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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Tags: Arts Funding · blogs · cultural policy · Fringe Festivals · high art · Next Wave Festival · Not Quite Art · popular culture · Sonic the hedgehog · this is not art · unpopular culture · youtube · zines9 Comments