Consuming And Producing Culture
Dzifa Benson compares being a producer with being a consumer of pop culture.
“We weren’t philosophers, we were perverts” – Howard Stern, Private Parts.
Living in 21st Century London, I find that popular culture plays a not-insubstantial part in my life. But being a poet, writer and performer, this presents me with something of a problem. How do I square myself as a consumer of pop culture with myself as a producer of art? I am an unapologetic consumer, but I also produce a kind of culture that will ultimately reflect back at me. Can the consumption of pop culture corrupt ‘high’ art, and therefore spoil whatever ‘true’ culture I may aspire to in my writing?
High and Low
What is popular culture anyway? Well first, what is culture? Generally, it is a collection of artifacts and behaviours stemming from and conveying knowledge or belief. Webster’s Dictionary gives this further definition: “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends on man ’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” Chambers’ Dictionary describes culture as “the attitudes and values that inform a society.” Searching for an even more precise definition led me to The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy which says: “culture comprises those aspects of human activity which are socially rather than genetically transmitted. ” Crucially, it adds that “there is also a sense of culture as that through which a people’s highest spiritual and artistic aspirations are articulated.”
Some of those phrases – ‘belief’, ‘integrated’ and ‘succeeding generations’ – give the impression that an essential component of culture is longevity. A social phenomenon cannot be integrated into a people’s cultural landscape, or become a ‘belief’, over a short period of time. Or can it? Consider mobile phones, which are now so much a part of everyday existence, so much a part of our culture. It took even this everyday convenience several years to catch on and become such an integral part of life. The ‘succeeding generations’ part of Webster’s definition is almost self-explanatory. For a belief to be passed down over generations, that belief must become widespread and strong enough to withstand changes in the cultural landscape. It is hard to imagine that the generations that come after us will reject the use of mobile phones. The technology might be bettered but the principle of mobile communication will remain desirable. It has longevity.
But longevity, especially for culture that has stood the test of centuries, is frequently associated with the words ‘high’, ‘classical’, or ‘art’. In this bracket we can put opera, conventional theatre, architecture, classical music, painting, poetry, literature, sculpture. ‘Folk art’ tends to be aligned with tradition, and thus is also long-term culture. Here we might list things like Ghanaian traditional dances; the feathered, beaded costumes of Native Americans, or Scottish bagpipe music. Much of the other art produced in our globalized, Western society is what constitutes popular culture: pop, rock, hip-hop, soul music; sport, fashion, cooking, slang; mass media, graphic art, porn, most TV and film; genre fiction, cyberculture, and so on. Looking at that list it appears that ease of accessibility is a requirement for a ‘social phenomenon’ to become pop culture. High culture whiffs of exclusivity, whereas popular culture relies on inclusivity. Relative to high and folk culture, pop culture is democratic – you do not need to shell out a lot of money to buy a Jennifer Lopez CD, but most people cannot boast about seeing Philip Glass ’ latest opera. Bearing all of this in mind, I would define popular culture as the products, aspirations and ideas most widely accessible and commonly held by the majority of people at a given time and society. Compared to high culture, pop culture has a way of circulating itself more effectively, which now makes it the prevalent form of culture. Yet the hallowed reaches of high culture have also been known to reach down into folk and pop culture, through appropriation by the mainstream. Shakespeare comes to mind here: many of his phrases have become common parlance. Also, consider jazz, which is an amalgamation of the folk traditions of African rhythms and the high art of classical music.
This is also where I think I come in. The dominant mode I have of expressing myself is through writing and performing poetry. A lot of people think of poetry as a bit academic, something in the upper echelons of culture, even something a bit dry. On the contrary, I would like my words to reach as many people as possible in as entertaining a way as possible; more than that, I would like my ideas to resonate with as many people as possible. That isn ’t to say that I want my poetry to have some kind of base common denominator appeal to everyone, or that I produce my work with mass appeal at the forefront of my mind, as a goal in and of itself. But high culture is often the preserve of dead white men, and I am none of those things. As I say, high culture also isn ’t that accessible if you haven’t the means of money or education. I want to create ‘high’ art, but I don’t want my audiences to feel that my art is inaccessible or has no bearing on their lives. So it makes sense that to communicate to as many people as possible, I should turn to something more readily transmittable, and crucially, understandable: something I can use to connect with my audience so that it stops to consider something familiar from a different angle. By using the popular culture I absorb, perhaps I can engage audiences more effectively.
