marcus westbury

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In Praise of Unpopular Culture

October 5th, 2010 by marcus

Hand made Nick Cave, by Lucy of Newcastle.

MEMO to anyone tempted to frame a cultural debate as a choice between “high art” and “popular culture”: don’t bother; you are missing the point.

It’s not just that the terms are frustratingly polarising or that they frame the world as a simple hierarchy of quality based on archaic definitions of form. They’re just incredibly misleading. A lot of “high art” is decidedly low in ambitions, pumped out for a mass audience and downright average in its execution. Equally — and what has always interested me — a lot of popular culture is decidedly and deliberately unpopular.

I’ve long been a passionate advocate for the idea of “unpopular culture”. As a festival director, I used it as a Next Wave festival theme and — demonstrating my considerable breadth of imagination and originality — I used it again as an episode title for the “Not Quite Art” series I made on the ABC. Until recently I had never actually looked up what it’s supposed to mean. When I googled it last week there seemed to be no consensus definition, but given that at least a few of the references were mine, I figure I’m as entitled as anyone to simply make one up.

So what do I mean by unpopular culture? To me, it’s the stuff that doesn’t quite fit. It’s somewhere between the often self-conscious and self-referential world of high art and the lowest-common-denominator shite that gets served up by the mass market.

Unpopular culture uses all the available forms, mediums, tools and technologies for reasons that have nothing to do with making a profit or reaching a mass audience. It’s often the experimental, personal, art-for-arts-sake take on cultures that are active and alive in our world. It can be very contemporary and very high tech — or not — but evokes the same motivations and reasons that have always been there down centuries of great art. What defines it is probably more of a “why?” than a “what?”

It’s a thread that connects the independent or alternative, experimental ends of popular genres with a lineage of artists that have always sought to reflect and respond to the real world. It’s in indie films, alternative music, small press, and DIY comics. It’s there in a lot of independent theatre or new music. It’s an engine of creativity, experimentation and innovation that is constantly creating and recreating itself. It’s abundant, vibrant, enthusiastic and perpetually underresourced.

It’s the stuff we make from the ideas and tools and influences we have around us. It evolves without plan or design, if not spontaneously, then at least with little control or management. It results not from a commercial imperative but from the creative imperative that is in each of us — from our desire or need to create or share our experiences.

You can find it in fringe and film festivals but also in zines and blogs, Flickr and YouTube, animation, computer games and virtually any other areas of culture where people feel compelled to create.

It can confuse some traditionalists because it uses “new” technologies. But it does so not because it’s high-tech and avant-garde or self-consciously cutting-edge but for precisely the opposite reason — because digital culture is a people’s culture. Video cameras, computers, printers, photocopiers, and telecommunications are cheap and accessible. They provide far more abundant opportunities than cellos.

It is a dynamic not a form. At its best, it’s a creative ecology — and only occasionally an economy — that promotes and rewards experimentation, evolution and innovation. It’s the opposite of popular culture in many respects. It’s the antithesis of the bottom line culture that spits out product and market-tested corporate entertainment to defined demographics. It can have little in common with popular entertainment apart from the confusing similarities of form. Indeed, it often grows right out of contempt for, opposition to and critique of the corporate entertainment culture that it can be inadvertently mistaken for.

Unpopular culture isn’t an island. It gets easily swallowed up. It’s often their unpaid R&D system for the both art and commercial worlds. It actually drives a lot of the innovation.

My complaint about reducing discussions to high art v popular culture may seem flippant but there is a serious misunderstanding here. Many cultures — many of our best cultures — don’t fit the paradigm. They’re not precious enough for the art world or profitable enough for the commercial world yet they are vital and necessary and can be critical to both. The better we understand and support them for what they are and not what we’re preoccupied with the better off we’ll be.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john walker Oct 5, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    You are right , culture (like mind itself) is movement/ creation/–meta–it is not a fixed object.
    Government Cultural policy dos tend to turn culture into an artifact.

