Tyler Cowen recently interviewed Dana Gioia for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler. Gioia is a noted poet and writer and was once the Poet Laureate for California. In the podcast, Cowen asked Gioia an interesting question and received a response from Gioia that I can’t stop thinking about:
“Cowen: Is rap music simply the new poetry? It’s very popular. It is poetic in some broader notion of the term.
GIOIA: Rap, hip hop without any question is poetry. It is rhythmically structured words moving through time. … if I go back to 1975 when I was leaving Harvard, I was told by the world experts in poetry that rhyme and meter were dead, narrative was dead in poetry. Poetry would become ever more complex, which meant that it could only appeal to an elite audience … what the intellectuals in the United States did was we took poetry away from common people.
We took rhyme away, we took narrative away, we took the ballad away, and the common people reinvented it.“
This passage is fascinating because it looks at rap music, something that is often hated for its misogyny, drug/sex culture, and general shallowness and appreciates it as a true art form. Gioia’s answer takes our distinction between high culture and low culture, what we consider fine art and crass art, and turns it upside down. Gioia says that poetry was deemed too complex for simple people and that it was taken away from them, only to be reinvented in pop culture through rap music.
Since listening to this podcast I have thought a lot about popular culture and high culture. I always feel a temptation to engage with fine art and to look down my nose at what we generally consider crass art, but at the same time I often find a great pull and fondness toward that crass art. I enjoy Marvel movies, I find myself reflected in the characters of the Harry Potter books, and when I workout I like to listen to rap music or even trendy K-Pop with nonsensical and often ironic lyrics.
What Gioia noted about rap music, and what I have felt with regard to popular mega-IPs and trendy music, has been seen with different artforms and media in human history. In the 1920’s, writes Michael Tisserand in his biography of cartoonist George Herriman Krazy, comics were already seen as crass art. However, a quote from Gilbert Seldes’ book The 7 Lively Arts that Tisserand includes in the biography defends comics in much the same way that Gioia defends rap music. To quote Seldes Tisserand writes, “Reading a comic, Seldes noted, is seen as a symptom of crass vulgarity, dullness, and, for all I know, of defeated an inhibited lives.”
In the 1920’s, when Seldes wrote his art review, comics were already seen as crass art. Their value was misunderstood, and the people who read them were seen as failures. Yet, looking back at comics and pop art from the time tells us something important about the era and the people. We enjoy seeing commonalities between ourselves a century later and the art, worries, thoughts, and ambitions represented in popular culture. We can understand a lot by looking at what was derided as crass art.
When we think about popular culture today, we shouldn’t simply scoff at it as crass art. There are forces the drive the popularity of certain forms of music, cinema, art, television, and media. Understanding what those forces are, recognizing what values, challenges, and life views are present in those forms of art can tell us a lot about who we are. Rather than simply dismissing popular culture as crass art, we should strive to be like Seldes and Gioia who work to understand that art and see its value and merit, even if it appears simple, vulgar, and ephemeral. We don’t have to like it and spend all of our time with it, but we should not simply dismiss it and the people who engage with it.