This is why in my poem ‘Bottom Power’ I included the names of contemporary pop singers noted for their behinds – Beyoncé, Kylie and J-Lo. The poem, which uses humour to address issues of racism and body fascism, follows the story of Saartje Bartmann, the ‘Hottentot Venus’, who lived in the late 18th Century. She was displayed and ridiculed in circuses in London and Paris, and held up as a manifestation of the sub-human nature of black people simply because she had the exceptionally protuberant derriere that characterises Hottentot women. By referencing the pop stars, I could connect Saartje to the 21st Century, making it possible for people to see how what happened to someone back then is still relevant today, as I tackle the attempt by fashion magazines to homogenise the way that woman should look. It also allowed me to have a lot of fun with the piece.
Producer and Consumer
Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying. ” Nonetheless, like most artists, I find the idea of my work enduring beyond the span of my life quite seductive. So there is a certain irony in using ‘low’ culture (pop culture) to develop something that’s considered ‘high’ culture (poetry), and hoping for high culture’sattendant longevity. We must however remember that poetry didn’t start out as high art. By the same token, there wasn’t really a thing called ‘pop culture’ as we know it before the 1950s.
I like to think that everything that I encounter is grist to my creative mill. So far as I can, I try to remain open to the joys of high, folk and pop culture without making value judgments about the type of culture I ’m consuming. The idea is to always bear in mind the different purposes the different cultures serve, and rid myself of any self-consciousness or cultural snobbery surrounding the experience, whether I ’m looking at Da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, a TV show like Heroes or a film like Interview With The Vampire. These appeal to the side of me that also loves reading comics and graphic novels. But I also enjoy dancing Agbadza, (a traditional dance of the Ewe people of Ghana) and boxing training just as much. The choreographies of dance and boxing are rather similar, but one allows me to connect back to my roots through a very personal folk culture experience, while the other helps improve my fitness, reflexes and concentration. These different subcultures – comics, movies, paintings, dancing and sport – allow entry into parallel but very different universes. High, pop and folk cultures tickle very different bones, but enjoyment is equally present for all of them.
It’s the same with music. Listening to the peaks and troughs, the bombast and lyricism of the different movements of Rachmaninov ’s Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini gives me as much a swelling in the chest as dancing to an uplifting House track in a nightclub. I enjoy the biting guitars on Arctic Monkey ’s ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, which make me want to yell like a rebel, just as much as the feeling of nostalgia for a more innocent time that comes over me when ABBA ’s ‘Dancing Queen’ pops up on the radio. A song can be special because it reminds you of places, people or times in your life. Is there any harm in that? There are people who reject certain kinds of music because they aren ’t fashionable. Such people give the impression that they place greater value on what others think of their tastes than on the enjoyment they themselves might get. Other people think that if more than ten people like a band, it means the band must have sold out, isn ’t ‘keeping it real’. The irony is that the band, like me, probably simply wants as many people as possible to hear and appreciate its work.
Clothes are also part of pop culture, and an immediate signifier of what tribe a person aligns themselves with. I say ‘aligns with’ here rather than ‘belong to’, because choosing how you present yourself sartorially is a very self-conscious activity. Think about the flamboyant use of red and blue clothes by the Bloods and the Crips gangs in LA. These colours signal allegiance to each gang, as well as putting the fear into anyone standing in their way. For me, clothes are theatre too. They ’re an opportunity to add a layer to my performance, a way to communicate ideas without using words, to inform and produce art. For instance, I wore a basque and top hat decorated with red and black feathers when I hosted the Halloween special of the literary cabaret I organise. Red and black feathers are characteristic of the Voudoun trickster god Legba, whose spirit I invoked that night. (The Voudoun religion originated from the Anlo-Ewe peoples of West Africa. I am an Anlo-Ewe.) I now realise this was a perfect example of how one can be both producer and consumer of a kind of culture at the same time: I absorbed an element of folk culture personal to me, and used that knowledge to produce a piece of poetry enhanced using aspects of theatre. Hopefully the cumulative effect of words, costume and physicality ensured that my message communicated. At the very least, it made me stand out!
