Friday, February 19, 2010

Peter Craven, the Taliban, popular taste, and the middlebrow way ...

(Above: Saul Steinberg's illustration for Russell Lynes' defence of the middlebrow in Harpers in 1949, hidden behind a paywall, but with more about it here).

There's nothing like a little moral panic to get the juices flowing in the morning.

Where would we be without impending moral doom? Or crass aesthetic tastes?

Where better than to start with Peter Craven, in Pop culture is great, but we need art too.

After confessing that his team, which was speaking on behalf of Art, with a capital A, got thrashed in a recent debate, Craven proceeds to devote a column to explaining why - fuzzy thinking, leaps of logic, irrational fears and phobias, paranoid distrust of the great unwashed, a condescending attitude, and finally a giant leap into moral panic:

When the Taliban destroyed the great Buddhist sculptures of Afghanistan, even dictators in the Islamic world begged them to desist. The Taliban ignored the request and now the culture of the world is poorer. When it comes to our own most precious possessions, we should resist acting like the Taliban.

Yep, it seems a taste for Neighbours and Harry Potter can lead you to an incredible capacity for destroying ancient structures, and perhaps even, Taliban-style, help cultivate a hatred of all forms of music.

Craven, when he's not being absurd, reveals himself to be a quaint, old-fashioned middlebrow.

Remember the good old days of the middlebrow? Virginia Woolf was fond of the term, and wrote a letter to The New Statesman which wasn't published when she first wrote it, but which was later published and which you can find here.

Woolf, after proudly accepting that she's a highbrow, with a deep affection for lowbrows, lets rip on the middlebrows for promoting malicious gossip about the ways that highbrows and lowbrows hate each other and are somehow in conflict:

It is the doing of the middlebrows. They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality. They are the go–betweens; they are the busy–bodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief—the middlebrows, I repeat. But what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. Their brows are betwixt and between. They do not live in Bloomsbury which is on high ground; nor in Chelsea, which is on low ground. Since they must live somewhere presumably, they live perhaps in South Kensington, which is betwixt and between. The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige. The middlebrow curries favour with both sides equally. He goes to the lowbrows and tells them that while he is not quite one of them, he is almost their friend. Next moment he rings up the highbrows and asks them with equal geniality whether he may not come to tea.

Well of course once Woolf took sides, everybody got into the high/middle/low brow business, and you can wiki the topic here for news of Russell Lynes and Dwight MacDonald, and their contributions.

Meanwhile, back to Craven, and irony of ironies, it's Virginia Woolf who helps establish Craven's middlebrow pretentiousness:

Just recently ''trash'' - by which I mean ordinary entertainment - has started to arrogate to itself the prestige of high art. It's not simply that Hollywood, say, is making films predominantly for kids between the ages of nine and 14 - Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus was also made with them in mind - but that we're selling our cultural birthright for a mess of commercial pottage. Films such as A Streetcar Named Desire or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could not be made now in a Hollywood that has declared: ''We don't do drama any more''.

Oh dear, filmed 'theatreah', don't you know dear boy, is the way forward.

I suppose he could have mentioned the dire A Man for All Seasons, but to mourn the way Hollywood once used to attempt ersatz respectability by slipping, or should that be shoe-horning, the likes Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton into a 'theatreah' classic like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where there's lots of 'acting' of a very intense, shouted kind is to jump the middlebrow shark.

Now you don't have to be a silly French auteurist harking back to glory days of Cahiers du Cinema, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and the rest to realise that filmed plays are the direst form of cinema, and that in making them, Hollywood was telling the world we don't do films any more, we do filmed theatre to don the garb of academic respectability.

Even more offensive is the notion that Hollywood doesn't do drama any more. Wouldn't it have been simpler and truer of Craven to say that the cinema does drama, and still does drama, but I don't get it, and never have, and likely never will.

So long as Hollywood can help facilitate a show like District 9 - I know, it was made in South Africa, with Peter Jackson helping bring the short to the screen, but where would Jackson be without that piece of middlebrow tosh, Lord of the Rings - I'll be happy. Sure Miranda the Devine also liked District 9, which suggests the Taliban might be able to enjoy a trip to the movies, but you take your breaks where you find them.

But back to the worried Craven, who is ever so worried, in the way that aspirational middlebrows have been worried for hundreds of years, as he worries that drama has flown out of the Hollywood window:

To complain about this is not to indulge in elitism. It worries me that, 50 years ago, bestseller lists included books such as The Leopard, Doctor Zhivago and To Kill a Mockingbird and now they don't. It worries me that everyone and her boyfriend went to see Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Streetcar and now they don't.

Well actually, to worry about middlebrow art in this way is fatuousness in the extreme. Let's not do a Cahiers - let's not start extolling Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life over one of the weaker films of the troubled, naming names Elia Kazan, since after all, A Streetcar Named Desire has given Marlon Brando shouting 'Hey, Stella' to the world.

Let's just say that Craven is stuck in a world of early nineteen fifties theatricality, and should stay in the theatre, which is clearly his first calling and love.

And leave cinema to the cinephile, or to the lowbrow.

Unfortunately Craven doesn't have a clue about interesting films, so it's hardly surprising he has no interest in the current crop of interesting films doing the rounds. How else to explain his carefree use of the word 'trash' when I'd have much preferred the word to describe his taste for filmed 'theatreah':

Just recently ''trash'' - by which I mean ordinary filmed theatreah entertainment - has started to arrogate to itself the prestige of high art when in reality it is just middlebrow art for middlebrows.

Now there's a sentence! But I couldn't go there, because I don't believe in a purist idea of cinema, and I don't mind all kinds of exercises in filming, from The Red Shoes tackling ballet to Godard dissing the Cravens of the world. Let's hear it for bastard children and bastardisation in general.

I will defend to the death the right of middlebrows to have middlebrow tastes, and for academics to wear leather elbow patches on jackets.

But I can't allow talk of the Taliban to stand when discussing art in Australia, as if the huns and the visigoths had already landed and were smashing up the landscape. It's as tasteless and as unethical as breaching Godwin's Law, and typical of the tastelessness in aesthetic debates that Virginia Woolf expected of middlebrows.

We're inclined to pronounce a fatwah or jihad on Craven's Law, which is to say, when in a losing argument, resort to the use of the Taliban, as a kind of 'knock down a Buddha statue, win an argument' tactic.

Meanwhile, if you love the middlebrow debate, you can find rich pickings here, including this delightful quote about Celine Dion fans and where they might possibly live:

“Wedged between vomit and indifference, there must be a fan base: some middle-of-the-road Middle England invisible to the rest of us, Grannies, tux-wearers, overweight children, mobile-phone salesmen and shopping centre-devotees, presumably.”

along with a neat set of snaps illustrating Lyne's 'brow' chart of taste. (And there's an interview with Russell Lynes here).

Now remember, at the end of all this, there will be ten questions on what is your favourite work of art, and why, and if we don't like the answers, we're going to be sending around a couple of Taliban brethren to sort you out.

(Below: here's a starter guide, a little out of date, but feel free to update, referenced here. Click on to see larger view).

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