For as long as humans could speak, there have been a surplus of people who remind us to plant our feet firmly on the ground, to prevent our minds from piercing the clouds and to keep our dreams small. Amongst the most pronounced in our modern age are certain cultural critics dismayed with their perceived failings of popular culture. They consider our music to be banal, think our exposure to “genre” literature is dumbing us down, our games are artless, our websites are trivial. Overall, our culture can be described as “alternately violent, pornographic, unreal, trite, vapid, conformist, consumerist, meaningless and brainless.”
I can detect three ideas that pervade much of these pessimistic views:
- Great art is somehow irreconcilable with the notion of popularity and capitalist production.
- Culture which entertains people and unites them around social activities is deficient to that which enlightens.
- Art which plays with the imagination is ______________ (vapid, escapist, unreal, unimportant)
The anti-capitalist critique of art may have begun with Adorno and the Frankfurt School, who saw consumer culture as a way for The Man to prevent a glorious Marxist revolution by pacifying us with a supply of bourgeoisie goods. Although many contemporary critics have dropped the communist pretext, the substance of the argument hasn’t changed much. Contrary to this viewpoint, great art (note also that I’m refraining from vague distinctions such as “popular” versus “fine,” which I find to be based more on economic class rather than artistic merit) is produced best within consumer-driven, capitalist economies. You cannot create cultural works in a society that is incapable of producing ample surpluses; and you cannot enjoy culture in a society that lacks in leisure time. Even renaissance workshops were operated as businesses, but their markets were small. Leisure time was virtually nonexistent before the modern era, and has continued to increase over the last few decades. Furthermore, free markets are the most efficient way to connect niche consumers with niche artists. The Internet has amplified this effect because it is able to aggregate people with very diverse interests from around the world, making it possible to produce niche content that, in total, exceeds the “popular” content. Culture is getting more diverse, not more homogenized or “dumbed down” as some would see it.
With a surplus of free time available, it makes sense that we’d be exhausted by the large variety of content that can educate or enlighten us. That’s a fair explanation for why people demand entertainment that–well, entertains. It’s a necessary part of the cycle of recharging us for more creative and productive activities. There’s not much evidence that our entertainment has a “dumbing down” effect at all: throughout the world, illiteracy rates are plummeting and IQ is on the rise. Another facet of modern popular entertainment–whether a multiplayer game, a rock concert, or simply talking about a television show around the water-cooler–is that it is often a social activity. It strikes me that the anti-entertainment critique of culture makes a value judgment that certain solitary cerebral pursuits are inherently superior to social activities. I see no reason that one is fundamentally better than the other, nor can I think of a reason why they’d be mutually exclusive.
Imagination and the Sense of Wonder
This leaves us with the third theme–what I’ll call the “attack on imagination.” Those who critique games, science fiction, fantasy literature and the like will often view these pursuits as mere escapism, vapid, a waste of time, a distraction–activities that offer no rewards and lead to no greater good. In contrast, consider what Tom Shippey, a scholar of both medieval literature and modern fantasy literature, has to say about how literature can deal with large, epic problems of the “real world” within the metaphors of fantasy and science fiction:
…the traditional opposition between ‘escapist fantasy’ and ‘realist novel’ was, throughout the twentieth century and beyond, 180 degrees in the wrong direction: it is the fantasists like Orwell or Golding or Vonnegut or Tolkien who have been confronting the fearful and horrible issues of political life, while the E. M. Forsters and John Updikes stayed within their sheltered Shires.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a good example: within the backdrop of an engrossing and interesting fantasy world, one has to cope with the nature of good and evil, with the dangers of obsession, with temptation, concerns about industrialization, the horrors of war–to name only a few of its subjects.
Fantasy and science fiction have an ability to ignite our imaginations with something that is hard for other forms of literature to do: inspire us with a sense of wonder. The sense of wonder is one of the greatest exhilarations one can experience in fiction (whether a novel, a movie or a game), for it is this emotion that inspires us to expect–no, demand–better things from humanity. It is this sense of wonder which is central to fantasy and science fiction literature; in the former, through the settings which stretch the imagination, the magic and unreality acting as a metaphor for all of the things that are most dear to the human heart–and in the latter, challenges and experiences that provoke us to strive for the truly awesome.
Do all modern cultural artifacts contain this sense of wonder? Or redeeming entertainment or social value? No; there’s clearly a need for criticism, taste-makers and a demanding public. Some media are demonstrably better than others. But to generalize and speak of a general cultural decline is insulting and narrow-minded.
I leave you a video that expresses some of the thoughts I’ve described above. It is from the “meaningless” morass of YouTube. Its content is a “vapid” mashup of other video content, set to “banal” electronic music–dealing with subject matter which is not science-fiction itself–but is surely fired by our “escapist” dreams:
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