The Mass Media: A Highbrow Illiteracy?
In this article I shall try to indicate some unexamined assumptions which, I suggest, partly or wholly vitiate a great deal of writing about the mass media and their influence on the general public.
For reasons of brevity, we shall have to content ourselves with an "impressionistic" approach, doing little more than point towards important forces and factors which are frequently overlooked.
"Certainly I must confess my own barbarousness", wrote Sir Philip Sidney in "An Apologie for Poetrie", "I never heard the olde song of 'Percy' and 'Duglas' that I found not my heart moved more than with a Trumpet; and yet is it sung but by some blinde Crouder, with no rougher voyce than rude stile. ..."
For Sidney, the contrast lay between a courtly, aristocratic tradition, and a wraggle-taggle folk art.
Today the centre of "high" culture has shifted from a "leisured class" towards the "culture professionals"—university lecturers, critics, reviewers, and so on. We can relate high culture to two poles. There is the historical tradition, as established by university curricula; and an "unofficial" climate of equally informed opinion, usually livelier. Thus Palestrina, for example, is academic, whereas Charlie Parker is musically "unofficial". Many highbrow avant-gardes are in revolt against the academic standards—DADAism, auto-destructive art, the "pop" painters, and so on. But for our purposes they can be bracketed with this tradition, as part of "high" culture, either because they are, eventually, tamed and assimilated by the curricula, or because their range of reference, their intellectual complexity, or their abstruse idioms, render them in fact, hard to enjoy and understand by people whose cultural training has not attained the level of a sixth form grammar school. The claim that, for example, the poetry of Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot presents no great difficulty to the average working man may safely be dismissed as sentimental dogma.
A highbrow is one who can handle works of art of any degree of complexity. Often his facility is patchy. Many literary highbrows are musical middlebrows, and vice versa. Among university students, Frank Sinatra records please far more "highbrows" far more intensely than, say, Dvorak or Mendelssohn, although Sinatra's records are entirely within a "low" culture tradition and can be enjoyed and understood by any lowbrow.
"Middle" culture might be defined, rather sourly, as the "schoolroom" idea of what "high" culture is Thus Olivier's Shakespeare films are "middle" culture, in that they are not much prized by the majority of film-minded intellectuals, who would rather see the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup or Laurel and Hardy in A Chump at Oxford. It is currently fashionable among high-brows to despise "the dreadful middlebrow", with his earnest, super-orthodox tastes, but there is a more worldly middle-culture fairly independent of the schoolroom—the novels of Somerset Maugham, Nigel Balchin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and some of Pinter's plays fall into this category.
The moral tone of "schoolroom" culture was set by Matthew Arnold, perhaps the most sensitive spokesman for "enlightened puritanism". Art was to be associated with moral and emotional "uplift", with "high seriousness" and "sweetness-and-light"—terms which, if words have any meaning left at all, can hardly stretch to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Ionesco's Les Chaises, or indeed the contemporary struggle to grapple with the implications of, say, psycho-analysis, or Hiroshima, or Auschwitz. Our problems seem to impose tones of anguish, of low comedy, of darkness-and-death. Arnold is further from our (quite legitimate) preoccupations than Rabelais, Swift, or Sade.
The English educational system is dominated by a middle-class (puritan) ethos. In the schoolroom, enlightened puritanism leads to many works of art being killed with kindness. A true spiritual contact with the poems of Baudelaire would render them unsuitable as set texts for teen-age girls, since their usual themes involve the portrayal of drugs, prostitution and debauch as rapturously beautiful. This "subversive" content is "smothered" with "aesthetic appreciation" shifting emotional response to judgements on style, "value" and so on, together with discreet misinterpretations of the poet's aim and tone. This is the new philistinism, the bourgeois's defence-in-depth against art. It is very common in academic circles also. On lower educational levels, it is even more marked; schoolteachers feel it incumbent to deplore Elvis Presley and to offer instead The Pirates of Penzance or Where'er You Walk, which are not vulgar. But, as Freud reminds us, the roots of life are vulgar, and the schoolroom's battle against vulgarity is its battle against both art and life.
The battle which the schoolroom now wages against both subversive art and pop culture it previously waged and still wages against folk culture. To be sure, folk songs from the Cecil Sharp collection have long been featured in school curricula; but only after they have been through a thick screen of emotional and musical bowdlerisation. Words, stanzas, situations were altered, to avoid any social or erotic resonance. According to schoolroom culture, with its heavy deposit of bowdlerised romanticism, the countryside is "uplifting", the town is not. Accordingly, school folk songs concern quaint rustic customs and ignore the mines, the docks, the factories. No songs of social protest are allowed (although Negroes are allowed to sing of their toil in a submissive, Uncle-Tom-ish way). The castration of folk songs is so complete that they can have absolutely no relevance to adult urban working-class experience, and even the children recognise them as "soppy".
Inevitably, English folk songs, though taught compulsorily, cannot appeal to the masses until they return in the wake of America's "low" arts—jazz, the blues, country-and-Western—whose richer, sourer, emotional spectrum includes social protest, erotic exuberance, and everyday imagery and idioms.
"I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow ..."
For our purposes, "low" culture can be divided into folk and pop art—though the connections between them are many and varied. Folk art, though not actually destroyed by the Industrial Revolution, was traumatised by it, and then kept within the ghetto of oral culture, simply because middle-class assumptions tended to pervade the written word. The enemy of folk art—and of folk culture and attitudes—was not, in the first instance, the mass media, but the schoolroom, which in many respects is the most powerfully placed mass medium of them (influencing impressionable children, full-time, for at least ten years). What Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy (1957) characterises as the simple, healthy old reading-matter of the working classes seems to me to bear all the signs of being, spiritually, middle-class.
