I’ve been working my way through Mario Vargas Llosa’s intriguing little book Notes On The Death Of Culture, which intends to be a general critique on the state of high culture and the impact its enervation has had on the world at large. Reading that and watching the election campaigns is a strange thing.
One of Llosa’s main themes here is that we have demoted “high” culture through a process of democratization of self-brutalization via social media and a mistaken acceptance of the idea that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight. That we no longer value wisdom, quality, or know how to appreciate it as distinct from middle or lowbrow culture, so-called “popular” culture.
There’s something to this, certainly, but I hesitate to call it a death. A tumultuous sorting maybe. Because side by side, cheek by jowl, as it were, with undeniable banality, dross, and effluence that passes for æsthetic content—no, that’s not quite fair, is it? Garbage has an æsthetic quality, even if it can only be apprehended as a negative—that presents itself as of equal value and merit to works of genuine worth, we do see works of superior quality, intent, and impact. In fact, work being done now in all the arts offers examples equal to if not better than any masterpiece of the past. Even television, that vast wasteland, offers amazing work. If one looks for it one may find music, painting, photography, sculpture, literature both fictive and nonfiction, drama both on stage and recorded, that compares with the finest humanity has ever offered.
And with it, audiences. You might question their level of appreciation, but that has two aspects which negate the attempt. Firstly, how do you gauge “appreciation?” How can anyone determine the extent of comprehension, of response, of, finally, “takeaway” experienced by another human being? You can’t really, certainly not in any way that might be revealed in a poll or a survey. Certainly not as some prognostic assessment about the Culture. Secondly, those creating these works have not come from another planet. They emerge from among us. We, in some way, “produce” them. They are us, they are not alien, so if in fact what they do cannot be understood or appreciated or even recognized, how then do they appear? The fact is, they have an audience. And not, judging by the availability and public knowledge of the work, small, dying audiences.
Which means we are, irritatingly, forced to take on faith that the culture, whatever we might mean by that, is not dying. Transforming, sure, as culture always does. Isolation is harder to achieve, if in fact it is even desirable. We live in each others’ living rooms. At best, Llosa’s fears—which may be too strong a word—may have more to do with nostalgia than actual diagnosis.
But then there is this huge, gawping thing in our midst, this political circus, and it might be reasonable to wonder how much we may have lost in terms of “culture” that something like Trump can aspire as successfully as he has to the presidency. It is perhaps a handicap for many that the answers may be culture-based and insulting to a large group of people. But I think, for myself at least, that there is nothing wrong with affirming that some things are better than others and that all aspects of culture are not equal. When you see placards with gross misspellings and bad diction in service to poor logic and spiteful ignorance, it offends and perhaps causes one to hold back rather than indulge in the obvious assessments. But like the doofus who shows up at a formal-attire wedding in plaid shorts and tennis shoes with an emblazoned t-shirt and a product-placement ball cap, the initial conclusion may not be wrong.
Suggestions have been made that the GOP might intervene and force Trump to step down or even do something with the rules to make him ineligible. Hiding the blemish won’t cure it. Trump’s success, if not he himself, is an expression of a popular sentiment, an æsthetic, if you will, that has embraced the thing Llosa is, in part, talking about. He has brought them together, the subliterates, the banal, the velvet-paintings-of-Elvis crowd, those whose most trenchant popular icon should be Archie Bunker.
And they voted for him. Should the GOP try to remove Trump, understandable as the impulse may be, it will be a repudiation of the very people they have relied on and nurtured and groomed for over three decades. They have been largely unseen all this time because they have been salted throughout the larger culture, an aberration perhaps. But Trump has caused them to step forward as a group. We, the rest of us, can see them now. They’ve been there all along, but we have rarely encountered them in numbers so large we could not pretend they weren’t just fringe kooks, loonies, or family embarrassments.
Forgive my crudeness, but I’m engaging this problem the way they do. Name-calling, pigeon-holing, because it makes the unknown manageable. It is a practice we rightly abhor but is the obverse of recognizing a form of self-selection and commitment to a set of protocols. If it makes us uncomfortable to be confronted with a reality that has grown up in our midst, then perhaps we share some of the responsibility. We have as a culture been driven more by the shiny, the thalamic and hippocampic reactiveness that draws us to the bright thing at the expense, sometimes, of the good thing.
But then, what do you do with someone who has decided that truth and beauty are the same as a red dot sale at WalMart?
It’s perhaps one reason WalMart has been so successful.
Trump, finally, has caused nothing. He is playing to an audience. What he says is less important than the fact that there are people who like it. When he is long gone from the political stage, they will remain.
It’s a cultural problem.