Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Have You Ever Been Immediately Experienced?

Those that can, do. Those that can’t, criticize. I’ve heard this, or some variation on it, for as long as I can remember. It’s one of those conventional truths that really has no meaning, but which makes it easier for people to avoid thinking about the meaning of what they like. The role of the critic has been downgraded to an arbiter of what is good and what is not good, as if those were the only possible judgments, and as if judging was the only purpose of the critic. In this view, critics dislike things because they don’t know how to do create for themselves.

I could list any number of professional critics whose judgments have oftentimes disagreed with my own but whose viewpoints have led me to think deeper about the music or movies in question. But, today, I’m going to limit my defense to a single exhibit A. For if critics are those who cannot do, then what are we to make of Robert Warshow, whose only book “The Immediate Experience,” I received for Christmas?

I can’t for the life of me remember how I found out about this guy. While the subtitle of the book, originally published in 1962, seven years after Warshow’s death at the age of 37, is “Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture,” and while the cover is a particularly lurid panel lifted from an EC comic book drawn by Al Feldstein, most of the essays contained herein are on movies and books I’ve not seen or read. Warshow wrote for intellectual magazines of the late 40s and early 50s, notably “Commentary,” which he edited for a number of years. There are indications that he didn’t fit in with his contemporary critics, though he was admired by many, especially Lionel Trilling, who put this book together.

Warshow was raised in an intellectual environment. He was a critical thinker by birthright, and he learned how to examine art within the socialist conventions of the 30s. Then, he broke with socialism, or more particularly, with communism, and found himself having to apply his critical thinking skills without a particular school of thought to make everything simpler. In this mood, he suddenly realized that popular culture deserved to be considered more closely than it had usually been. Rarely has there been a more rigorous mind set to work on questions of such seeming contemporary insignificance; rarely has there been more insight into the questions of a cultural moment long since passed.

Reading Warshow is a lesson in how little I know about anything I’ve ever discussed. He notices things, he categorizes them, he reveals connections between disparate works For Warshow, it is the experience of the thing itself .– be it a movie, a play, a book, or Krazy Kat, the only comic actually critiqued - which matters. And it matters not only as an experience, but as a trigger towards further experience, or as a reflection upon the experience of real life.

Warshow believes that movies can be art. (He’s not so sure about comic books, which he thinks are vulgar and mostly trash, though he can discern that EC comics were done better than many others. One wonders what he would have thought of “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.” I feel fairly confident he would have not been too impressed with “Maus.”) He just doesn’t believe they have to be art to be worthy of experiencing. And, he doesn’t believe that their non-art status relieves them of the responsibility of meaning.

Most importantly, Warshow believes that meaning resides in the relationship between the viewer/reader/critic/society and the work itself. Meaning is very specific, but it is specific to the circumstances in which it is found. Famously, Warshow says, in the introduction to this book: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” Perhaps one of the things which drew him to popular culture over the option of further digging into the nuances of Henry James was the chance to let the man react. Warshow operated at a time when there was very little serious attention paid to the culture of the people. There was Gilbert Seldes, to be sure, but from what I gather, not much else.

So, Warshow could make up the rules as he went along, accounting for his delights, discovering conventions which now seem obvious, and requiring a commitment to what he believed to be real. Warshow did not aim for the universal; he in fact spews vitriol when Arthur Miller eliminates particulars to aspire for universality; “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible” are not received kindly in these pages. Warshow is always present in his criticism, which enables the reader to converse with him, rather than to deny ones own experience.

I started to read Warshow a couple of days before I started this blog. I wanted the same sort of freedom he had to examine any subject any time, and to see what could be found that hasn’t been found. We live now in a time of popular culture overload. It’s actually much harder in this day and age to find new writing of much insight about the long-acknowledged classics. But, so much of what I see seems devoid of a full relationship with the subjects on either side. What is the experience of popular culture, and how does it matter to us as individuals? Answering this is my goal, one which I have a long way to reach.

I’ve said that critics shouldn’t really be seen as judges of quality, though I certainly realize the human impulse to seek out those who reinforce our own views. So, just because I write about something in here, I don’t necessarily endorse it as an experience worth having, though that is certainly the norm. I usually stop fairly quickly going through experiences not worth having. But, this is a recommendation to all who want to know what criticism can be, to see how it is something that those who create works and those who enjoy them can truly enjoy. Get yourself a copy of “The Immediate Experience.” It’s a real page-turner.