The “Greatest Generation” that won World War II also produced a culture that at times seems remarkable when compared with our own. Back in 2006, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal pondered in amazement that America’s “middlebrow” culture of the 1940s through the early to mid 1960s could, near its highpoint, produce a cinematic biography of Vincent van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas, then at the peak of his career as a tough guy action hero:
The result is a quintessential example — perhaps the quintessential example — of the American middlebrow culture of the ’40s and ’50s, which at its not-infrequent best educated and entertained in like measure without dumbing down beyond recognition the art it popularized. The same impulse that inspired Life magazine to publish Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and CBS to telecast Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” can be seen at work in “Lust for Life.”It says everything about Minnelli and his high-minded collaborators that they made no attempt to turn van Gogh into a regular guy, a potato-eater like you and me who just happened to paint “Starry Night” and chop off his left ear. Instead, he is unapologetically presented as a genius, set apart from the common run of men by his God-given talent and his sense of artistic mission. And that’s what makes the film so special: It takes art seriously.
A wise old cynic once observed that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Had he lived three centuries later, La Rochefoucauld might have added that biopics are the tribute Hollywood pays to real art. Anyone who chooses to make a movie about a great artist, be it good or bad, is making an implicit declaration of faith in the enduring significance of Western culture. Hence it says something of interest about the state of American culture that pictures like “Lust for Life” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” in which Charlton Heston played Michelangelo, have become so rare in recent years. “Amadeus” and “Shakespeare in Love” weren’t biopics but fictionalized fantasies (albeit smart ones). “Pollock” and “Girl With the Pearl Earring” were art-house films aimed at a smallish audience. When was the last time a Hollywood producer with muscle used it to make a big-budget movie about an indisputably great high-culture figure, pitched to the public at large? Instead, we get “Walk the Line.” From “Starry Night” to “Folsom Prison Blues”: That’s how far we’ve traveled in the past half-century.
Believe me, I’m not turning up my nose at Johnny Cash. I love country music (in fact, I used to play it). Besides, “Walk the Line” is terrific, one of the finest biopics ever made. But Cash himself would surely have admitted that he was no Mozart. Whether or not they enjoyed high art, most Americans of Cash’s generation were brought up to respect it, and middlebrow culture allowed anyone to share in its glories. Now we’re expected to discover them by ourselves. It strikes me that our culture was healthier when Hollywood offered an occasional helping hand — even if it belonged to Kirk Douglas.
But by the mid-1960s, as American elites lost confidence in the nation and its democratic ideals — and ultimately, lost confidence period — and as a result, middlebrow culture collapsed. In an article from the Journal at the start of this month, Joseph Epstein looks back at Susan Sontag, whom as Epstein notes, “Deluded to the end, Susan Sontag had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her real métier.” But check out the essay that jump-started Sontag’s career, and see if doesn’t rather accurately set the stage for our current, far cruder pop-culture overculture:
A single essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,'” published in Partisan Review in 1964, launched Susan Sontag’s career, at the age of 31, and put her instantly on the Big Board of literary reputations. People speak of ideas whose time has not yet come; hers was a talent for promoting ideas that arrived precisely on time. “Notes on ‘Camp,'” along with a companion essay called “Against Interpretation,” vaunted style over content: “The idea of content,” Ms. Sontag wrote, “is today merely a hindrance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.” She also held interpretation to be “the enemy of art.” She argued that Camp, a style marked by extravagance, epicene in character, expressed a new sensibility that would “dethrone the serious.” In its place she would put, with nearly equal standing, such cultural items as comic books, wretched movies, pornography watched ironically, and other trivia.
These essays arrived as the 1960s were about to come to their tumultuous fruition and provided an aesthetic justification for a retreat from the moral judgment of artistic works and an opening to hedonism, at least in aesthetic matters. “In place of a hermeneutics,” Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” ended, “we need an erotics of art.” She also argued that the old division between highbrow and lowbrow culture was a waste not so much of time as of the prospects for enjoyment. Toward this end she lauded the movies—”cinema is the active, the most exciting, the most important of all the art forms right now”—as well as science fiction and popular music.
As Robert Fulford wrote a few years ago in the National Post, a few years later, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker would help to finish the job of permanently killing off America’s mid-century middlebrow culture:
Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used [1967’s] Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.”
She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond “good taste,” moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?
Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. “Violence is its meaning.”
She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.
When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and ’80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.
It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”
Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”
Until the rise of the Internet, the cost of producing a film, a magazine, a newspaper, a book or a TV show limited the means of production and thus the final cultural say to a handful of elites working in each medium. In contrast, thanks to the Web and personal computers, rather than a mass overculture, various factions can fund their own culture, with results sometimes better — and sometimes far worse than the products of the earlier mass media. But while Sturgeon’s Law will always be an absolute, these days, what makes your personal list of the ten percent that isn’t crud could well be very different from mine.