The currently flourishing form of "low" art is pop art. Folk art has been defined as "art for the people by the people"—or at least by people whose contact with the audience was constant and intimate. But the creators of pop art work within the framework and requirements of a business—"show business". The profit motive, vested interests, trade formulae and prejudices, intra-trade specifications, all the apparatus of promotion and dissemination, may intervene between life and art.
These aspects of show business have been heavily, and properly, criticized. But much of the brittleness and badness of pop art seems to me to stem from a different source.
Until very recently, many working-class attitudes were debarred from the mass media by a heavy weight of middle-class attitudes (complacency, conformism, fear of strong emotion, the avoidance of vulgarity, insistence on the happy end, respect for authority, etc.). But proletarian attitudes are very different: a greater honesty about sourness and anger, robuster, not to say, coarser, attitudes towards emotion, a morality which is less consistent but more warmly personal, a strange blend of shrewd tolerance and stiff contempt about sex, a more scathing humour, a more Neitschzean attitude to strength, force and daring, a suspicion of authority which often becomes irresponsibility, and what is not so much immorality as anarchism. In many ways the working class has been extensively colonized by middle-class assumptions; but the two sets of differences remain, side by side, often confusingly intertwined.
Snobbery v Sophistication
It is these intimate, but vehement, class differences, which render class stratification here so rigid. It's not exactly a matter of snobbery and inverted snobbery—these arise so intensely because each class feels so uncomfortable in the presence of the other. So many attitudes and assumptions are so explosively different that cont acts become stilted, difficult, even disquieting.
In a similar way, the mass media had to work within the very narrow band of feelings within which middle- and working-class assumptions would coincide It isn't surprising—if so much pop art was, and is, resolutely brittle and banal,—that tensions were ignored in favour of sentimentalities. The difference between the Elizabethan theatre and Hollywood is not that Hollywood has a world-wide market whereas the Elizabethan theatre was small and local; it is that Hollywood's principal market (the U.S.A.) was dominated by a quasi-puritan middle class. Similarly, French pop singers (George Brassens, Françoise Hardy) have a more sensitively poetic streak than most British singers; both use mass media techniques, but prevailing taste in the French market permits a greater sophistication than the British. Again, British TV has a very wide "spread"; but many of its plays and programmes on "intimate" subjects (sexual morality, childbirth, etc.) represent an immense advance in intimacy, in sensitivity, in honesty, on schoolroom and many parent-child contacts. The "plurality of audiences" condemns the mass media to banality only if a dominant audience wants a banal culture. If the dominant audience is sophisticated, then the mass media will valuably contribute to ending ignorance, dogmatism and rigidity.
In the relative popularisation of jazz a principal part was played by intellectuals, who were very conscious of struggling, not only against commercial pressure, but against the academic ignorance and hatred exemplified by the entry on 'jazz" in The Oxford Companion to Music. Those intellectuals of my generation who interested themselves in jazz, in the cinema, in science- fiction, in American comics, did not "capitulate" to the "pressures" of the mass media; on the contrary. We deliberately chose them—or rather intuitively responded to them—both as artistic pleasures unsullied by the assumptions of our schoolmasters, and for their "subversive", vulgar view of human nature. Our acceptance, or rather, enthusiasm about them, was of a piece with the masses' rejection of culture as mediated through the schoolroom ethos. It was not merely a matter of playing "truant" from what we knew to be "serious"...—an attitude quite honourable in itself: one thinks of Pablo Casals' "For me, Westerns are the reason for television". But when we Went to a jazzclub, or listened to Jelly Roll Morton or Edith Piaf, or went to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit or a Jerry Lewis comedy or a Bugs Bunny cartoon or Time Without Pity or Ruby Gentry, it was because they helped orientate our attitudes to emotion and to morality (not so much to society). Our taste wasn't solidly with the general public's; jazz and science-fiction are still minority streams within "low" culture; but we felt fonder of the screaming teen-age girls who worshipped Elvis than of those who deprecated and bewailed this mass hysteria. In other words, we abandoned the picture of educationalists struggling to save the unsuspecting populace from an avalanche of mass media vulgarity. We felt that in many ways mass media vulgarity had helped to save the unsuspecting masses from an avalanche of middle-class ideology. We felt the rights and the wrongs were on both sides.
A great deal of current writing about the mass media seems to involve the conception of false or banal programmes working on a public which is both innocent and easily malleable. One may well wonder how, if the public is so easily malleable, life has allowed it to remain so innocent!
Perhaps the most formidable and sympathetic attempt to represent working class nobility as under fire from the mass media is Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. He restricts his descriptions to the North, but is clearly alluding to a wider generality. Even within the North, however, working-class culture involves many sub-cultures, is far less homogenous, far less harmonious, than The Uses of Literacy suggests. Hoggart is describing an impressive blend of working-class vitality and puritanism; and this is the class he certainly knows.
But his choice means, in effect, that he has selected all those working-class traits which the middle-classes can easily be induced to admire, and combined them with all those middle-class virtues which can plausibly be attributed to the workers. More prickly and subversive traits are mentioned, but not explored; and after a paragraph or two the virtues roll in again.
Certainly, if my own experience of the London proletariat is any guide, his emphasis is as idealised as George Eliot's Adam Bede if taken as a picture of a typical English rustic.
