by Mark Tapson (February 2019)
Modern Narcissus (after John William Waterhouse), Dan Cretu
As 2018 drew to a close, The Washington Post published an arts-and-entertainment piece titled, “To understand culture in 2018, you must understand Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson.” Considering that Grande is a Grammy-winning but ultimately forgettable pop singer and Davidson is another in a decades-long line of ultimately forgettable Saturday Night Live comedians, the assertion that they are the key to understanding culture in America today says something significant about our culture, and it isn’t good.
The WaPo article argued that Grande and Davidson happened to be linked, albeit coincidentally, to certain trending topics in 2018, such as the #MeToo movement and mental health issues. But this is less insightful than the assumption of the article itself, which is that the state of our culture can be charted by Things That Happen to Celebrities. Celebrity—a shallow, transitory degree of fame—has dominated American culture for so long that we now simply conflate the two. Pop culture is American culture, and has been for over fifty years. For most people from the Baby Boomer generation on down, what used to be called—without irony or sarcasm—“high culture” has faded into irrelevance at best and oblivion at worst.
“A high culture,” writes philosopher Roger Scruton, “is the self-consciousness of a society. It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people.” As our educational system has gradually shifted from transmitting that culture to our youth, to focusing instead on boosting self-esteem and preaching about tolerance and diversity, fewer and fewer people share that frame of reference. The memes and ephemeralities of pop culture have become our shared frame of reference, and the wisdom and insight of the classics are increasingly lost.
Is this going to be just another elitist condemnation of “low” culture, you ask? To some extent, yes.
Much of pop culture—not all, but arguably the vast majority—is brainless vulgarity and dispiriting ugliness, and our humanity is suffering for it. We could use a bracing dose of elitism.
I am not calling for a total rejection of pop culture. It is certainly possible to appreciate both high and low cultures. I was a child of pop culture myself, raised not on Michelangelo, Mozart, and Milton, but on The Beatles, Batman, and Bewitched. But I was lucky enough to have been educated and/or educated myself about Western civilization’s astounding intellectual and artistic heritage before our universities became full-time indoctrination mills promoting anti-Western multiculturalism and reducing the entire field of humanities to the Marxist obsession with race and gender power struggles.
A couple of years ago I was speaking on a panel about culture issues and stressing how critically important it is for conservatives like myself to understand and engage in pop culture rather than turn our backs on it. We long ago ceded that battleground to the political left largely because many of us were repelled by pop culture’s increasing degradation and antagonism to conservative values. Another member of the panel, a highly-regarded academic, challenged me on this point, noting correctly that culture does not consist of pop entertainment and social media popularity alone, but of the grand legacy of the best that has been created by humankind. He cited the usual suspects of high culture such as Shakespeare and Rembrandt. “If we lose sight of that,” he concluded, “then we’ve lost it all.”
I responded that I completely agreed; after all, that is what traditionalists like myself aim to do: preserve and transmit the loftiest achievements of the past to future generations. But what conservatives like him had lost sight of, I said, was that today’s kids, generally speaking, know next to nothing about that high culture. If they have even heard of past luminaries like Rembrandt, they simply dismiss them as Dead White Males of the oppressor class. These kids don’t know Beethoven but they quite literally worship Beyoncé “Queen Bey” Knowles. The only Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael they know are not Renaissance geniuses but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If we don’t connect with young people in the realm of pop culture, we won’t connect with them at all, and the classics will fade from our collective consciousness.
With that in mind, a more enlightening way to understand culture today is not via Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, but through a six-minute music video released last June by the pop power couple, rapper Jay-Z Carter and his aforementioned wife, superstar singer Beyoncé. With a net worth of $1.25 billion dollars and a high-profile friendship with the Obamas, the Carters rule pop culture. Their video, for a song called “Apeshit” —you read that right—on Beyoncé’s Everything is Love album, was filmed in a deserted Louvre in Paris. It featured glimpses of 17 of the most recognizable (to those with any familiarity of high culture) pieces in the museum, including the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon, and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa.
