Another year, another round of debates that foreground entirely the wrong aspect of some words from Martin Scorsese. In his new essay for Harper’s, the director bemoans what he sees as the art of cinema being reduced to its basest commercial elements, at the expense of more serious filmmaking. He rails against the idea of “content” as a term leveling all culture—film, pop music, TikToks—into a pernicious and false equivalency that removes the “art” from art in favor of the universal ideology of capitalism and consumerism. More personally, he champions curation over algorithms: the combination of passion and expertise that leads to sharing what you love. “An act of generosity,” as he puts it. This is in contrast to algorithms, code that impersonally treats the audience as consumer and the content (as opposed to “content”) of a film as an assemblage of discernible units—meaning, if you liked one movie about a tempestuous romantic relationship (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) you may enjoy some other ones, too. Have you seen The Ugly Truth? An algorithm a few years back thought I might want to after seeing the former.
Anyone who can recall the halcyon days of 14 months ago remembers the last time some mild complaints from Scorsese ignited a barrage of online debates—i.e., noting that he didn’t really consider Marvel movies to be “cinema.” Which, in turn, was just another salvo in his ongoing critique of business-minded Hollywood decision-making, something he’s been doing since his fellow movie brats Steven Spielberg and George Lucas started breaking the bank in the 1970s. Those quick to label Scorsese as out of touch with the changing world of entertainment seemed to miss this larger argument.
Worse, the ensuing cultural debates largely obscure the issue that lay at the root of Scorsese’s comments. Instead, it’s eclipsed by partisans focusing on the actual quality of Marvel films (in the case of 2019), and by accusations of cultural “gatekeeping” in the current brouhaha—the predictable charge of “Oh, yeah? Who decides what’s quality and what isn’t? You, Mr. Bigshot Movie Director?” The latter charge misreads his “act of generosity” as some outmoded form of scolding, the idea that cultural gatekeepers are busily shooing us away from our beloved popcorn entertainment. And the former is presumably of little interest to the longtime director, and was never really Scorsese’s larger concern (he himself admits he’s barely seen any of the MCU films). The MCU was merely a stand-in for a sort of predictable mass-market entertainment of the kind he sees in opposition to a more artistically provocative cinema, one we might term a more “elitist” standard of art. In his latest writing, we can substitute the nefarious “content” for the MCU—a fair association, I’d wager, in Scorsese’s eyes.
But as we forge ahead into a young decade, it may be time to acknowledge that the leveling of all popular culture into some middlebrow standard—in which everything is judged as meritorious on the same critical grounds—has glossed over a profound fissure that never really went away: the one between highbrow and lowbrow pop culture, or “art” vs. “entertainment.” This isn’t a call to return to some faux-objective singular standard of evaluation; that’s not even possible, let alone desirable. Rather, after years of debate over the new model of critical assessment, in which all popular culture is seen as equally valuable, it may be time to reconsider how to set new parameters for elitism—a recipe for a culture that never really shook off the distinctions it tried so hard to bury, only to resurface once Martin Scorsese had to promote The Irishman.
Postmodernism has ridden the culture into its current state, in which the former elite control of art has ceded to the collective populist notion of art being essentially equivalent to media: Because anything—film, TV shows, podcasts, mixtapes, pop-up stores—can be art, it’s easier to just let go of the reins and allow that everything is art. As Jay David Bolter wrote in his 2019 book The Digital Plenitude: The Decline Of Elite Culture And The Rise Of New Media, “The loss of the center means that there is no single standard of quality that transcends the various communities of practice. However much some may still long for ‘quality,’ the word does not have a global meaning… There can be no general cultural judgment about American television, because there are no generally shared standards.” Two main currents have risen to dominance in media during the 21st century as a result: 1) the demolishing of previous standards of elitism (often racist, sexist, and classist) via a mentality often loosely called “poptimism”; and 2) a broader cultural bias against elitism in any guise, fostered in part by a decades-long culture war waged by the right. The two ideas are entwined, but they’re far from the same. The first is, more or less, a very good thing; the second, not so much. And it needs to be challenged. Scorsese’s not alone.
The Scorsese fracas did one good thing: It highlighted the fault line that still exists, despite decades of postmodernism muddying it into insensibility. The disjunction between highbrow and lowbrow, or between “authentic” versus “manufactured,” or “art” versus “entertainment, is as present as ever, just below the surface. (None of these dichotomies need necessarily be opposed terms.) Replace “entertainment” with “content” and Scorsese is right there with us. It used to be a given that highbrow and lowbrow culture were separate playing fields on which we could participate in film, television, literature, and more. It was always a continuum, true—as poet and professor Judith Hougen has stressed, “the categories here are not neat and tidy… some ‘entertainment’ is truthful and thought-provoking, and some ‘art’ is disordered and despairing”—but the divisions held.
