius Monk, and any music that lacks both melody and rhythm. As far as I’m concerned, appreciating music intellectually is akin to visiting a restaurant to eat the menu. It’s like people at the museum who yap it up in front of a masterpiece, demonstrating how well they merely understand it. It’s like being alive only less so. 

So now you see my secret: I’m actually a reverse snob, aren’t I? Can’t help it, it’s contagious you know. I guess in part this is a reaction to the knee-jerk feeling of embarrassment or even shame I feel when someone tells me why, e.g., I may think I enjoy the humor of Two and A Half Men, but that I must somehow be mistaken, and then proceeds to patiently explain why.  Or at least that’s how I take it. So to react against feeling shamed, I turn the tables and judge the critic.

Actually I envy those who can be spellbound at MOMA or The Met when mostly I’ve no idea what I’m looking at. But I believe some high brows should perhaps envy us Philistines as well.   My sensibilities may not be refined enough to appreciate Strindberg or Stravinsky or a Stradivarius, or a de Kooning or classical ballet (yechh!) or most poetry.  Which may be a pity for all I’m missing out on, especially in this town. But likewise I believe others have tastes that are not coarse enough to appreciate the pedestrian pleasures of life. Like bacon, and a Bud Light (or a lit bud for that matter); burlesque and Ballys and other vulgar indulgences.

As I’ve noted here, I’m probably biased because I started shacking up over a decade ago with a woman who systematically proceeded to corrupt my taste by introducing me to the joys of straight laced middle class American guilty pleasures, like cruises, Disney World, and Vegas, that this old hippie thought beneath him and would otherwise have neither tasted nor thoroughly enjoyed. These days she turns me onto great television shows I’d never (ever) have watched like, yeah, Two and A Half Men, and Two Broke Girls (which New Yorkers shouldn’t miss) and Modern Family, and full length 3D cartoons where animals talk…right over the heads of all the kids in the theater.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve gone through life as a Devout Eclectic and I suggest you do too. And this applies culturally as well. There’s so much to take pleasure in and learn and grow from across the entire spectrum of high brow and low, left and right, sober and snockered, hip and straight, East and West, wholesome and profane. Don’t get stuck on one end, because you never know when you might die and thereafter lose out on the other.

And when you die, whacha gonna do if God doesn’t ask why you weren’t more virtuous, but instead asks why, after He spread out the world before you like a banquet, you spent your entire life over on one end of the table? 


9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2011 2:36 pm

    charley, you betray your own dictum about remaining eclectic and not getting stuck when you have simply allowed your cultural pendulum to swing the other way and have gotten stuck on the other end. To follow your own advice, remain open, try lighting that bud first and THEN listening to Thelonius Monk or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. If it helps, you could listen to the latter when it plays during Fantasia, thus combining your new-found appreciation for animation with cultcha.

  2. D. Wininger permalink
    December 20, 2011 4:09 pm

    “Like with music – if you can’t move to it, what the hell good is it?”

    Not sure I agree with this… Joni Mitchell doesn’t exactly have that thumpin’ back beat. I’ll make and addendum if I may, and see if you agree with it: If you can’t move to it or if it doesn’t move something inside of you, what the hell good is it?

    Anyway, I agree with your point about some people not having tastes coarse enough. High brow people are missing out on a lot of pleasure and joy when they shun the low brow.

    • December 22, 2011 6:31 am

      I appreciate your addendum and of course it’s true. Too bad Joni didn’t rock out; closest came when CS&N covered “Woodstock”.

  3. December 21, 2011 2:09 am

    To me the key is judging for yourself whether you like a work of art or not—in other words, relying on your own sincere feelings and intelligence rather than choosing to like what “they” think you should like.

  4. December 21, 2011 4:48 am

    Keep growing, keep growing. Watch Doc Martin in PBS, brilliant Brit comedy series. Watch Nurse Jackie. Watch Shameless. Watch Californication. Watch MI 5. Read Updike, Didion, Penelope Fitzgerald, Wilkie Collins, Roth, Bellow, Read Sex at Dawn. Go see Chekhov. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, forget categories and wallow in the cornucopia of all the arts. See the deKooning at MOMA. Find out about Richard Diebenkorn. Check out Francis Bacon (both of them). Read The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker. Forget about Rock. It’s a deadend. Pop music needs an injection of new ideas and energy. Will the social media make it possible? Is history a nightmare from which you cannot awake? Where is Proust when you need him? Which is your favorite century? What are the lessons of history? What lessons have you learned? Uncertainty is the only certainty.

    • December 22, 2011 6:40 am

      Joseph thank you for the curriculum! At the rate I read, it’ll take me most of the rest of my life to complete your assignment. I do feel like I’ve missed out on a lot, especially with the classics. I will definitly be taking you up on at least some of your suggestions.

      The only problem I have is with the New Yorker. Though at times illuminating, I always had the feeling when I subscribed that when an issue arrived in the mail I had to spend a good 5 minutes wiping off the snot that seemed to envelop it..

  5. gary telfer permalink
    December 21, 2011 5:10 pm

    rest assured animation is the highest form of artistic achievement 😉 the amount of artistry involved in a full length feature animation is mind boggling, not to mention budgets from $60-200 million, which might barely cover the cost of re-doing the moma’s front lobby! the teams involve highly skilled artists, scientists, business people and everything in-between

    not to forget though, that all the trouble began with duchamp and his damn urinal, questioning what elevates an object to the status of art

    charley, you have opened up the inverted pyramid can of worms and that is healthy – nothing better than to turn something on its head to give it a new perspective

    many masters, both new and old, have had armies of people executing their ideas and lady gaga is no exception. if her forte is the spectacle more than the voice, who cares? it was the meaning of bob dylan’s words that defined him as a poet, rather than his voice, as unique as it was

    above all art is subjective and it’s what moves you that makes it art for you. although many times i’ve come back to something that didn’t do anything for me the first time around, and it opens up to me like a blossoming flower

    when i gallery hop it’s impossible to take in everything – i pass through and absorb as much as i can. it’s amazing how the images come back to me over the next few days and start me thinking about the work that really stood out

    if you haven’t seen the film rango yet, it’s an animation intended for adults, and stands out from crowd

    • December 22, 2011 6:54 am

      The above link is to an article about “dumb but enjoyable” dance music. It contains this line:

      “If you’re not dancing to this stuff, you’re either just trying not to have fun or you’re afraid of looking stupid.”

      That about sums it up. Because to me, being run by one’s fear of looking stupid is really dumb.

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