Thursday, September 8, 2016

Batman Breeds Thoughts on Culture High and Low, Along with Musings on the Current Cultural Crisis

Yesterday we looked at Glen Weldon’s wonderful new book, Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, and that got us to thinking.  (Before we get to thinking, though, let’s reiterate that Weldon’s book is quite terrific and highly recommended.)  Is Batman art?  And is a deep engagement with Batman (or other facets of Nerd Culture) a worthwhile endeavor?

Before we start exploring, let’s set some ground rules.  We here at The Jade Sphinx have given serious consideration to pop fiction and film, along with kiddie books.  We have also examined literary, artistic and musical works by great masters.  Clearly, we think that pop fictions are worthy of serious consideration … but the mistake this discussion often makes is equating serious consideration with serious art. 

But that is not the case.  Kiddie lit and pop fiction can be crafted with varying degrees of artistry, but that does not necessarily make it art.  Oh, it can be art, but it does not transmute into art simply through virtue of its examination.  A doctoral thesis on Batman, for example, may result in a diploma, but the intrinsic quality of our pointed-eared friend and the body of work about him remains unchanged.

Now, the call to canonize kitsch is a relatively new phenomenon.  From the 1930s through the 1960s – a time of unprecedented media saturation – junk art for children was enjoyed by children.  In what seems was a more innocent time, there were whole industries creating art for children: comic strips and books, movie serials, radio shows, animated cartoons and hosts of literary options created expressly for everyone from beginning readers to teenagers.  Adults could sometimes dip in an appreciative toe to remember the sweet currents of youth, and may even enjoy much of the material, but to become an avid consumer of such was a sign of feeble-mindedness.

Pop fiction for adults also fully realized (and embraced) its limitations.  One well remembers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dedication to his 1912 novel The Lost World (a masterpiece of its kind): I have wrought my simple plan/If I give one hour of joy/To the boy who’s half a man,/Or the man who’s half a boy.  That lovely and poetic preamble is suitable for so much that came before and after, everything from Fu Manchu and Tarzan, to James Bond and Indiana Jones.  Good pop fiction can be terrific stuff: insightful, bracing, engaging and amusing.  It is not to be sneered at; nor, however, is it to be overestimated.

We are not saying, to be clear, that it is impossible for a piece of genre fiction or popular entertainment to elevate into the realm of higher art.  Wind in the Willows, The House at Pooh Corner and Peter Pan are magnificent books, transcending the designation of mere kiddie lit to soar to literary heights.  And one need only to think of Poe, of much of H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, of Graham Greene or Dashiell Hammett, to realize that many classic novels could also be shelved in the genre sections of your local bookstore.  But, again, such company doesn’t elevate a genre en toto.

But over the last few decades what has changed in the culture at large is a flight from adulthood and complexity, from the challenges of great art and great beauty, and a retreat into comfortable and childish enthusiasms.  Worse than that, consumers of pop culture are demanding that attention not only be paid, but that entry to the Canon is fair and just.  And, in so doing, they debase the wonderful raw power of pop fiction, and the innocence of kiddie lit.

In the 1990s, I was frankly amazed at the adult craze for Harry Potter books.  This is in no way to say that these books were bad, but they were written for children, and a deep identification with them signifies a lack of seriousness.  Worse still, as more and more adults read them, the books lost more and more of their grounding in a child’s world, ending with what was to be the Gotterdammerung of kiddie books.  It became almost impossible to read the last novel in the corpus and remember that it all started with some kids playing ball from atop some brooms.

Much the same thing for adults who obsess over Batman.  It is adults (of questionable maturity) who have demanded the darker, brooding, psychopathic Batman.  It was the same adults who have consigned the sunnier, smiling, and more optimistic Superman into oblivion, insufficiently violent or complex and now hopelessly passé.

What these adults playing with children’s toys forget is that amusements made for children cannot bear the weight they wish to impose upon them.  We are supposed to move on from the amusements of our youth to more challenging, complex and elevating fare.  Enjoy them as palette cleaners, but then get onto the main meal.  The answer is not to make Batman relevant to adults (an impossibility), but to embrace the challenge of real adult art. 

And, again, read and look at what you want.  But a steady diet of aesthetic and cultural junk is much like a steady diet of junk food: it will significantly impair your physical and mental health, greatly diminish your quality of life, and, in the long run, it will kill you.

Now, we make our children’s entertainment for adults.  I can think of few more damming condemnations of us as a culture and as a people that we actually make Batman or Superman movies that are so violent … that children cannot see them. Stop for a moment and ponder how … impossible that would have been as little as 50 years ago.  The idea of a “serious” Batman movie would have been met with well-deserved derision.  But not today.  The cheapening of our culture since the 1960s (and the concomitant tenets of aesthetic relativity), have made this dumbing down not only possible, but inevitable.  The highest grossing films of the year are blockbusters based on 40 year old superhero comics.  This lack of adulthood has poisoned our language, our music, our political discourse. 

This corruption has bled into everything.  For example, in the just-released Against Democracy, a political screed published by Princeton University Press (!), author Jason Brennan breaks the body politic into three classes:  hobbits, hooligans and vulcans. 

Hobbits…?  Vulcans...?  Really?  Is that what 21st Century adulthood has become?

I love pop fiction.  And when pop fiction is working on all cylinders, it can be wonderful, terrific and … art of a kind.  But it’s like a twinkie: I’ll eat them, but it’s not my sole diet.  And if the very notion of adulthood is to survive, we have to get back to the business of serious art, or our emotional, intellectual and philosophical selves are finished.

Tomorrow: James Bond – it aint art, but nobody does it better.

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