Indeed, what was developed around the mid-20th century—call it middlebrow culture—was originally a way not to flatten distinctions between elevated, elitist art and lowest-common-denominator pandering, but as a means of getting people to blend some artistically inclined entertainment in with their mass-marketed pulp. It suggested that taking in an orchestral performance would help keep you intellectually and artistically challenged, rather than basking in the lazy enjoyment of just watching Big Bang Theory reruns for the 20th night in a row. If that sounds boring, or if you have to be talked into it, it’s what writer Dan Kois calls “eating our cultural vegetables.” (If his analogy doesn’t already make it clear, he’s not a fan.)
For every Madonna-like creative type (or Godfather-esque demolishing of the highbrow/lowbrow distinction) straddling the line between populist pandering and bold artistic exploration, there are far more examples of cookie-cutter entertainment to hold up against countercultural art. A hundred Family Matters for every 7 Up, a dozen Herbie Rides Again for every A Woman Under The Influence. Even the ’90s permitted a clear demarcation between the two, in which the quality of corporate-profit-driven, mass-market culture was generally agreed to be artistically inferior to that which sprang up from independent culture; almost no one tried to argue New Kids On The Block were of a piece with Sonic Youth.
But the 21st century has seen a dramatic leveling out of all popular culture. Especially in the past decade, the shift has been from a snarky, scornful dismissal of mainstream, glossy, prefabricated popular culture by critical gatekeepers to a celebratory acceptance of any and all types of artists and entertainment as equally worthy of our time and attention. (Including, with good reason, on this very site.) Katy Perry is now as artistically valid as Björk, and woe be to those who suggest otherwise. This was most clearly driven home in a protest against the concept of the “guilty pleasure,” with critics at publications that would have previously turned up their noses at trashy reality TV and vacuous pop genericism actually leading the charge against thinking anyone should ever have to feel guilty for enjoying any pop culture, ever, because anything that brings pleasure—by this reading—is a net good.
Not everyone celebrated this collapse. The art critic Barbara Rose bemoaning the demise of the high/low disjunction in the art world can now be read as a eulogy for all former divisions of American culture:
We didn’t like junk. There wasn’t this horrible leveling, where everything is as important as everything else. There was a sense of the hierarchy of values. We felt that we had to make a distinction between Mickey Mouse and Henry James. There’s a generation now that feels you don’t have to make that distinction… I don’t believe in democracy in art. I think that when elitism got a bad name in this country, it was the beginning of the end for American culture.
Of course, left unsaid in this homily to the value of the highbrow/lowbrow split, and the deconstruction of the elite canon of great works, is the role that classism, sexism, and racism played in maintaining such hierarchies. The supposedly “objective” standard of greatness in art reinforced the biases and prejudices of those who decided what was great, which for a very long time was old white men. And their canon didn’t just marginalize women and artists of color or other cultures; it was actively used as a propagandistic cudgel to browbeat other cultures into submission, part of “the ‘Civilising Mission’ of colonial bureaucrats” during the era of Manifest Destiny, as academic Camilla Nelson notes. That’s a tough foundation to upend.
So despite the Culture Wars of the ’80s and ’90s, which saw the idea of multiculturalism emerge largely victorious against narrow-minded forces of Eurocentric panglossianism, it’s been a steady uphill battle to continue diversifying and broadening the scope of voices allowed into popular culture. Even in 2018, an essay in The Washington Post still needed to explain to some readers why expanding our literary canon to include more women and authors of color benefits us all:
We must read Shakespeare and authors who are women, Arab, Muslim, queer. Most of the world is neither white nor European, and the United States may be a majority-minority country by mid-century. White people will gain more by embracing this reality rather than fighting it. As for literature, the mindset that turns the canon into a bunker in order to defend one dialect of English is the same mindset that closes borders, enacts tariffs and declares trade wars to protect its precious commodities and its besieged whiteness. But literature, like the economy, withers when it closes itself off from the world. The world is coming anyway. It demands that we know ourselves and the Other.
So it’s understandable why the old distinctions needed to be demolished: In many ways, they sucked. It’s all too easy to say “Atlanta is good, but it’s no Mad Men” and elide the long history of institutionalized racism that has traditionally devalued the work of BIPOC artists, especially because so much of these ideas were taught to us at the unconscious level. To paraphrase educator and activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, patriarchy and racism are the smog we all breathe, whether we’re aware of it or not.
“Poptimism” (a term that may or may not be derisive, depending on who’s using it) began in music, but is a mentality that has expanded to embrace TV, film, and more. Even literature, once the last refuge of the snobbish elite, has embraced the shift. And it came about for the best of reasons: to overthrow ossified, outdated, and often racist and sexist ideologies that had long dictated what was worthy of consideration and what could be dismissed as “lesser” entertainments. As music critic Maura Johnston put it, poptimism is “not about blindly accepting every piece of radio-ready music that comes down the pike and hailing it as the next important thing. Instead, it’s about throwing out the artificial distinctions that elevate Serious Mass-Appeal Music (usually made by men, and with guitars) over Frothy Bubbly Stuff (which often appeals to women as much as, if not more than, it does men).”
