13 December 2007

Thoughts on high and popular art from John Updike

I am finished with all my grading and everything is turned in. We have graduate commencement tonight, which I plan to attend to see some of my students from 600 walk. Then, my immediate obligations for the semester will be finished. That just means, however, that my thoughts will return to research and preparing my pre-tenure review, due in February.

Some of those research thoughts are on the difference between fine and popular art and what that difference means for education. A few weeks ago, I checked out Odd Jobs from the library. It's a collection of essays from John Updike. I've never read much Updike and still haven't gotten to Rabbit, Run, but I enjoyed the essays in this collection. I certainly haven't read them all, but one essay in particular struck me. Indeed, the essay called "High Art Versus Popular Culture" is the main reason I checked out Odd Jobs.

In that essay, Updike says "High art, we might say, is art which presumes knowledge of other art; popular culture is prepared to deal with the untutored."

There are some interesting things about Updike's statement. First (one I just noticed as I typed it in) is his terms of distinction -- high art and popular culture. Is he trying to avoid using the phrase "popular art", and, thus, somehow acknowledging that art can be popular? Given what he says in the rest of the essay and the fact that he writes "literary" fiction that is usually pretty popular, I don't think that's where he is going, but it's an interesting way of phrasing that distinction.

There is something that seems right about Updike's statement. Impressionism wasn't just about making pretty blurry paintings, it was about interrogating the conventions of painting itself. Matisse makes the most sense when seen against an artistic and historical backdrop, within and beyond certain conventions of art. It's even easier to say this about literary art, like, say, "The Waste Land" which is packed with allusions and references.

I wonder, though, if this approach doesn't give to much power to the artist and too little to the spectator/viewer/reader, whathaveyou. The high/popular distinction rests in the object and is placed there by the artist. What role does the reader (we'll go with that one) have here? If I bring a copious knowledge of high art to an unabashedly piece of popular art (like, say, comic books) and am thus able to see parallels to myth, poetry, and even impressionism, does the comic then become high art, even if the writer and artists just wanted to tell a fun story and have it look cool?

Seems like I am still stuck in the author intent/reader response dichotomy, when there has to be more here. I do, however, like the way that Updike puts it -- popular art deals with the untutored. Updike doesn't see that as a negative thing.

What do you folks think about Updike's distinction?

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