The Terrible Truth About Yoghurt, aka the fight for pop culture

An off-hand comment by a respected UQ academic got me thinking about the high vs. low art divide. In truth, it had me ranting at my poor boyfriend for an hour, but that’s thinking too, right?
In looking over the highest-selling film magazine in Australia, said respected-academic uttered the fateful phrase ‘why on Earth do people persist in writing to the lowest common denominator?’

First, it spoke volumes about what they thought of me reading this magazine.
Second, it raised a whole bunch of loaded issues for me.



‘Lowest common denominator’ is one of those iffy terms that doesn’t actually mean anything, but is highly loaded when said. I’ve only ever heard it used to describe (or allude to) the pop-culture loving, the un-tertiary educated, or those below 30.
Here's the problem. High art is deemed the epitome of culture because it's technical, difficult to replicate, and, typically, requires lots of dedication, study, perserverance, and passion. And yes, that's true. I've studied music since I was six, and it's bloody hard work. To achieve any type of proficiency you dedicate hours to rehearsal and experimentation.
But the idea that writing 'low brow' is easy is a complete misnomer. Writing a song/book/film that a million people like is harder than writing a song 20 people love. To write a work that people across cultures/genders/ages/tastes like is rarely intentional and when it is, it's a one in a million shot it will work.
Work that is universally popular is deemed 'low brow', purely because the masses love it. It's seen as easy to create and no amount of 'culture' or 'learning' is needed to appreciate it.

I've studied classical music for over twenty years, my instructors are all professional performers who were highly successful in their field. I've performed in orchestras and choirs around Australia (I've performed at the Opera House - mmm hhhmmmm). I've won state awards for my art. I have a postgraduate degree. By that definition alone, I am in the 'cultured' club. But I also read speculative fiction. I go to fan conventions. I watch action movies. I read comic books. I was raised on country music. I read Jodi Picoult and Lionel Shriver, and frankly, they are equally depressing.
To have the 'right' education is no reflection of taste or culture, and appreciating pop culture doesn't mean you have no taste. Especially in Australia.

The fact of the matter is that if you plan on making a living in the Arts in Australia, especially in writing, the money's in pop culture, in genre. You want to starve producing obscure work for a minimal audience, go for it. But don't take offence to work that more than one person can appreciate.

**as a side note, I should explain the title. After my 'discussion', said boy's response: "Yoghurt: it's all about cultures"

Comments

  1. Nice Aimée! I agree with your sentiment although I must admit, when a piece of pop culture does not fit within my somewhat conflicted sense of culture, I have been known to echo the sentiment of your lecturer. And let's face it, you are right. In Australia, in the UK and the US, we r so busy trying to categorise things so we don't have to spend too much time considering them: "oh that's too low brow for me, I'll just stick to Bach and Picasso darling!" writing off any opportunity for further development or ponder-mention of the less important questions of life. (There are exceptions to this 'rule' - Human Centipede being one.) But back to my point, I think you are right in saying you don't think it's easy to write something everyone likes - and makes squillions of dollars. I've tried. But maybe it's that conflicted sense of culture coming back to haunt. Maybe, I'm not as high brow as I like to think and I'm busting my brain trying to write the next big thing; my aspirations outstripping my intellect. But I can still enjoy mindless, mass entertainment for what it is intended - fun. I still won't read 'eat, pray, love' though. Might watch the movie - Javier Bardem is a dream boat!

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  2. Hi, Aimee,

    I really do agree with you. May I ask if it was Empire magazine that you were reading? If so, I greatly admire the work the people at that magazine produce and I don't think they write for the lowest common denominator. They know their audience and the pieces are usually well-researched, well-written and most of the time, quite funny. Sure, it's not Anthony Lane writing for The New Yorker; however, nor does the magazine or its writers claim to be.

    Katia

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  3. Hi Katia - funnily enough, it was Empire magazine :) and you're completely right. They make no bones about the fact that they aren't The New Yorker, but they enjoy what they do and it shows.

    *A

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