Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nye - Unembarrassed Muse

Nye, Russel B. The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America. New York: Dial Press, 1970.

Emerging in the mid-18th century, popular arts exploded in the 19th century from a combination of historical factors:
  • the rise of the middle-class,
  • the passing of control of the means of production and transmission from a privileged elite to the middle class,
  • rising literacy,
  • increased leisure time
  • technology for mass reproduction
Thus, in between the folk art of the masses and the elite art supported by wealthy patrons arose an art designed to be sold to a mass audience for the artist's profession. "Popular art is folk art aimed at a wider audience, in a somewhat more self-conscious attempt to fill that audience's expectations, an art more aware of the need for selling the product, more consciously adjusted to the median taste." (3)

The thick book explores the history of popular arts, or rather how various arts became popular and what sorts of themes they reveal: fiction, poetry, theatre, comics, mystery, sci-fir, westerns, popular music, movies, radio, TV. He historicizes the trends these genres go through, revealing their connection to social developments.

Popular Art Criticism
"Popular art confirms the experience of the majority, in contrast to elite art, which tends to explore the new." (4) Thus, critics have tended to view popular art negatively. Nye, writing in 1970, is somewhat ahead of the curve in insisting that popular art is not inherently bad, but rather tries to apologize for its dependence on the market. His conclusion is a useful, short synthesis of critical trends.

elitist criticism - Dwight MacDonald, Richard Hoggart. The rise of inherently bad mass culture threatens good/elite culture. Thus, creators of elite culture should band together (perhaps by government funding) and create art which resists mass culture.

Marxist criticism - Beginning in the 1930s, Marxists took an opposite view to MacDonald et al, arguing the largest problem of mass culture was its control by the elite who exploited the msses with bad art.

Gilbert Seldes led the way in attempts to refute elitist criticism. He rejoiced in particular in the potential mass culture had to communicate with everyone, critiquing mass culture only for its failure to reflect a democracy.

Marshall McCluhan provocatively raised the importance of considering the medium and the setting within which the medium is experienced for Cultural studies.

Suson Sontag, by 1966, was rejecting the distinctions of "high" and "low" art as dubious.

Apparently approving of these later developments, Nye concludes with a call for greater academic and intellectual exploration of popular culture.

Reading note
This book has a fantastic index, and its chapters are useful surveys of specific genres of popular culture.

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