Popular Culture

640px-Candida_albicans_PHIL_3192_loresWhat is “popular culture”? What does the word “popular” mean, and how does it distinguish from other kinds of “culture”?

“High culture” is different in a culture where 1% have higher education, and no-one has a gramophone, from one where everyone has access to recordings and 40% go to university. Some aspects of culture need practice to appreciate- when I first heard Bach partitas for solo violin, I found them unlistenable, and now find them beautiful. Practice, not education: learning in music O grade what a plagal cadence or tierce de Picardy were was less important than being around when music was playing.

Though I can recognise a tierce de Picardy, what matters more to me is that trill on re and mi ending doreDoh, as a climax leading to a triumphant reiteration of the main theme, which Mozart almost always plays straight and which Beethoven almost always subverts, which I cannot name. Beethoven’s subversion would mean nothing to someone without an expectation of Mozart’s practice. The Picardy third just disappeared after the Baroque.

I could link to the Wikipedia article saying what the Baroque is, but my readers will understand the term.

400px-Big_StumpThere is a high culture and upper-middle culture, seen by the cries of disgust and ridicule which greet the short list of the Turner prize each year. What is produced now requires familiarity with the art scene right now, which requires specialisation, and someone who delights in Impressionists rather than genre painters like George Elgar Hicks might see nothing in a Miro.

There is different culture for different ages. Horror films which help teenagers feel fear without threat, to acclimatise us, do not appeal to me now.

Some people are omnivores, liking high culture and low culture for different purposes. Some culture is gentrified: Jazz was the music of the people and is now high art.

Margaret Atwood’s insistence that Oryx and Crake is “Speculative fiction” not “Science fiction” is a judgment on Zhehhhnre fiction- horror, mystery, romance, SF. Atwood is, like, proper Culcha, serious lit’rachur, not silly “science fiction” like Slaughterhouse-five or Out of the Silent Planet.

How could I possibly know what is high culture anyway, apart from the judgments of others? Mere survival is not necessarily the clue. Ann Radcliffe was a pioneer of Gothic horror, and Wilkie Collins of the mystery novel, but their characters are rather flat. Intellectual fashion mimics objective judgment and I use the judgments of others to dismiss what they dismiss and feel myself sophisticated.

Does each person use particular cultural artifacts because they reflect their character and views, or are people moulded by the culture in which we live and move and have our being?

9 thoughts on “Popular Culture

  1. Well, I think ‘high’ culture is inextricably linked to high knowledge. I don’t like the term very much (in the same way I find ‘fine dining’ irritating). Of course we’re moulded to a degree- but we also go out in search of validation, both emotional and social. My house is full of things that complete/complement my identity. They make me feel at home but/and also send out a message.


    • Two possible counter-examples:
      “You really got me”- that riff at the start, two notes plucked five times. You would think it spoke viscerally to anyone, but there were some who called it “just shouting”. So does it require some learning or experience to get it?

      Klee, Battle-scene from the comic-fantastic opera The Seafarer: again visceral, man against monster, what could be simpler- yet it is high culture?

      As I age, I think I seek my own validation and am moulded less.


  2. I readily admit to having little care as to whether something is “high culture” or not. All I care about is what it means to me. I’m impressed with how prolific you are with so much of this stuff, though.


    • Thank you. It gives me pleasure.

      This article started with Wikipedia, which has “In Popular Culture” sections on many articles. I noted that while the Dresden Bombing article mentioned Slaughterhouse-five, it placed it before the “In popular culture” section- as if it were Proper Culture, like, too important to be popular. In the article on Thomas Becket, the play Murder in the Cathedral is under “Legacy”, neatly avoiding the question whether it is “popular” or not. I know TS Eliot is high culture, but I think it invidious to be making these judgments, as often the line is unclear and “Popular” culture can be of high quality. Would John dos Passos have thought his USA trilogy too serious to be “Popular”? To muddy the waters further, there is Triumph of the Will, which I understand is a brilliant film, and effective propaganda.


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