  • 2 Rob Davidson Oct 6, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Nice. You’re talking about where I park my brain most of the time. What I think is really growing too is the intersection of this with people who come out of traditional training (yes, with cellos). It happens a lot in America, where there aren’t lots of government grants for fringe classical musicians. Bang on a Can, the Now ensemble, Ethel are not so far from Sufjan Stevens, Beth Orton, Wilco etc – they often work together.

  • 3 marcus Oct 6, 2010 at 6:50 am

    Hi Rob, thanks for the comment and i have observed the same thing. In hindsight i wish i’d never made the Cello reference in this piece. Seems to have been gratuitously contentious when it wasn’t really meant to be :)

  • 4 adam ford Oct 6, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Great food for thought, Marcus. I’m really interested in the motivation to make art without being driven by thea desire for reputation ormaking money. In my experience the “I’d do it anyway” artists are a substantial proportion of art-makers in general, and it would be interesting to know more about how they fit into “culture” as a whole in Australia, if not the world.

  • 5 john walker Oct 6, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Adam the irony is that ‘Id do it anyway” is, if combined with imagination, focus and hard work , it is often the way to lasting commercial success.
    People tend to respond to passion with passion.

  • 6 adam ford Oct 6, 2010 at 10:24 am

    John – i agree wholeheartedly. What’s interesting to me is that there’s no guarantee of that success, so the motivation would need to come from other places too.

  • 7 john walker Oct 6, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Adam if it was easy it would not be much of a challenge, the buzz about them saying they love ‘it’ is exactly that they dont have to say any thing at all

  • 8 Margie Borschke Oct 8, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Two quick points:

    1. It seems to me that your argument continues to assume a divide between high and low rather than working from the assumption that such a divide is arbitrary. A lot of any kind of creativity is “decidedly low in ambitions, pumped out for a mass audience and downright average in its execution” including zines, blogs, music, films etc. So what? The assumed vulgarity of the comic strip was precisely what cultural critic Gilbert Seldes decided to praise in his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts, one of the earliest works to question the existence and indeed the usefulnessof such a divide. So too, many of the practices you are deeming ‘unpopular’ are incredibly *fashionable* both inside and outside the art world (which is why we’ve seen fashion and alcohol brands rush to such margins for over two decades now.)

    2. There is nothing democratic about digital technologies per se. The culture that grows from digital and network technologies isn’t anymore the ‘people’s culture’ than something made with a piece of paper and a pencil and mailed in the post (still a bargain compared to my computer) or orchestrating some sort of social event, a happening if you will. A Culture is a culture is a culture. People make that shit up :) It’s also worth remembering that many of the art forms you prefer (and there is a taste issue that lurks in this argument) have their origins in non-digital technologies and have a history of creating their own networks of distribution.

  • 9 marcus Oct 8, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    @Margie,

    Actually i do largely assume such a divide is arbitrary – and i think that’s implicit in the whole context of this piece.

    As to whether some are “fashionable” or not yes some are, some aren’t. Some practitioners of some are fashionable while others aren’t. Some are “fashionable” only within small cliques and as you rightly point out some are embraced by arts cultures and booze brands. See my point about it being often an “unpaid R&D system for the both art and commercial worlds.”

    However, whether these cultures are fashionable or not it is not waht’s interesting about them or what validates them. It is just something that can and does often happen when artists and creators try things.

    Re your second point, i am not arguing that digital technologies are democratic per se only against the idea that inherently “cutting edge”, “innovative” or “experimental” — see some recent pieces in the “heritage arts” debate than begin with that context or assumption. Often they are simply accessible and abundant.

    If you read the piece i’m not suggesting that digital technologies – as opposed to your own example of pencil and paper – are a prerequsite for any kind “unpopular cultures.” I note you changed my reference to “a people’s culture” to “the people’s culture” and omitted my key suggestion that such cultures can be “very high tech – or not” that’s a pretty significant change of assumption and i think you’re leaping way ahead of my argument here. I’m not attempting to create a new exclusive definition here.

    What i am attempting to point out – particularly to policy makers is that assuming things are either “Art” (with a traditional capital A) or “trying to be commercial” which tends to be the categories that policy assumes often misses the point of what people are creating and why they are creating it.