Roy Lichtenstein | Crying Girl | 1964
This weekend, I was teaching at a workshop on blogging, aimed at writers, and with only 15 minutes to spend, tried to emphasize three overarching points.
1. The internet reverses the values of time vs. information. People are busier now; we lack four hours to read a book whose critical points could be made in four paragraphs. And we may find those ideas quickly anyway, via a search. Thus, to gain regular readers, the blogger must post often enough, on-topic enough, to justify the ten minutes the reader can spend before duty calls.
2. The internet is an information medium. Information, unlike matter and energy, is not reduced by being shared. This fundamental principle of information means that we can constantly widen our circles of influence with no loss.
3. The internet reverses the value of financial vs. responsibility cost. The financial cost of the internet is negligible for most people in the developed world, relative to the power of information provided. But another type of cost has rocketed upward: The need for personal judgment and responsibility. Too often, we hear the internet presented as a vast source of freedom, with no thought to the need for judgment.
For all that might be said against high, or highbrow, culture—that it was rarefied, elitist, failed to yield immediate pleasure, was out of touch with the everyday reality of people’s lives—one thing that has to be said for it is that it did establish a standard. I recall being at a conference where someone was deploring the ill effects of high union wages on the American theater. “What American theater?” Hilton Kramer asked. “I didn’t know we had one.” With this remark I realized that, apart from the American musicals of the four decades from the 1920s to the ’50s, such American theater as we have had has offered sheer depression and falls wildly short of great art. We have had Arthur Miller’s ill-written, Marxistical plays, the not very well disguised homosexual themes featured in the plays of Tennessee Williams, the dolorosities of Eugene O’Neill’s drunken Irishmen, the hatred of America and the middle-class family that are the chief messages in the plays of Edward Albee. Talk about, as Gertrude Stein complained of Oakland, city of her birth and upbringing, there being “no there, there.” But it took someone with the high standard of Hilton Kramer, with a single, sarcastic question, to bring this out, at least for me.
Yes, for several generations now, attempts at serious art have often trashed the circumstances that make great art (or high culture) possible. We are left with arguing whether random paint smears are or aren’t art, as if anyone should care much, let alone pay.
It’s worth recalling that, as Epstein says, “Unlike in science, in culture there is not a clear line of progress. Progress has little to do with culture. The history of culture is one of highs and lows, mountains and gulleys.”
Some other unpleasant truths: Newest isn’t best. Time is the harshest of critics. And, more incorrectly still, culture is by its nature elitist. A 16-year-old violinist from a poor country may be judged to interpret a given work better than an acclaimed master (with branded products and a chain of schools).
Worse, the fact that a work “speaks to me” may be evidence of both its shallowness and mine.
Culture is a hard school because it challenges us to perceive better and be better as a result. No wonder many of us prefer trivial entertainments.
All this agreed, Epstein may have missed the point with respect to the internet, of which he writes,
This is a culture in which “Woody Allen is to David Lean or Orson Welles what Andy Warhol is to Gauguin or Van Gogh in painting or Dario Fo is to Chekhov or Ibsen in the theatre.” In this culture, “frivolity, superficiality, ignorance, gossip, and bad taste” dominate. [Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian novelist] Vargas Llosa argues that the simplicities of the visual—television, movies, smartphones, the Internet, the partiality, in other words, for pixels over print—preclude the thoughtfulness, gravity, and seriousness that once were at the center of culture. The result, he holds, is a world “divided between functional illiterates and ignorant and insensitive specialists.”
But wait, no one is forcing anyone to forego high culture on the internet. One great source of free high culture is YouTube. By making everything equally free and accessible, the internet shone a spotlight on what we do want. And that is our responsibility.
Similarly, he writes,
As for the connection between the Internet and serious art, Vargas Llosa finds that where it exists it figures to be deleterious to art. “My impression is that literature, philosophy, history, art criticism, to say nothing of poetry, all the manifestations of culture written for the Net, will doubtless be ever more entertaining, that is, more superficial and transient.” Such matter is also likely to put people off serious and demanding works of art and intellect, “because they seem to them as remote and eccentric as the medieval scholastic debates over angels or the alchemists’ tracts on the philosopher’s stone seem to us.” More.
But, in reality, the internet does not drive that outcome; it enables users to make those choices without external penalties, only internal ones.
What we choose to watch on the internet—enduring classics, celeb gossip, or cute cat videos is a true reflection of ourselves.
Note: Here is a thoughtful review of A Literary Education from the Wall Street Journal.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.