But where are the characters and attitudes of—for example—Bill Naughton's Late Night on Watling Street? of Arthur La Bern's It Always Rains On Sunday? or The People of Ship Street? the deep infestations of anti-Semitism and colour prejudice? the patriotic bellicosity and xenophobia? the blend of misogyny and baroque lewdness underlying the imagery of barrack-room ballads? the bad language the apathy and laziness about trades union affairs? the greater tolerance than the middle-classes show for the aggressive bully and contempt for his victim? an angry defeatism faced with bureaucracy or politics? All these are just as traditional as the virtues which Professor Hoggart rightly bids us respect.
But he does not so much describe the working classes in depth, as plead for them, against an old- fashioned type of middle-class prejudice ("they don't save their money, their girls wear too much make-up, they raise their voices, they quarrel in public, they're insolent instead of respectful, they keep coal in the bath").
Towards a Balance
I would suggest that one forms a more "average" picture of proletarian attitudes if one takes, on one hand, the Hoggartian tone—which within its limits is beautiful and true—and, on the other, the more obstinately unlovable traits of Alan Sillitoe's Arthur Seaton and his long- distance running mate (I say Alan Sillitoe's, because in the films these characteristics are omitted or softened) ; and if, in one's mind, one tries to blend the two attitudes, imagining the conflicts, the stresses and strains which would appear in one's experience and behaviour. The couple formed by Cohn Campbell and Rita Tushingham in Sidney Furie's film of The Leather Boys is also relevant—typifying (among other things) the culturally deficient preparation for living which is more common among the English working-class than among its continental equivalent.
John Schlesinger's film A Kind of Loving depicts the contacts and conflict between a rich, "Hoggartian" working-class tradition and a vacuous snobbery which is as deeply rooted in middle-class attitudes. His Billy Liar reveals the roots of mass media superficiality in this middle-class superficiality. But just as Professor Hoggart idealises the traditions of the working classes, so he has no real criticism to offer of middle-class traditions. In passing, he describes how thoroughly the contents, attitudes and exam-obsession of the schoolroom can debilitate the conscientious scholarship boy. But he doesn't seem to realise the implications of this description. It doesn't lead him to ask himself whether our educational system mustn't bear some responsibility for the poor cultural equipment of the masses.
I would suggest that the poverty of this cultural equipment can't be understood without reference to overcrowded schools, underpaid teachers, antiquated teaching methods, insulting equations of "intelligence" with book-learning and with middle-class values, pervasive hypocrisies and snobberies. It's not in the least surprising if the majority of children revolt, by idleness, by leaving school early, by allergy to study, by contempt for what they have been told is "learning". It's probably a good thing they do. But Professor Hoggart scarcely relates the notorious failure of education here (cf. "Spare the Rod") to the quest ion of the mass media.
Often he slips into condemning the mass media for registering problems experienced at the highest cultural levels. Intending to criticise a kind of semi-mass-culture prevalent among a class of New Statesman readers, he remarks, "Just enough about the social sciences, about anthropology, about sociology, about social psychology, has been acquired to supply a destructive reference on most occasions. 'What about the Polynesians?' has now succeeded the political 'What about the Russians?' as the key-question But, he continues, those who are confused by such questions "are the poor little rich boys of a world oversupplied with popularized and disconnected information."
But surely the challenges posed by these studies (and others—e.g., psycho-analysis; a more cynical historiography, à la A. J. P. Taylor) are genuine ones? Surely our culture is in fact undergoing an "agonising reappraisal" of itself? Can we expect to absorb all this new, bitingly personal knowledge without anguish? Surely the "bittiness" of the mass media is, in part, their expression of the cultural incoherency of which intellectuals have long been conscious. "What about the Polynesians?" remains unanswered because the answer is so subversive. Quietly, the younger people are answering it—but not quietly enough to escape savage condemnation. Wide as is the scope of The Uses of Literacy, its author has few trenchant criticisms to make of anything except the mass media—so implying that they are the principal, if not the only, agents of superficiality in our coming classless society.
I would suggest that far more varied pressures are at work, financial, economic, social; and that mass media superficiality is derived partly from our traditions themselves, and partly from the way in which, merging, they discredit one another, leaving nothing. The superficiality of the mass media is partly traditional, partly an outcome of our cultural incoherence.
If we have lost some traditional virtues, we have lost some of their vices; and the only hope of avoiding superficiality lies in developing a culture which, more flexible because deeper, more sophisticated because more vulgar, seems to me to lie within striking distance of attitudes modestly prevalent among young people today. Academic investigation of the mass media is often hampered by deficiencies in aesthetic theory, as a result of which their interpretations sometimes seem rather mean.
The Tricky Telly
Goodness knows that Jonathan Routh's "Candid Camera" programmes never represented any summit of television art; but weird in the extreme were the grounds on which several writers condemned them for "ridiculing" and "humiliating" the man-in-the-street. The assumption was that the viewer "in on the secret" was sitting before his set, chuckling with contemptuous, indeed sadistic mirth at the discomfitures and humiliations suffered by the butt of the programme's practical jokes.
I don't propose to dwell here on the fact that all the extracts shown were authorised for public showing by the victim; nor that the vast majority of Routh's pranks put the victim in the position of patiently explaining normal behaviour to an eccentric Routh.