One of the most salutary effects of the poptimism attitude is that it helped to raise up artists and entertainment that may have formerly been sidelined. Genres like K-pop have entered the cultural discussion in a far more inclusive way. Whereas hip-hop was once belittled as music lacking the depth of rock, Kendrick Lamar can now win the Pulitzer Prize. And where N.K. Jemisin once decried her books being placed in the “African American Fiction” section of bookstores, despite the clear SF&F label on their spines, she is now the first author ever to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugo awards for her Broken Earth trilogy. Poptimism may not have caused these advancements, but it helped shaped a new mentality of greater inclusiveness and diversity. It’s wrapped up in the same laudable mission that launched sites like this one: the belief that all pop culture is worthy of serious debate.
Unfortunately, over time, those last couple words tended to trail off the mental page for a lot of the public: A slightly different idea took hold in the popular imagination—one that says simply, “All pop culture is worthy.” Any critic in recent years who has dared to suggest that beloved graven idols of our era may not always be that great is surely familiar with the flood of “How dare you!” attacks from online voices. Indeed, celebrities who find themselves confronted with a negative review are now as apt to sic their followers on the source of that criticism as they are to ignore it, knowing a stan culture will fight the battle for them.
Critics and criticism mostly continue to uphold the best values of poptimism, despite ongoing debates over its fading relevance, or the degree to which it has eroded critique: Scorsese-esque complaints often err painfully close to misguided “kids today” laments. The problem isn’t internal to communities of critics; it’s less a critical belief than a wider cultural sense that any kind of elitism is inherently bad. Just as a sarcastic and cynical dismissal of mainstream entertainment in the ’90s prevented those obsessed with “authenticity” from seeing the value of Friends or The Rock, now an everything-is-art attitude prevents a legion of Marvel fans from acknowledging that Martin Scorsese has a point.
And it’s past due time for wider discussions of pop culture to acknowledge the fissure below our feet, and stop pretending that the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow has been willed away, instead of just papered over. One shouldn’t judge Parasite in the same way one judges Aquaman, because they’re not the same thing. They’re not even trying to be the same thing. When I first started working as a critic, I liked to joke that I had two different scales by which to judge movies, “Art” and “Pieces Of Shit.” And something could be a great Piece Of Shit—speaking of The Rock—even as it’s a poor claimant to the status of Art. It was intended as a jokey caricature of how to evaluate cinema, but the point is actually sincere.
Scorsese’s comparison to theme park rides isn’t bad; something like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, Drag Me To Hell, Jurassic World, or Pirates Of The Caribbean aspires to be an adrenaline-spiking thrill (the last two have theme parks in their creative DNA), a movie that takes you on a vertiginously exciting ride, with little concern for depth or nuance or challenge to the viewer. And that’s an admirable goal—there’s no reason for The Expendables 2 to try and match the enigmatic grace of Mulholland Dr. or the emotional gut punch of Manchester By The Sea. Not every Marvel movie needs to try for an Oscar. And what’s more, there’s a world of distinction between a mass-marketed, exhaustively field-tested Hollywood product concerned more with not offending than with challenging its audience, and a film that doesn’t give a shit about such cares. It’s a structural, foundational disparity and should be acknowledged as such. There isn’t just a quality difference between the average Saturday-morning cartoon and Spirited Away; there’s a qualitative difference between the two.
But with the new insights and advancements made in the 21st century, we face a highbrow/lowbrow cleavage that is hopefully very different from what it used to be. Rather than attempting to return to some gatekeeping of the canon, criticism can retain the best elements of poptimism in its arsenal: Making room for art and entertainment that has been marginalized in the past, and resisting the urge to snark and mock that which isn’t attempting to do anything more than grant some fleeting, corporate-sponsored diversion to people’s lives. We can watch The Bachelor without pretending it’s quality television, rather than an indulgent pleasure akin to a visual pixie stick. (And we can critique it all the same, knowing that disposable pop culture has much to say about the world we live in and the entertainment we consume.) And we can—say it with me now—revel in Marvel movies without pretending they’re attempting to do the same thing as Raging Bull. Pop culture is, and should be treated, different according to the kind of pop culture it is.
And to return to Scorsese’s latest, actual, point: Curation should be celebrated, just as expertise should be appreciated and encouraged. And there’s a reasonable place for the algorithm. The rapacious capitalistic dictates of what kinds of movies get seen, streamed, and distributed shouldn’t be swept under the rug, any more than the grim economic realities of our current era that led to that predicament. Sure, we can well assure Scorsese that we know the difference between varying kinds of content: A Fellini film and a YouTube video of a cat falling out a window to AWOLNATION’s “Sail” are very different things, thank you very much. But it’s disingenuous to pretend we’re his intended target: The corporations and bottom-line-minded decision makers who dictate the value of content don’t give a shit about qualitative differences, and certainly don’t care about the artistic merit of one over the other. Who controls our access to both art and entertainment is very much a matter of crucial importance, and the extremely rich people determining those matters do not need defending. They need the Martin Scorseses of the world to call them out; and rather than take umbrage at the suggestion that any movies we enjoy could be anything less than capital-A Art, maybe the rest of us need to support Scorsese, lest we eventually not even know what it is we’re missing out on.