Culture and Zeitgeist
Paul Whitehouse, comedian and creator of The Fast Show told the Radio Times that he never watches daytime television: “It would be like opening a can of cider before midday.” I don’t know about the cider; but among many writers I know, watching daytime television is the perfect displacement activity to engage in while avoiding filling a blank page with words. I wonder how much of the ‘culture’ they see makes it into their writing? Certainly an idea or phrase from TV sometimes makes it into my poems or stories. Some would say that there ’s nothing like TV – arguably the dominant conduit of pop culture until the rise of the internet –for allowing you to gauge the zeitgeist: to look at a society looking at itself. Britain ’s daytime viewing habits seem to revolve around cooking, antiques and property. You could probably watch nothing but cookery programmes seamlessly, by hopping from channel to channel. (I originally thought there would be lots of programmes about gardening too... but maybe all the gardeners are outdoors, taking advantage of the day.) If we were to try to discern the zeitgeist by means of daytime TV alone, we would have to conclude that the people of Britain in late 2007 are united by a common interest in snooping around other peoples ’ homes, seeing how much they can make from grandma’s hand-me-downs, and eating food they used to think was exotic.
I do have something of a daytime TV guilty pleasure. It’s called Identity and it’s presented by that rock-solid pop culture icon, Donny Osmond (gameshows are in the pop culture mix too). In Identity, a sole contestant has to match fifteen strangers to their identities. The contestant must bring to bear the faculties of observation, deduction, intuition and common sense to win £10,000. I realise that it isn’t Mastermind or University Challenge, but my brain gets a bit of a workout – okay, maybe a lazy stretch – trying to deduce those identities. I am not (too) ashamed to say that I enjoy it, and if I am at home during the day I look forward to watching it. But does it help in any way when it comes to my creativity? I like to think so. Watching how body language works and how people give clues about themselves without realising it is good practice for reading people. This helps to sharpen up my portrayal of fictional characters in writing and performance. I can, of course, watch people in the street, without the manipulative influence of a TV edit. But sometimes nothing beats the comfort of your own home, especially if you’re feeling misanthropic that day.
MySpace and Facebook (or MyFace and Spacebook as I call them) are relatively new phenomena that ’ve got popular culture by the scruff of the neck. They have their detractors, of course; but as an independent artist trying to negotiate my way through the choppy waters of an artistic career, MySpace and Facebook have become marketing tools. How else could I advertise what I do without shelling out loads of bucks? Naysayers would have you believe that the users of social networking tools like these are too busy making virtual friends to go out and find real ones. But the majority of people I know who use these networks, use them for, well, networking –advertising their work, inviting people to parties in ‘realspace’, sharing tips about writing. And the friends I tend to see on networking sites I have had for years anyway. In fact, I now have more contact with my friends than a very busy schedule would normally allow.
The internet has allowed my creative world to open up too. Recently, I was contacted by the Courtauld Institute of Art, who wanted me to do a series of performances linked to an exhibition starting in January. They told me they decided my work would fit the theme of the exhibition when they heard the poem I have on MySpace. Let me emphasise that they found me. This is the kind of artistic platform and profile-raising that money can ’t buy – especially when you haven’t got any.
Questions and Conclusions
Questions remain. Could there be culture which is both high and popular? Alternatively, if high culture is associated with longevity, and popular culture is distinguished by mass consumption, could there be good art that was neither high nor popular culture, because it wasn ’t very popular nor appreciated for very long? I will stick my neck out and answer ‘Yes’ to both questions. The first answer is easy to justify with just one word: chess. The second question is much more complex to justifying answering in the affirmative, since it involves underlying questions: When does something become art? What changes in attitude take place over time to transform something into art? The depictions on the walls of caves inhabited by ancient man are now considered Homo sapiens’ first attempts at art; but it’s doubtful if those early humans considered their daubings as art, rather than, say, religious sacraments. And much of African sculpture, which has now attained the status of ‘art’, was not produced to be art as we moderns understand it. Instead, they were embodiments of gods and ancestors, as talismans to ward off evil. They were popular; but not in the way that pop culture is popular.
In the last issue of Philosophy Now, William Irwin makes the case for taking philosophy to the people. He talks about his endeavours to make people philosophically literate, and concludes that the best way to do this is by means of popular culture, using “a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.” In a way, this is also what I have been talking about in this article. I will use all artistic means possible to ensure that I can increase my audience. This means that I am now starting to work with visual artists and musicians, so that people who otherwise might not naturally incline towards poetry might discover something new, even if they come just for the music. Everybody wins.
© Dzifa Benson 2008
Dzifa Benson is a pop culture polymath. If you would like to listen to her poem written for the National Gallery podcast, May 2007, please go to www.myspace.com/thedzifabenson.