Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts

Gilbert Seldes’ The Seven Lively Arts (1924) was ground-breaking in its application of serious critical judgment to phenomena of popular culture. Seldes’ most striking observations have stood up well. Many today would enthusiastically agree with his arguments for the excellence of jazz, Charlie Chaplin, and Krazy Kat (though he is far from the only cultivated appreciator of these particular works). His position was moderate indeed; he claimed only that critical acumen might be fruitfully applied to works regarded as mere entertainment and that the best of popular art was superior to a good deal of high art. He did not argue that the popular is better or even equal to more ambitious works. Indeed, Seldes takes care to conclude the book with an encounter with a new work by Picasso – a favorite target of the day’s philistines -- which he instantly recognizes as one of “the world’s greatest works of art.” [291] Few today would quarrel with his claim that either elite or popular art succeeds if well-done and fails if, in his word, “bogus.” He correctly locates the constitution of art in the consumption: “no one imagines that a pedant or a half-wit, enjoying a classic or a piece of ragtime, is actually getting all that the subject affords.” [293]
Seldes made his contribution as a journalistic critic rather than a literary theorist. His comments are informal, often impressionistic, but he does make sometimes make general assertions that I cannot accept. Part of his motive in claiming worth for the “lively arts” is a sort of patriotic American exceptionalism in which the excellence of popular forms arises from a democratic political system. Of course, had he lived elsewhere, he might have been celebrating Grock the clown (whom he says flopped in America), the early Tintin or the bal musette. At any rate, his enthusiasm led him to greet broadcasting – competing stations, free to the consumer – as an essentially American form of art. He joined CBS as director of television programs in 1937 at which point what had been an outlier position among the Dial intellectuals earned him a lucrative salary and broad influence in shaping popular art. Seldes remained enough of a high-brow to express mild doubts late in his career about Elvis and even his own field of network television.
To him truly great art has a “high seriousness’ [293] whereas the “minor arts” have a corresponding “high levity.” [294] Socrates, who told us that the genius of comedy was identical to that of tragedy, might have demurred. Could levity mount higher than in Aristophanes, Rabelais or Henry IV, Part 1? Perhaps because of this categorical distinction and the value judgment associated with it, Seldes considers the first rank of artistic excellence unattainable by popular works. But why? If we can understand the artfulness of Homer and recognize a long series of works at once wholly popular and aesthetically satisfying from Euripedes through Beowulf and Shakespeare and Dickens, what limits modern popular forms to a lesser achievement?
One reasonable response is to ask what work a tasteful person might nominate. The issue is clouded by the fact that, due to their highly repetitive and conventionalized nature, popular works are often praised as a whole without further more specific reference. Thus many television viewers love a particular series yet have less ready enthusiasm for individual episodes; readers of the comics like the strip itself, not certain days alone. In films a distinction exists between “stars” who repeatedly play a particular sort of character, often supposed close to the performer’s own nature and actors who can play any of a wide variety of roles. John Wayne and Peter Lorre are examples of the first; Bette Davis and Dustin Hoffman of the second. Within Chaplin’s oeuvre there is a considerable development from the early two-reelers which were largely improvisatory and episodic (somewhat like commedia dell’arte) with each gag succeeding the last to such architecturally planned finished works as The Gold Rush or Modern Times.
Today, of course, some post-structuralist critics would deny value judgments altogether, but Seldes’ whole well-worked-out point is an extension of the task of the journalistic reviewer which is specifically to make such judgments. I once knew a film critic who considered Night of the Living Dead the greatest monument of recent American art and I consider Pogo an important work at least, so I don’t doubt that nominees could be offered, but could any consensus, any canonization, ever emerge? Seldes cites the Yankee crowd’s acclaim of a Babe Ruth home run as “a beauty” as evidence for the common people’s aesthetic discernment [297], but surely what they enjoyed was something quite different from a work of art, even a dance performance.
That very daring, though, endears Seldes. One can imagine himself thinking of ever less likely topics for aesthetic evaluation: the revue, the newspaper columnist . . . one reads his ranking of clowns without being concerned that one have never seen them perform. His observations are valuable because of his absorption in the actual quality of lived experience rather than some abstract standard. Whatever one makes of Seldes’ conclusions, he raised points of such importance that they altered the thinking of later critics and underlay later academic upheavals such as the development of “cultural studies.” His book remains a fascinating and adventurous excursion into the popular art of the twenties.

Page references are to the 1957 edition to which Seldes added new comments, occasionally reflecting on the progress of commodified mass art.

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