The video shows Beyoncé, her husband, and her dancers vogueing and grinding among the most spectacular collection of artistic brilliance in the world, with the camera periodically pausing on closeups of paintings. Referencing luxury watches and designer brands, Lamborghinis and private jets, diamonds and stacks of cash, the “Apeshit” lyrics celebrate the lifestyle of the rich and famous, from drug-taking hedonism to consumer excess (“We livin’ lavish, lavish / I got expensive fabrics / I got expensive habits,” Beyoncé boasts).
The video’s message is not art appreciation but egotism. “I can’t believe we made it,” Beyoncé crows, as if having the financial wherewithal to rent out the Louvre is the same thing as having earned a place in the Louvre. Draped in designer fashions, she holds the viewer in a haughty gaze throughout the video. It’s good to be queen, it seems to say. And yet, “I don’t give a damn ‘bout the fame,” Beyoncé sings, hilariously. In this very same song she promises the listener, “Hang one night with ‘Yoncé, I’ll make you famous.” Fame is the fundamental element of her world.
Consider Jay-Z’s rap break from “Apeshit”:
I’m a gorilla in the fuckin’ coupe
Finna pull up in the zoo
I’m like Chief Keef meet Rafiki, who been lyin’ “King” to you?
Pocket, watch it, like kangaroos
Tell these clowns we ain’t amused
‘Nana clips for that monkey business, 4-5 got change for you
Motorcade when we came through
Presidential with the planes too
One better get you with the residential
Undefeated with the cane too
I said no to the Superbowl, you need me, I don’t need you
Every night we in the endzone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too
Last night was a fuckin’ zoo
Stagedivin’ in a pool of people
Ran through Liverpool like a fuckin’ Beatle
Smoke gorilla glue like it’s fuckin’ legal
Tell the Grammy’s fuck that 0 for 8 shit
Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?
Now read these soaring lines from poet Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great”:
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
This is not a poem about the fleeting, earthbound cult of celebrity. Spender is not boasting about how large he is living. He is not positioning himself among those who were truly great, but honoring them, and he manages to clothe his message in startling beauty without name-dropping designers. This is art, not self promotion.
“Apeshit” represents, better than Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, the disheartening state of our culture in 2019: we are mired in a culture of aesthetic crudity and a materialistic narcissism that is spiritually deadening and civilizationally decadent. There is no sense of the sublime in the song, no humility before the grandeur surrounding them, no transcendence, except in the glimpses we get of the Louvre’s treasures.
And because pop culture has become hopelessly politicized, there is a blatant message of anti-colonial triumphalism in the video as well. The Guardian noted that the video “was seen as an important comment on the representation of power in art, and on race and colonialism, as well as being a conversation starter for young visitors.” Unfortunately, that is a conversation that divides us through identity politics rather than unites us through art. Dazed Digital gleefully calls the video “a middle finger to convention, a dare aimed at [sic] squarely at the gatekeepers of history and artistic tradition: You know we deserve to be here.”
Some conservatives are choosing to detach themselves and their families from the debasing morass of contemporary pop culture in a sort of voluntary exile, a là Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” I sympathize with this choice; to some extent my family and I are choosing this same path. Americans who don’t want to abandon the culture war entirely must take a page from the left’s playbook and undertake a long march through the culture, working to change it from within. It is a daunting task, but as the brilliant Anthony Esolen wrote in his Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, what was done before can be done again. Our mission must be to reacquaint ourselves with “the best that has been said and thought in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it.
As an ironic postscript, the Carters’ video, viewed online more than 150 million times, may have done high culture an accidental favor. The Louvre broke all ticket office records last year with more than 10 million people streaming through its glorious halls—a 25% rise in visitors, the highest number for a museum of its kind, beating record attendance at the National Museum of China and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Louvre credits that record in no small part to the Carters’ video. The museum now offers both a 90-minute guided tour and a self-guided tour featuring all the works of art highlighted in the “Apeshit” video. The UK Telegraph even posted an article titled, “How Beyoncé and Jay-Z reinvented the Louvre.” They didn’t reinvent it, of course, or even add to it; they merely exploiting it for self-promotion and to score political points.
Nevertheless, the power of the artwork featured in it resonated with viewers who might not otherwise have been exposed to it. It demonstrates that pop culture can be used to steer people from decadence to transcendence, from the now to the eternal—this is why conservatives must get in the game.
Mark Tapson is a culture critic and the author of a forthcoming book from Templeton Press on chivalry and the war on masculinity.
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