But an aesthetic question is involved. Though the "privileged" viewer is "superior" to the "butt" of the joke, his streak of mild schadenfreude is balanced by the well-known phenomenon of spectator identification with the person for whom he feels the greatest affinity, in this case, the ordinary member of the public. In other words, the TV spectator feels a great deal of friendly sympathy for the victim, and would detest the show if anyone like himself were really humiliated, for exactly the same reason that he inc lines to prefer happy endings in films and novels.
Often, the victim is thanked, or brought into the studio after his film, to take a bow, to be applauded for his good humour and resilience, his triumph over, well, not adversity, but possible embarrassment. Ours is an age where people are easily self-conscious or embarrassed and, if the programme has any effect at all on the public's sensibility, it is probably a good one—lowering the tension a little, establishing a kind of friendly sympathy around it.
Behind the aesthetic misapprehension another looms. Given his already suspicious attitude towards the medium, the academic critic has projected into the "humiliated" victim his own unconscious masochism, and into the "gloating" public his own unconscious sadism. In this way a mild practical joke becomes the mass media "pandering to the lowest instincts of the crowd".
A similar point may be made about quiz shows. While a few critics with more education than sense have raised the "cruelty" charge, others seem to demand less kindness. They complain because the quizmaster treats his competitors to outrageous promptings, or "stops the clock", or just gives the competitor a prize on some absurd pretext. To reward ignorance or kack-handedness thus is to inculcate contempt for learning and skill. Thus the quiz show is the mockery of democratic egalitarianism.In fact, this "cheating" is an effort to reconcile suspense (which gives the audience its excitement with kindness towards the performer. Briefly—the spectators identify strongly with the "ordinary chap" on the stage, as "one of us"—an amateur, but bold and good-natured enough to give us pleasure by "having a go". It's true that he may get a reward, but, after all, he might feel that he has been humiliated before that very frightening thing, a TV camera, and a few million people. The real theme of such quiz shows is:
"Can I, a mere me, survive in this huge arena?" The compere stresses the contestant's ordinariness (personal questions about his life, family, hobbies, work, etc.), so "individualizing" him while stressing his being "like" the audience. The prize, the rules, the question, are there to turn this interest in suspense. And the audience likes even an inept contestant to have some sort of prize so that though he's failed as a brain (and may feel humiliated) he's still considered a winner for competing at all.
But an automatic consolation prize, or a flat fee for trying, wouldn't meet the case because it would end much of the suspense, it would introduce a professional note, and the contestant would be less of a "good sport", a chap who "has a go." So the consolation prize has to be "chancey", a "free gift", a sort of cloud-cuckoo-land outrage of "logical", expected behaviour. It's true that in consequence not all the contestants get prizes, and that this is "not fair". But people don't mind this—it's no longer a humiliating judgement, it's "the luck of the draw", and, by giving prizes to some losers, the quiz has, so to speak, acknowledged that the quiz isn't a test of the "whole man", that even losers are worth rewarding, because they have feelings. Quiz shows are not the 11+ examination, nor impartial displays of justice; I think it would be true to say that, up to a point, they are a Saturnalia parody of the examination mania which afflicts our schools.
It is because academic aesthetics have completely failed to grasp the implications of, and the very delicate nuances possible in, the spectator's partial identifications, both with the performer as such and with his fictional character as such, that we are afflicted with imbecilic theories whereby the cinema or TV spectator is supposed to be "passive" and a "voyeur". In fact, watching a TV quiz show involves quite intense audience participation, and the quiz show addict is no more a passive voyeur than the highbrow is when pleased and moved by, say, Jonson's Volpone. Vicarious experience, maybe, but people with missionary attitudes about art are hardly in a position to condemn vicarious experience. Even in reality much of our experience is vicarious.
In the same way, moral alarmists seem unaware of how many Westerns and crime plays involve the audience in, and turn on, comparatively fine points of moral sympathies—though for my taste these, especially in American plays, too often conform to middle-class sentimentality. But counting the number of shots fired or blows struck is as beside the point as counting the corpses at the end of a Shakespeare play and decreeing it "more decadent" than, say, Quiet Week End. Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs can watch a Western a day for years without ever feeling, as a result of all that violence, the smallest urge so much as t raise their voices to each other.
'What reliable evidence exists—and there is more than alarmists ever acknowledge—tends to rebut propositions about the stupefying, desensitising or overpowering effect of the mass media. If 20,000,000 people watch a TV play to all of whose assumptions they already subscribe, with half their attention, and then forget it, its net effect is not "irresistible" but, on the contrary, negligible. The assumption that "constant suggest ions will soak in" unless actively resisted by "conscious reason" has no foundation in any coherent psychology. People "misinterpret" the content of the mass media in accordance with their assumptions as effortlessly as they "misinterpret" real life. The strength of "consumer resistance" is demonstrated when we remember that in many respects mass education 15 a mass medium which works full time on impressionable children for at least ten years. If the proletariat prefer to be influenced by TV and the cinema, it may well be because they feel the values enshrined in TV and the cinema to be less false, irrelevant or offensive than those which the schoolrooms urge. All available evidence suggests that face-to-face contacts—family, neighbourly, professional,—are far more Influential than all the mass media combined, although, of course, the two systems interweave.
It is perhaps also worth remebering that a great deal of mass media content is used by the audience as a "pleasant triviality" - "Music While You Work" may resemble Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in that both use musical form, but to condemn it as aesthetic trash is rather like condemning wallpaper because it can't bear comparison with a Picasso.
It can't, and mass media trivialities bear comparison with staring into the coal fire, or just knitting, or playing Monopoly or Patience, or pottering about; they are, in fact, a way of pottering about.
