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High and Low; Good and Bad; Sheldon, Norman and Poor Old Tom by Brett Busang

High and Low; Good and Bad; Sheldon, Norman, and Poor Old Tom

by Brett Busang



I have puzzled over the vast and yawning abyss that separates popular from high culture for a great while and have concluded that: 1) there's nothing anybody can do about it; 2) the splintered nature of public perception might be a strong suit we can't do without; 3) I need to think about #2).

Before Everyman-and-Woman felt that a college degree was necessary, there was a certain cachet to being an “educated” person.  It was a snobby sort of thing that could be unfairly trotted out, inflicted on so-called inferior persons, and made to seem a bigger thing than it was.  But it also represented social mobility, a sense of widening boundaries, and an American-style optimism that is as irrepressible in 2015 as it was a hundred years before. 

For most of rural America, for example, college was a big thing.  When a rather oddball son or daughter put on his or her starchiest outfit and boarded a train for LaSalle, Michigan, say, he or she was breaking rank; going outside of his or her "raisin'"; causing a cultural ruckus the like of which had never been seen and could not be cut down to size with a jack-plane or pitchfork.  If you went to college, you were sui generis.  No, you were a genius—or at least as close to that high water as anybody in Prairie Nostrum! 

In our day and time, colleges are trade schools of a sort that provide enough education to their charges that they can barely service the debt with which they are saddled upon graduation.  I contend that a lot of these people should never have attended college to begin with.  In fact, it is with higher education that their miseries begin. 

Against a backdrop of the moderately achieving or even college-educated-and-still-clueless, stereotypes of "brainy" people yet obtain.  Sheldon Cooper is perhaps America's most popular nerd.  He is so vastly superior to his fellows (and fellow women) that nobody contests it.  Naturally, however, his social handicaps are as conscientiously nourished as his academic prowess and he finds himself in all sorts of hot water because his signal system—which represents the do's and don't’s of social interactions—is skewed and serves not so much as a buffer to antisocial impulses as a great big nod.  Sheldon Cooper is a lovable fellow in his own way, but he will never get any better at the signal-system which gets him into the hot water in which he writhes and slashes around to the unending delight of TV audiences.   Republicans seem to enjoy his antics as well as Democrats.  His off-the-charts brilliance is not threatening because he's such a nerd!  As such, he is worthy of our condescension.  Which is to say, Everybody's.

Yet here is a kind of boy-man whose intellect is superior.  The only way we can like him is for him to be a klutz in some way we're not.  Meet Sheldon Cooper, the man who makes us hate ourselves for being stupid and love ourselves for being able to join a socialized organism that starts with our families and stretches out, over time, to include a bewildering panoply of people and situations.  In this regard, we are all Sheldon's superiors.  He won the first set, but we've beaten the pants off of him once we found our game and ran with it.


* * * * * * *


Before he met an untimely end, Thomas Kinkade was America's Most Popular Painter.  Like no one else before him except Norman Rockwell—a vastly superior technician who reflected what America liked best in itself for half a century—he tapped into a lonely zeitgeist that seemed to wake up after the connection was established.  Suddenly, it was all right to feel nostalgic about the pre-gated communities segregation and economic empowerment—which was represented by a good job with a good company—made possible.  With a paycheck in their hands, our forefathers spread out, put down stakes, and constructed neighborhoods out of the whole cloth of American values.  Here paperboys got up at four in the morning and made some money for themselves.  The milkman let himself in and left a brace of glistening bottles behind.  For climbing kittens, firemen braved the highest branches.  And public servants never thought of raiding coffers that belonged, first and foremost, to The People.

Kinkade’s genius, if you will, was, for the most part, political.  His paintings aren’t, in fact, as terrible as they’ve been made out to be.  Taking Kinkade’s social and political strategies—and he did have them—into consideration, they were wildly successful.  “Real” artists resent the formulaic— for which I don’t blame them.  Formulas produce the bodice rippers of visual art; they prostitute themselves for the “magic of the marketplace”—a phrase invented by a Republican strategist and given to Ronald Reagan—and their practitioners become artistic slouches in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  To that, Kinkade would have said— and rightly so: “And what is your problem?” 

Success can be measured in all sorts of ways.  In a conventional sense, success defines a desirable outcome.  A successful “outing” is a happy one.  A successful speech draws titters and, finally, applause.  A successful flight gets everybody to an absurdly distant place without scaring everybody to death (or dropping out of the sky.)  Artistic success has always struck me as quantifiable.  What is art?  It is a representation of something that is: 1) worthy of the thing being represented; 2) that alludes to artistic traditions that are the bedrock of an artist’s education as well as benchmarks whereby intelligent laypeople distinguish between what’s good and what isn’t; 3) that makes significant connections between the conscious and unconscious; symbol and substance; a fleeting thought and an enduring construction.  If one were to apply these criteria to the work of Thomas Kinkade—or even Norman Rockwell—both “artists” would fall short.  Yet to deny their impact were folly in the extreme.  Both made not only an indelible impression with their half-baked realism and truths plucked from a Boy Scout or Jehovah’s Witness Handbook, they were insanely popular.  They tapped into something that was considered good and decent.   As “ordinary guys”, they looked like your neighbor—from whom you might borrow a cup of sugar, if not a twenty dollar bill. They not only delivered Sunday school lessons; there were messages about character and conscience.  Not just: Do unto others.  But: Play fair.  Don’t judgeKeep your nose clean.  Rockwell believed in—or at least projected—the notion of the regular fellow being potentially extraordinary.  Put him in a uniform and he’ll fight until his last breath.  Given him a pick or shovel and he’ll give you the Grand Coulee Dam.  Put him in hot water and he’ll swim his way out.  And did I say him?  Rockwell’s visually sophisticated take on a Michelangelo painting produced Rosie the Riveter, who took up the slack when all the guys had joined the army.

