In an essay in the Weekly Standard, Roger Kimball writes about why there will never be another "great American novel." Kimball argues that the fall of the novel as an art form is, in part, the result of the rise of a culture that values pure entertainment above all--the rise, in other words, of what we today call the pop culture. During the heyday of the novel in this country--when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner were writing deeply meaningful stories---the culture still viewed art as a source of spiritual meaning. As Kimball points out:
Wallace Stevens . . . suggested that in the modern age, “an age of disbelief,” art takes the place of religion as “life’s redemption.” In such an age, Stevens wrote, “it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief.”
Today, the best art (defined broadly) does not speak to these transcendent facets of the human conditions. Rather, it tends to beat us into submission by shocking us with its perversions. This is true of both high art and low art. I wrote about this syndrome as it plays out in the high culture earlier this week. In the low culture, there are also plenty of examples. The one that immediately comes to mind for me is Rihanna's hit song S&M.
So, is our culture doomed?
Perhaps Hegel was right when he said that “art in its highest expression is and remains for us a thing of the past.” Hegel’s thought was that if, traditionally, art had been tied to the truth, our culture’s commitment to scientific rationality had in an important sense led to the replacement of art by reason. Art would not disappear, Hegel thought; it would simply degenerate to a form of entertainment, a vacation from rather than a revelation of reality.
Of course, Hegel was wrong about a great many things. And perhaps he is wrong about this, too. If our tendency to tie truth to reason—to look, when we are really in earnest, to the scientist rather than the artist for truth—describes an important aspect of our culture, there is another aspect summed up (for example) by Wallace Stevens when he suggested that in the modern age, “an age of disbelief,” art takes the place of religion as “life’s redemption.” In such an age, Stevens wrote, “it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief.”
I bring up the Wallace Stevens quote again because it makes me think that there is hope yet for our culture. Redemption is a religious concept, and as we all know, there is little room for religion in today's pop or high culture. But that concept did manage to sneak its way into the secular culture not too long ago. I'm thinking here of the massively popular show 24, which is about the heroic and spiritually adrift national security agent Jack Bauer, who gives up everything in order to serve his country. In between seasons 6 and 7 of 24, when Bauer hits a moral trough, the producers released a special two-hour show about Bauer's condition and they called it. . . . Redemption.
In fact, if you watch 24, it's amazing to see how much of its lessons--we can even call them moral lessons--fly in the face of the standard pop culture narrative that celebrates deviancy. 24 is about heroism, ideals, doing the right thing, and talking responsibility for your actions. There is clearly a market for its messages because when it was running, 24 was one of the most popular shows on television.The novel's days may be over, and that may, in general, be a negative indictment of our culture--but there are some gems of goodness there, too. We just have to look harder to uncover them.