In the annals of world literature, there are some very long books: Tolstoy’s War and Peace clocks in at 1,440 pages and Hugo’s Les Miserables beats that at 1,488. Now comes Part 1 of a biography of Barbara Stanwyck by Victoria Wilson: at 1,044 pages, it’s more than twice as long as three combined biographies of John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, infinitely more important screen icons than Ms. Stanwyck whose name would not be familiar to most people under 50. If Volume 2 of this devotional work is the same length as its predecessor, it might be longer than both the Old and New Testaments, a sobering and distressing thought. Fortunately, we can rely on the marketplace to correctly balance Ms. Wilson’s idee fixe with the realities of consumer interest, if not the subject’s proportionate merit.
In Friday’s Wall Street Journal (Pop Culture’s Limits, 12/6/13), Terry Teachout muses on the elevation of pop culture to inappropriate heights. Though acknowledging his admiration for Elmore Leonard, he worries that the overpraise of his ‘oeuvre,’ along with similiar critical reaction to tv shows such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos marks a lack of distinction between superbly crafted works on limited themes - mostly criminal - as opposed to “large scale works of art that aim higher than their popular counterparts.” Does Elmore Leonard belong in the same literary pantheon as Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth? Does Barbara Stanwyck really merit a tome equal to the foundation of western civilization? Should reviewers even take seriously a book that devotes that much detail to the life of a movie and tv star? Especially one who didn’t subsequently become president of the United States?
In the same vein, I have noticed that the words “brave” and “courageous” have now been demoted by critics to describe actors appearing nude or without makeup in films - a far cry from the common understanding of brave as putting one’s life on the line as people in uniform or as those who have dared to challenge prevailing authority throughout the ages. Somehow, when the same adjective describes both Galileo and Lady Gaga, our understanding of common discourse is negatively upended.
In a similar spirit of conflating the ordinary with the symbolic, Mayor Bloomberg compared the experience of his upper middle class family being the first Jews to integrate their suburban neighborhood to the situation of the Ground Zero Mosque seeking to establish its footprint adjacent to the burial grounds of 3,000 innocent Americans murdered by Islamic terrorists in the name of Allah. The two situations are distinctly incomparable yet the mayor persists in believing that they are linked by the notion of freedom of religion in America. Not one person would have protested Muslims praying elsewhere in Tribeca; it was the emblematic symbol of the Muslim mosque that was inappropriate next door to the killing fields of Islamic Jihad. Picture a flag of Imperial Japan waving high next to the memorial at Pearl Harbor for a more graphic illustration of the point.
Saturday’s Times features an article about Chen Xiaolu, a high-born former leader in Mao’s cultural revolution, a man now in his sixties and remorseful over his role in the brutal beatings and humiliations of teachers during that treacherous decade when millions of Chinese were subject to forced labor, re-education, torture and murder. (A Leader in Mao’s Cultural Revolution Faces His Past, 12/7/13) Yet one of Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao has sold for more than 17 million dollars while another graces the cultural mecca of the Museum of Modern Art. An oversized statue of Mao stood astride Park Avenue several years ago as part of an exhibition at the Asia Society. How many Americans understand how obscene it is to elevate a mass murderer to an artistic icon? Would a Warhol print of Hitler have engendered a clearer understanding?
The exaggeration of the trite, the elevation of popular culture with high culture, the blurring of critical standards and the perverse glorification of tyrants as cultural heros exist along a common spectrum of declining judgment and leadership in the arts as well as in our political landscape. The boundary between those two disparate fields was bridged long ago when television became the arbiter of presidential suitability. The ripple effects of that ceding of power to the lowest common denominator of popular thought are perniciously alive and confusing us still.
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