A great deal of music is wallpaper music, and a great deal of television is wallpaper television. The redoubtable goggle-box is about as hypnotic as the Sunday newspaper, where even intellectuals have been known idly to read items of no interest to them whatsoever.
Pottering is doubtless a waste of time compared with all the ways in which the lazy idler might be up-and-doing. But all the criticisms which apply to TV on this score also apply to such hobbies as, for example, stamp-collecting. The schoolroom ethos appears to approve of stamp-collecting, even to courage it on the curious grounds that the collector gathers geographical and historical knowledge. I can only say that it must be one of the most devious and inefficient ways of gathering such knowledge ever devised. The TV addict is quite certain to pick up a great deal of interesting information, particularly about political and current affairs, which is infinitely more important than the disconnected facts acquirable via philately. Why do so many schoolmasters disapprove of television while approving of stamp- collecting? Because they are diligence fetishists. Or because they slackly respond to vague auras of prestige.
It is certainly regrettable that many people restrict their reading wish-fulfilment nothingnesses of one sort or another (the Americanised violence of James Hadley Chase having more wordly wisdom and a better literary style than the "refeenement" of Barbara Cartland). The "disconnected facts" picked up in the daily press, or in Reveille, may well provide food for thought, however sensational their presentation. However, because of the low level of literacy here, many lowbrows are more sophisticated watching TV or the cinema than while reading, which is mostly wallpaper reading. Their equivalent of is contemplation-through-art is contemplation-through-oral-culture. They don't interpret reality through their books as the earnest student of literature does; they use Hank Jansen simply as a hiatus from reality, rather like a daydream, and as innocuous.
It is certainly arguable that the domination by the right wing of the daily press is far more harmful than the entertainment segments of the mass media. But alarmists concentrate on quiz shows, Westerns, violence, daydreams etc., rather than on this political bias. Their bias is clearly puritanical: danger is where there's pleasure. Indeed, there can be no doubt that, from the point of view of diminishing the political and ideological bias, TV has vastly improved the "balance of power".
The anti-pleasure bias of alarmist attitudes app ears also in their habit of isolating the alleged effects of the mass media from the whole social canvas. We've heard a great deal about X certificate films making the young too knowing about sex, but next to nothing about the possible effects on the nation's sexual education of five years of war followed by a decade of peacetime conscription, with the consequent mass exposure to the moral fragrance of the barrack room. I believe it was in the Manchester Guardian that Jean Renoir remarked that every teenage spectator in the cinema knows twenty times as much about sex as any X-certificate film would be allowed to show him It's also interesting that, sexwise, a Christian programme like "Sunday Break" has an overall atmosphere well to the "left" of 95 per cent of TV plays; suggesting that the cultural pressures leading to the "new morality" are a good deal more respectable than everybody's easy butt, the mass media.
The mass media are the too-easy scapegoat of would-be reformers without the intellectual guts to criticize the "respectable" vices of our society. In this section, I have offered a few points which I believe to be valid, although space makes it impossible for me to do more than summarise evidence or arguments. These propositions are offered, in an "impressionist" way, simply to remind the reader of evidence and possibilities which the alarmists overlook, or which they acknowledge without pausing to consider their strength and their implications. If one accepts them, it ceases to be surprising that "folk" attitudes have resisted mass media "assumptions" as vigorously as they have. They are not offered to imply that the mass media should be immune from criticism. But some kinds of criticism are so misguided as to be as bad as none.
Until very recently the academic world preferred to ignore the mass media. When this became impossible, its first impulse was to denounce them, to join the schoolma'ams' crusade. Both these reactions were regrettable, for the cinema's aesthetic achievements compare very favourably with those of the Elizabethan theatre or the nineteenth century novel. This lack of interest is all the more remarkable since the cinema has inspired sixty years' shrill alarmism over its effect on the nations' morals. Yet until the Slade School opened a Film Department under Thorold Dickinson in 1960 the mass media had attracted less worthwhile academic comment here than had, say, the number of interpretations that can dance on points of the sonnets of Donne.
Hence it is impossible to welcome too warmly Professor Hoggart's current moves to set up within the English Department at Birmingham University a Research Centre to study the "bastard art" of popular culture, through a "close sense of its imaginative working".1
The Uses of Literacy is perhaps the most influential attempt made in Britain to cope with the challenge of the mass media. Its exemplary seriousness has directed a steady glare of attention onto a hitherto shadowy, indeed, disreputable sphere of interest. It came at a time when affluence was new, and entertainers, critics and public alike were exceptionally unsure of interests and tastes, which, to put it mildly, have not been static since. It is unfortunate that a few misapprehensions and inadequacies, inevitable in such a work, have proved seminal particularly among critics in what we may call the Matthew Arnold-F. R. Leavis tradition.
Pop Art=Bad Art?
The link repeatedly urged by Professor Hoggart between art and morality is, I am sure, valid. Unfortunately, I believe, it has inclined him to overlook the extent to which "pop" art, far from being "bad" art in high culture idioms, simply uses idioms which, traditional to low culture, whether pop or folk, are foreign to the aesthetic theories currently prevalent in "high" culture.