Thomas Kinkade’s message, while ostensibly saccharine, was more nuanced.  He appealed to a social fabric that was unraveling at the bottom, but tightening the further up you could go.  He promised not only eternal serenity, with a glowing lighthouse to steer you away from life’s hardships, but an agreeably isolated existence that depended largely on one’s purchasing power.  In its monotonous garb and flattest of American accents, it mirrored not only what a lot of people wanted, but wanted to keep for themselves.  A Lost America; traditional values that didn’t—in the midst of a multicultural sprawl—have to be ashamed of themselves; good people signing up for a fantasy experience that would get more real the longer they shared the DNA of their collective denial.  (Of all of American’s iconic, if sanitized, imagery, Kinkade’s paintings were two-dimensional only in appearance; whenever he stood at the easel, he was thinking of a three-dimensional sort of place.)  One would not look around Detroit’s now-vanished post-WWI neighborhoods to find anything resembling a Thomas Kinkade.  But nobody’s doing that.  Once you get away from the dark side of American life, which keeps the little man (and woman) down and can even kill him (or her), the perfectibility of a country that was built on, and with, strong legs and a straight back, becomes ever more tantalizing—particularly if it can be sweetened by casement windows, glowing lamplight, and a freshly painted Pontiac in the front yard.  Kinkade’s formula worked—and works—so well that he didn’t even need sex.  It was as if the man were playing the game with one hand tied, somewhat voluptuously, behind his back.  He could remove it any time he wanted, but it was so much more fun keeping it there for whatever emergency or special occasion might arise.


* * * * * * * *


Sheldon Cooper is, in fact, a product of such an America.  And while his mom is a religious wingnut, she provides him with something to not only resist intellectually, but to hang on to with a touchingly sentimental heart. 

* * * * * * * *


If anything distinguishes high and low culture, it is sentiment.  High culture rejects it.  Low culture makes a cult out of it, with the interconnected shrines of commerce and religion butting against one another in a delightfully incongruous sort of way.  (It is nothing short of miraculous—and provides an example of what should provoke cognitive dissonance, but apparently doesn’t—that evangelists can preach the gospel while raking in the cash.  If I remember correctly, Jesus whipped his money-lenders about the face and chest.  His evangelistic successors coddle and keep them as if they were concubines.  And yet True Believers still sign their worldly goods over to men and women who are already so wealthy, they occasionally joke about it.)  High culture is impatient with such excesses and dismisses them as if they weren’t important.  In its own way, high culture—which presumably intelligent people stridently defend—occupies a sort of gated community of the mind.  When what it condemns as inadequately substantive sinks too low, it refuses to acknowledge it.  It’s not unlike Democrats refusing to stoop as low as their Republican nemeses and getting the pants beaten off of them because they won’t.  (If politics is about nothing, it’s about assuming multiple positions.  And stooping is one of the most necessary positions in the manual.)  Such supercilious neutrality is dangerous in a world that never stops talking.  In a single day, one can be obsolete.  And while high culture still occupies its various pantheons, the low has more minions, more vigor, and more elasticity.  And if it worships what affords a wan laugh to its critics, it has such staying-power that nothing short of a holocaust will unseat it.

I am among those higher culture prosecutors who enjoy exposing the Norman Rockwells and Thomas Kinkades, who are not real artists in the way Titian was; or Leonardo could be; or the Early Impressionists were until they got older.  (Both cultures consume them, and for only slightly different reasons.)  Yet I must also acknowledge their reach, their power, and their influence.  Germany once laughed at Hitler.  “How can such a comic figure,” said the smart money circa 1929, “be taken seriously?”  History not only shows that Hitler got to be taken very seriously, but that, having been so taken, he uprooted those who ever dared laugh at him.  Rockwell and Kinkade don’t need to defend themselves.  They have the goodwill of the many; the sentimental tears of a shrinking middle class; and the bedrock values of an America that has never run so much on honest criticism as an assertion of a majoritarian will.  (The majority doesn’t always need more people, merely better organizing power as well as an audible propaganda machine.)  For any majority, any “reason” will do—even if it’s not a reason at all.  Majorities don’t need any.  They’ve got their myths, their bank balances, their Bibles.  And, thanks to *Rockwell and Kinkade, their storybooks as well.


*Of this unlikely triumvirate, I prefer Sheldon Cooper.  He’s more of a lightning-rod.  For all of his social gaffes, he’s also the smartest guy in the room.  And, given recent assaults on intelligent. . . everything, we need heroes whose intellects are their most prominent and reliable features.  He is also a product of the American education system—even though he sailed through it at the speed of light.  In his person, he represents its most effective outcome: he is a man (or something like it) who is tied to a system he manages to accommodate and supersede at the very same time.  Most college graduates are either running in place or, having started to run in earnest, are unable to keep up.