Adam Channel ENGL 1C - Essay 2 Due 10/1/07

Semantic Trickery
In his 2001 essay "The Tenth Muse" Simon Barzun makes the bold claim that "popular culture" no longer exists in America and is disappearing elsewhere. His argument is one of definition; he is not using "popular culture" in the common sense--that is, trends or ideas that are emblematic of the times--he instead uses the term as though it meant "high cultured art that the majority appreciates." In his essay he also presents a critical view of the separation of "highbrow" and "low-brow" culture, or culture that is considered "civil" as opposed to "brutish." He feels that this separation has caused much culture of value to be snubbed by intellectual elitists. Ironically this critical view seems to apply perfectly to his own claim that "popular culture" is disappearing. In this essay I will present a critical analysis of Barzun's view of popular culture and contrast it with that that is commonly held. I will also examine Barzun's view that art is disappearing from society. Barzun fails to distinctly define what he views as popular culture throughout the essay, but it is clear that his definition differs from what is popularly held. He uses the term popular culture as though it meant "a cultured piece of work or collection of art that is popular, that is representative of the people and can thereby speak for them." He wistfully speaks of Greece during the Homeric Age, claiming that the Athenians raised on Homeric tales have a common cultural fabric binding them together. Similarly he refers to England during the time of Shakespeare. Yet how do these examples reflect that the common people had a unanimous appreciation of them? He appears to be stereotyping the entirety of the populi. Upon critically examining this "homogenous" Athenian culture, one would find that of the populous only a very

small minority were of the same cultural entity. History tells us that the majority of Greeks were slaves and of the rest women were considered sub-human. Amongst the portion of males left we also know that only a small amount of those had enough property to be counted as citizens. With these restrictions in place the "Homeric Greeks" become the "Homeric Male-Aristocratic-Citizen Greeks." To prove that popular culture does not exist in the United States, Barzun sifts through various artistic mediums present today. He claims "Clearly, in the modern demotic society there is no art of and by the people." In a single paragraph he lists through music, literature, and movies and tosses them aside saying that all cultural outlets today are catered to specific sub-cultures--that variations within a genre are "like standardized products modified only to compete within an industry." But what are his previous examples? Those that he credits as the prior existence of "popular culture" are examples of isolated sub-cultures within the populace. To compare the entirety of the ethnically fluid American population to the Greek elite and say "popular culture" is disappearing is an irrational claim. To reiterate, popular culture as Barzun defines it has always been specifically tailored towards the interests of a particular sub-culture, today and in the past, be it through punk rock, or Greek theatre. So what is popular culture really? The phrases common meaning would be "trends, ideas, and habits that are representative of the time." American popular culture of today could be broadly defined as consumerism, capitalism, and by the same schema; information-ism. Today we socialize through MySpace, the market has become digital through E-Commerce, and we are entertained by Reality TV. The contrast may seem disappointing, but one must bear in mind that popular culture is not synonymous with fine art. Barzun's claim that commoners in any other age are different than those today is entirely unfounded. It is true that most pop-culture is not

"cultured," but commoners today are just as those of yesteryears. Though the literacy rate may be higher, there is still a broad distinction between those who are "cultured" and those who are not. Barzun's original idea can be construed to be that the intellectual and cultural fiber of the people is deteriorating. He claims this is due to a multitude of factors, urbanization, mechanization, and poor education. His claim is not without a quality of veraciousness. It is probably true that we don't have art being produced today that can be compared to that of Shakespeare or Homer. Yet how often do these masterpieces come about? They are treasures of humanity, not factory manufactured trash that can be spat out every few years. With the hodgepodge of cultures present in America, and with the more efficient medias we have today, it is hardly surprising that popular culture seems watered down and politically correct to the point of seeming sycophantic. But that hardly means that the modern age is bereft of meaningful art-to give examples here would be isolating the claim of this essay to my own appreciation of culture, yet who can say they have never encountered art produced in their life time that they could appreciate. In conclusion, Barzun's essay boils down to the pedantic ramblings of a cranky old intellectual. The essay is not completely lacking of meaningful content, but the essay is so poorly construed that it is difficult to find. His original claim that what he calls "popular culture" is disappearing would be better supported if had redefined the term in his opening rather than tricking us through semantics. His claim would be better served if it were "meaningful high art is disappearing from society and heres why." Yet even through the mire of urbanization and the watering down of cultures in the American melting pot, despite what Barzun says, the modern age manages to produce art that is appreciable. Not comparable with Shakespeare perhaps, but such art comes about very rarely, and the modern age has not been without its examples of

greatness.

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