At times he comes very near to bridging this gap. Vividly he describes the "Big Dipper" singing style affected by the "old-fashioned" club-and-pub entertainer. However banal the words or trite the tune, enormous vocal lifts and slurs enrich them with a poignant bigheartedness Here Professor Hoggart has overcome the prime difficulty of the classically-trained music-lover when confronted by a "low" culture musical form (whether pop, jazz, folk or pub). Used to seeking out more or less complex harmonic structures, he does not see that he must here shift his attention away from the harmonic and melodic rigidity to tonal and vocal texture, to the "sound", with its attack, intonation and dynamics. For here most of the emotional charge and subtlety lies.
Ably Mr. Hoggart performs this task for the Big Dipper style. But where "pops" are concerned, he ignores or resists the very same characteristics. Crooning, historically, is derived from jazz, with very strong admixtures of almost everything else—notably, Anglo-Saxon middle-class "complacency", and Jewish sensuality, sentimentality and opulence. Al Jolson singing "Mammy" in black-face is almost a one-man cross-section of pop art. The tone of his voice—an energetic throb and tear—is a compromise between a secular cantor and the impure, "dirty" tone which Negro jazz musicians impart to their instruments. Conservatoires require singers and players to produce a "clear", "pure" tone, whereas singers in a folk tradition, whether gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson or blues singers like Leadbelly, strive for the opposite—a warm, "dirty", expressive tone. Jazz players approximate this on their instruments Thus every good jazz trumpeter has a personal, instantly recognisable vibrato, intonation and attack. In pop music, similar importance is attached to what is, in fact, called "the sound"—whether produced by the voice, by an instrument, by combinations of instruments, or by the "processing" of tone-colour (the echo-chamber). The hoarse and abrasive voice of Ray Charles singing "Take These Chains From My Heart", the sad angularities of the piano phrases, over which the strings sweep in a kind of compassionate lushness—all these recall, and are, indeed, in a direct line of descent from, the harshness of a Negro folk-singer like Leadbelly—but fitted to a world where suffering is not so much the brutalising toil of the chain-gang as the more suave and evasive bafflements of "All My Faith in You is Gone".
Again, your musical middlebrow may find all crooners sounding sad and tired because they don't "open their lungs" as your Edwardian tenor was wont to do. Simply, the microphone has made sheer loudness unnecessary; and the disappearance of a requirement which in any case was mainly functional has made possible richer, more sensitive and varied effects. The sensuous, humorously evil purr of Eartha Kitt; the relaxed, cosily firm deep brown of Bing Crosby; the ingenuous, melancholy fragility of Cliff Richard's "Travellin' Light"; Helen Shapiro's velvet-mahogany (and uncanny immaculacy of technique); the daintily gnarled vibrato of Dinah Washington singing "September in the Rain"; the oven-heat intensity of Judy Garland (which almost scares audiences); the sinewy, foggy, menacing contralto of Cleo Lame's "You'll Answer To Me"—all these are part of the colour, the muscularity, the brushstrokes, of these painters-in-sound.
Perhaps Sidney was moved by the blinde Crouder's song, not despite but because of his rough voyce and rude stile. Conceivably pop-singing will always be a "minor" art—dramatic as much as musical—and as limited as, say, wood-engravings. But the critic who "reads" its aesthetic idiom incorrectly will inevitably produce such weird misinterpretations as Graham Greene's still-quoted remark to the effect that Bing Crosby's "mournful self-pity" must be very depressing to the general public.
Handicapped by the same tradition, Hoggart describes crooning en masse as "the world of the private nightmare" But—Gene Kelly, "Singing in the Rain"? Mike Sarne, "Come Outside"? Doris Day, "The Deadwood Stage"? or the pleasantly bored togetherness of Nina and Frederick in "Let's Put Out the Light and Go to Bed"? (this last might be described as affluent Denmark's answer to "Underneath the Arches"!).
These aesthetic misunderstandings reinforce an attitude towards pop culture which can only be described as moral hypochondria Typical is the widespread censure of the song, "Tell Laura I Love Her", which shocked many commentators because its teen-age hero is dying in a hot-rod road-crash. The situation is surely just a topical form of perennial adolescent angst, as inoffensively masochistic as "The Miner's Dream of Home", "The Blind Boy", "Won't You Buy My Pretty Flowers?" or (bringing us down to World War I), "A Young Aviator Lay Dying". In fact, a distinguishing characteristic of recent teen-age pops is their frank admission of so old-fashioned a thing as emotional vulnerability—Elvis the Pelvis sings many sad slow songs with titles like "Don't" and "I Beg of You". It's quite arguable that the male teen-age "weepie" represents a move to the more easy, spontaneous emotional "flow" of Edwardian sentiment, before (according to James Agate) the stiff-upper-lip moved in.
It's also depressing to see how often otherwise thoughtful academics imagine that they are scoring points against the mass media by citing pop lyrics which look, and are, banal, on the page. In cold print they're as incomplete as opera librettos—an art form hardly renowned for its poetic sophistication. (And what are we to think of romantic imbecilities like "Trees-where-er you-ou sit shall crow-ow-owd into-ooo a shade"?) Recourse is often made to comparison with "the robust old music-hall"—but how many of these Instant Scholars know that the Robust Old Music Hall abounded in soppy banalities of which this is an unusually glorious example:
The treatment of a contemporary literary form, science-fiction, is almost as drastic two short paragraphs startlingly misplaced under the chapter heading, "Sex in Shiny Packets". There is no hint that Fantasy, Galaxy and Analogue (ex-Astounding) are of a higher intellectual level than the other titles mentioned. (Not that their standard is disgracefully low. A typical story in Weird Tales, for example, concerns a young couple in a strange guesthouse ; it takes them some time to realise, and then to accept, that all here are newly dead. Idea and treatment seem to me more or less on a par with the old Strand Magazine.) The better magazines are grossly misdescribed : "This is the sort of science fiction which preceded, and presumably goes on unaffected by, the elevation of some writing on similar line's into a subject for serious discussion in the literary weeklies. The manner and situations alike are extremely limited".
