Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

Over at Phi Beta Cons, Carol Iannone has some interesting points to make about Art. It's come to her attention that academics have been studying The Sopranos. This bothers her because The Sopranos is "perverse and nihilistic" -- unlike Hamlet, or Moby-Dick, or Miss Lonelyhearts, or Journey to the End of the Night -- and therefore cannot possibly repay the attention of Serious People.

On second thought, maybe that's not quite it. Isn't the real problem that studying The Sopranos involves an "obscuring of the lines between popular and high culture"?

But then again, hasn't "high culture" had an inborn tendency towards perversion and nihilism for as long as any of us have been paying attention? And isn't this precisely how one distinguishes its grotesque hothouse blooms from honest weeds like Red Dawn and Atlas Shrugged? Isn't the difference between high and popular culture typified by the difference between Robert Mapplethorpe and Norman Rockwell, at least to hear the kulturkampfers tell it? And isn't an appreciation for high culture a veritable Devil's mark of elitism, as Al Gore proved when he boasted of reading Stendahl?

It's almost as though there's no consistent stance behind any of this jabbering, beyond a tightlipped envy of Academia's authority and captive audience.

Anyway, we're not to teach or learn about The Sopranos in college, whether it's presented as a work of art or a cultural phenomenon. Does that mean we can't watch it, either?

Yes and no.

Enjoying something privately is one thing — this was called a "guilty pleasure" back when we still believed in guilt — but trying to present it as a superb work of art and a second coming in the world of the imagination, as fans and critics often did, is another and more damaging thing.
We started out with the notion that The Sopranos shouldn't be discussed in college classes. Now, it turns out that fans and critics who think of the show as "a superb work of art" shouldn't be admitting it publicly, and are only doing so because "we" no longer believe in guilt.

For the record, I find our nation's appetite for violent imagery almost as disturbing as its appetite for incoherent pseudomoral posturing like Iannone's, and I sometimes wonder where it'll end. Perhaps we'll find ourselves supporting the death penalty along with a dwindling handful of tinpot dictatorships, or praising our president's self-interested bloodlust as "decisiveness," or hailing torturers and profiteers as heroes, or making a Delphic oracle of Nancy Grace. You never know.

(Illustration: "Judith Beheading Holofernes" by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620.)

1 comment:

Anthony McCarthy said...

This reminds me a lot of William Carlos Williams' essay about Rebecca West.

I wasn't a fan of the Sopranos, having seen the Canadian program Omerta, which I thought was a lot better and which, I believe, had priority, but it's as worth pouring over as a lot of the lit that would pass the sniff test of the conservative meter readers of kulcha.

I'm off on long term or longer hiatus, have enjoyed the visits and discussions, Phila, hope to see you around again some day.