Common and Refined

It will wound America ears to hear, but there is a difference between fine art and popular, between Great Books and comic books, between poetry and jingles, symphony and dance tunes, slicks and pulps, philosophy and punditry. One has an entry cost.

In the Old World, there was a cultural difference between the classes. In England especially, the upper class with their French family names were the progeny of conquerors, and a long history of deliberate class distinction informs their society. High and low, by and large, did not share a common background of education, did not read the same books, and did not visit the same shows. In America, it is the opposite. We generally ignore distinction of high and low, looking for what might sell well. Hence the influence of negro spirituals, originally the music of slaves, on jazz or rock is clear, as is the influence of country music on composers like Aaron Copland.  American fine arts speaks in the vernacular.

Nonetheless, I submit the two are distinct, and meant to be judged by distinct standards.

While I am a man of common tastes, and have no criticism of those who prefer simple, fun, and vulgar things, fastfood tacos or Jack “King” Kirby, to fine things, caviar and Milton, I cannot have a fruitful discussion with those who cannot tell the difference between fine and vulgar, simply because I cannot ignore the difference, but neither can I define it precisely.

Like a vast fogbank of cloud looming on the horizon, one can spy it, it is obvious, but one might be able to tell precisely where the boundaries rest.

The task of the discussing the difference between fine and common is not made easier by the treason of the fine arts, which, starting with the impressionists and ending with atonal music, deliberately made the fine arts nonsense noises and visual gibberish, whose forbears adorned cathedrals.

A similar treason afflicts the philosophical writings of the West since the days of Hume and Kant, which attempting metaphysics without theology, then attempted epistemology without metaphysics, then attempted physics without epistemology, leading to pragmatism, modernism, postmodernism, and nihilism.

The greatest of modern philosophers is Ayn Rand, who only offers a warmed-over Aristotelianism tied to a godless ethical system meant to justify capitalism, but which manages to ignore the main body of moral and ethical thinking, and reaches nonsensical conclusions, such as by saying greed is virtuous, and adultery is ethical if all parties agree. Nonetheless, she stands head and shoulders above such cranks and grifters as Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and the dwarfs following them, for she writes from within the Western canon of philosophy, and embraces reason over its opposite. She is still a philosopher, and is to be judged (and, alas, found wanting) in the same tradition and standard as Saint Thomas Aquinas.

A popularizer such as the Carl Sagan, apostle of science worship, or Noam Chomsky, apostle of crackpottery, is judged by a different standard and tradition, as being more akin to a pamphleteer like Thomas Paine.

But there is little to no way to discuss the difference between fine and common to those who simply ignore it. It is not that the discussion is impossible, it is just that the gulf between the complexity and skill and beauty of something meant to last ages and meant to speak to every generation and pop culture, dance music, comic books and so on, which is meant to appeal to the current fashion in the broadest way, renders the difference in judgment needed to equalize those things absurd.

Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, in films one sees a combination of popular and fine arts lingering, even after other fine arts are corrupt rubbish. Films of the modern day are like cathedrals of the Middle Ages, in that they were meant both for the admiration and edification of the unlettered commoners, and for the refined taste of the educated nobles.

One needs to know something about prior poets, starting with Homer, not to mention knowing something about archaic vocabulary or Italian politics, to read Milton or Dante with enjoyment, and catch the allusions, but any average American from Alaska to Kansas to Florida can walk into a showing of CITIZEN KANE or GONE WITH THE WIND, and know enough of the background and cultural context simply to enjoy the show.

Common things are often vulgar, because they are simple and straightforward, but some common things are high and refined things, held in common by enough men to be common, that is, to pass without explanation, without special training, as a shared cultural assumption.

The film score of John Williams in STAR WARS, for example, I hold to be of equal worth to the opera scores of yore, and hold them to be judged by the same standard, even though STAR WARS itself is meant to be a nostalgic homage to the campiest of space opera camp. It is still simple fare, meant to be common, albeit elevated by the mythic simplicity of its themes to greatness — something likewise seen in Spider-Man or Superman’s origin stories.

Ironically, this is much fine art I mislike, even despise, but I regard it as attempting a different standard as popular art, serving a different muse. The one is by nature elitist and exclusive, requiring a bit of work to acquire the taste, and the other is vulgar and fun, and leaves aside all snooty pretension and folderol. The American musical theater is rife with examples of artistic craftsmanship, including brilliant work, directed toward the common man, hence to be judged by that standard.

I hope I will be clear if I say I hold the standards to be separate, not one better than the other. A failed fine art is not somehow better than a skillful popular art. Jack Kirby’s Fourth World was a work of mad genius, worth rereading, whereas a Picasso painting is a Rorschach blot. But, nonetheless, Picasso is to be judged by the same standards as Bouguereau or Rembrandt; whereas Jack Kirby is to be compared to Will Eisner or Rob Liefeld.