Wells and Co.
Yet, of the eleven stories in (say) Volume Three of The Faber Best S.F., eight are reprinted from the three magazines named above. Thus the highbrow aficionado is getting exactly the same fare as his lowbrow brother only later. The range of s.f. seems to me quite respectably wide. On the one hand there are the authors who enjoy a certain reputation amongst academics—H. G. Wells, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury (though the latter's work satisfies me in inverse ration to its literary ambitions). But one thinks also of Margaret St. Clair's superb short story Prott (a murderous parody of religious mysticism, especially Kierkegaardian) ; or of agonised satires like James Gunn's The Joy Makers, Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, or Damon Knight's Hell's Pavement, all attacking the materialistic hedonism which, in common with Prof. Hoggart, the authors hate.
Science Fiction Rules
One may go on to part company with Kingsley Amis when he inclines to justify science-fiction by its satirical qualities. Rather one may treasure it for renewing the constants of religious myth—immortality, ghosts, utopia, reversals of time, the origins of worlds and species. It equips these irrational symbols with the dazzle-camouflage of "extrapolation" appropriate to a rationalistic age. It blends the archetypal images with the bewildering logical structures and possibilities opened before us by the vertiginous advance of science, that is, with the instability of modern man. The basic rule of the science-fiction aesthetic, "extrapolation", ordains that fantastic phenomena must never be arbitrary, but based some development of a more or less respectable scientific hypothesis (analogies from human evolution, Dunne's theories of time, and so on). Our rapidly developing world is one of a thousand intellectual potentialities and the possibility of weird life-forms, of paradoxes over time-travel, etc., is one way of re-uniting poetry and metaphysics—as they were united in Greek myth. Hence the poetic resonance of Catharine Moore's Shambleau (the Marienbad of the vampire legend), of Damon Knight's Four-in-One (about six people being physically and emotionally digested by a worm), or Robert Sheckley's Immortality Inc. (which fuses the traditional ghost story with the Frankenstein motif and with horrors à la Brave New World).
It is similar stories, in such magazines, which, after having been supported for years by the "passive" and "undiscriminating" public, have finally begun to gain intellectual recognition. One hears a great deal these days about the tastes of the "saving remnant" percolating down to the laggard lowbrow. But here, as in jazz, as in the cinema, we find the opposite process : the guardians of our culture only tardily recognizing the worth of truly contemporary art forms. Quis custodiet custodies ... who will guard the guardians? ...
Science-fiction offers a particularly clear example of pop art's inheritance from folk art. A science-fiction story may be written in a mediocre style, with scarcely adequate characterisation, and yet fascinate and haunt the reader because of the imaginative resource with which the author has developed his central "extrapolation" (or bunch of them). The ideas have an eloquence aside from the style. This is characteristic of Greek myths and legends, indeed, of all fairy-tales or fables, and many legends have no literary style at all because they exist only as a "story" which everybody re-tells differently.
Preserving the Fable
Samson and Delilah offers an example. By the standards of the modern novel the story is a non-starter—it is more skeletal than many synopses; inevitably, the characterisation is sketchy and vague, the "motivation" nil, the whole lacking in concrete detail, and so on. But the fable catches the imagination because of its few, but broad and striking, paradoxes. First, it is a vivid presentation of that paradoxical thing, male masochism. A strong man is overcome by a weak woman. He knows she means to destroy him, but acquiesces in her schemes. His strength lies in his weakest part (his hair). When at his weakest (blind) he proves strongest, annihilating all his enemies. The strength of the story is in its skeleton.
Film producers know the importance of the "striking idea", the plot which sounds attractive and challenging in a two-line synopsis. In just the same way, Aristotle preferred the eloquent "scenario" to finesses of literary style—a complete reversal of current academic criteria. Most academics gloss over Aristotle's remark as some not-very-significant historical curiosity. Yet, in our own day and age, the vast majority of people, having a negligible training in literary appreciation (that is, the overwhelming majority of the British public), are relatively insensitive to "style", but respond to the striking "fable".
With the simple-but-striking idea go simple-but striking characters. As recently as my grammar school days, English masters instructed us all in the necessity for realistic and deep characters, consistent behaviour three-dimensional psychology, and everything which preoccupied "The Great Tradition", from Jane Austen to Henry James. Now that Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco are all the rage, such criteria are less rigidly maintained—except, of course, when they serve as sticks with which to belabour the popular arts. But until Jane Austen's day "two-dimensional" characterisation was the rule—one thinks of Fielding's Tom Jones, of Falstaff and Malvolio, of Chaucer's pilgrims. Such memorable characters as Micawber and Sherlock Holmes exist essentially as "simple but striking" ideas; they are "larger than life", but just as limited or two-dimensional as L'il Abner or James Bond. The public's reaction to film stars (or for that matter pop singers) is in direct line of descent from this search for the "striking idea". Inevitably, highbrow film criticism, forever seeking out subtleties and losing interest when they're not there, is completely at loggerheads with public response. A screen hero who seems shallow and "unreal" to the highbrow compels from the ordinary cinemagoer complete assent and warm, serious concern. Hence the popularity—perfectly normal, perfectly healthy—of certain genres of film (soap-operas) over which intellectuals wring their hands in needless concern.
The public's aesthetics may be old-fashioned but its experience is contemporary. In his fascinating book The 50-Year Decline-and-Fall of Hollywood—which as its title implies is hardly an apologia for "the system—Ezra F. Goodman quotes a psychologist's comments on the popularity of Kim Novak. And these comments shed a good deal of light on the emotional wavelengths which echo in the experience of the most naive spectator "Girls like Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. . . all reflect the times we are living in. They are blobs, faceless Wonders, poor lost souls that go well with an era that suffers from loss of identity. They are part of the folk-hero image of our times. ... Most people have suffered from a diffusion of identity because of the complexity of society, atomic scares, imminent wars. They feel they have no tie to anything. . . These girls have no father or mother, figuratively speaking, and sometimes literally. They seem to come from nowhere...." To this George Sidney, Kim Novak's director in the haunting and beautiful The Loves of Jeanne Eagels, adds: "She has the facade certainly, and the equipment of a bitch in the long-shot. And yet when you look at Kim's eyes in a close-up she's like a baby. She's a dual personality. You can't tell whether she's an angel or a bitch. Kids are starry-eyed about Kim—not about Monroe and Mansfield ... The kids laugh at Mansfield. But Kim is many-faceted."
In a sense, Kim, like B.B., typifies everything which The Uses of Literacy despises about the mass media. Hers is a candyfloss mask concealing a tiger-size neurosis; she is a shiny sex-packet, as uprooted and anxious as Brando and Dean (to whose generation she belongs). Hitchcock's Vertigo weaves around her an atmosphere of guilt, hallucination and sphingine necrophilia depending on this 'loss of identity". 4 Vertigo is both a detective story and a "ghost" story—reminding us that the former, historically, evolves from the latter (the creators of the murder mystery all wrote ghost stories—Wilkie Collins. Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu). The detective story is a ghost story edulcorated by middle- class rationalism and obedience to the law. ...
It's no fluke, though, if Kim is one of the darlings of highbrow French film critics, from the bourgeois aesthetes of Cahiers du Cinema to the Lukacsian Marxists of Positif. If her popularity is sharpest with American teen-agers and French intellectuals, is it not because these two groups are most deeply plunged into the social, moral and cultural rootlessness of our time? America is the locus classicus of too little culture, the French intelligentsia of too much. Too much speculation is as confusing as too little. ...
But surely these uprootings and conflicts are now inevitable, given the "agonising reappraisals" of everything forced on everybody by our ever more mobile and cosmopolitan world. It's hardly a step from Kafka to the emotional atmosphere of Vertigo; and it is to this aspect of the public's experience that the cultural and aesthetic vocabulary of the Arnold-Leavis school seems so dangerously inadequate.
I say "aspect" of experience advisedly, for if emancipation has its dangers, it also offers opportunities. As Cohn MacInnes reminds us, those terrible teen-agers, under the dazzle-camouflage of rock-n-roll and the twist, have formed what he calls their "resistance movement", with its anarchist streak, its non-puritanism, its warmer affirmation of individual feelings, notable, incidentally in today's box-office successes (The L-Shaped Room, Spartacus, Sparrows Can't Sing). Similarly, today's personalities are a more robust, earthy bunch than frozen Kim and dizzy Dean—Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Susannah York, Hayley Mills, etc.
Surely the remedy for our very real difficulties is not to go back to a Matthew Arnold earnestness, but forward to a culture which accepts and explores the increasing sophistication inevitable as grand old, simple old certainties buckle under the impact of our shrinking-and-thinking world. The Uses of Literacy was a noble and necessary book; we have picked out points of disagreement because it has been taken as an authoritative survey when in fact it is a pioneering survey, and has hardly broken free from misunderstandings endemic, indeed, obsessive, in academic circles generally. This is natural; understanding grows out of debate. And so one hopes that the nascent Research Centre will, as it expands, house psychologists, sociologists and mass media craftsmen who will be ready and able to question the basic assumptions on which the academic study of English literature proceeds.5 Meanwhile, the study of the mass media has scarcely begun.
The history of art during the first half of the twentieth century is generally presented as a succession of high culture avant-gardes, I would suggest that the key process of the century's second half will be the clash, the mutual enrichment, and partial merger of three traditions: the informality of folk oral culture (and many of its assumptions), pop idioms, and high culture complexity.
The pop arts' progress towards greater complexity and sophistication may be accelerated by the improvement of education, and the consequent social importance of "taste"; we may find tomorrow's highbrows at least as concerned with vindicating naivety against prestige as with "imp roving" people's taste, in the old sense.
Probably the pop arts will never attain the abstruse heights occupied by so much twentieth century poetry, music and painting. Already, in avant-garde circles, the tendency is towards blending the arts(—whether "jazzetry" or "total theatre". Possibly the pop arts will avoid specialisation—the "poet" will be matched by the "troubadour", à la Françoise Hardy.
I should hope for the development of a new classicism—a "biological classicism", simply and naturally blending vulgarity (for the instincts), complexity (for the intellect) and lyricism (for the emotions). But neurotic conditions (à la Vertigo) will continue to be described, and pertinently, Beyond that, trendology becomes science-fiction Maybe the concept of art as the manufacture of permanent objects will dissolve, and culture will pivot round religious dance and its intellectual- imaginative equivalents...
1. Richard Hoggart, "Schools of English and Contemporary Society". The University, Birmingham 15, 2s. 6d.