Popular Fiction as High Art

As an artist I consider my self eclectic and postmodern. One of the tenants of postmodernism is that of recycled culture, and the influence of both “high art” and “low art” (i.e., popular culture) without distinction. John Storey, in his book Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, states that the postmodern approach would “no longer recognize the distinction between high and popular culture.”

Instead of regarding art as either “high” or “low,” the distinction I make is “Is it artistically and intelligently produced, and does the artist have something important to say, or is it just another trite and uninspired waste of my time?” Of course, inspiration, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What I may see as an inspirational work of achievement, such as Transformers (2007), others may see as consumerist garbage.

And thus it is that I may watch Citizen Kane and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, in exactly the say way: analyzing it, picking it apart, searching for meaning, trying to understand why it works from an artistic perspective.

This postmodernist thinking may partly stem from my anime habit. Many anime fall into the category of genre fiction in which the artist takes their work seriously and has something to say. Paprika (which inspired Inception), Death Note, and Evangelion are all prime examples.

I am currently writing a novel, which has cyberpunk influences (and which probably falls more accurately into the “postcyberpunk” classification). For those of you who may not be familiar with the term “cyberpunk,” if you’ve seen The Matrix, you know more about the genre than you think. The Matrix is a pastiche of cyberpunk themes, and basically recycles (the Wachowski brothers are postmodern, like me) concepts from cyberpunk literature, such as William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, as well as cyberpunk manga and anime such as Megazone 23 and Ghost in the Shell, the latter of which the Wachowskis showed to their producer as proof of concept, saying they wanted to make this in “real life.” (Besides the Wachowskis, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are also among Ghost in the Shell’s biggest fans.)

Before you get all hot and bothered thinking that I’m saying that The Matrix was a completely unoriginal ripoff, watch this video. It is the best explanation I have seen as of yet of the way the creative process works. This applies to every creative endeavor ever in the history of the world. If you think you are creating something from nothing, or something that has never existed before in one form or another, you’re wrong. Everything is created from existing material. I don’t subscribe to the Ex Nihilo theory. Creating something from nothing is an impossibility.

Therefore, regarding The Matrix, rather than labeling it as a ripoff, I’m saying quite the opposite. The Matrix was a very informed, enlightened work of art. The fact that it references so many other works of fiction and non-fiction shows that the Wachowski Brothers did their research, and are making an educated contribution to the global discussion.

The Matrix is a good example of a work of art created using the same view towards high and low culture that I espouse. The film combines several ideas and tropes from widely varied sources, including Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, René Descartes “evil demon,” Buddhism, anime, John Woo action films, Kung Fu films, and of course, cyberpunk fiction, as previously mentioned. All of these various influences are mixed without the slightest regard to what is considered “high” or “low” art. Everything is fair game in today’s postmodern world. Popular or “genre” fiction is a medium that is just as legitimate and effective for artistic and intellectual exploration, in the right hands, as is painting, sculpture, music, or classic literature.

That’s why as I write my novel, even though it is clearly grounded in the genre literature category, I am still using it as a means to explore and attempt to interpret my life experiences and philosophy, just as I am in the non-fiction memoir I am concurrently writing. (By the way, I will have a short fiction ebook published soon on the iBookstore and Kindle, so keep an eye here on my blog for a link soon!)

As you can see, I use my blog not only as a means of communicating outwards, but also for self-exploration and self-analysis, as I search daily for a clearer picture of the meaning of my life. I hope you enjoy being a part of the journey. If you don’t, then piss off!

Today’s rambling was sparked by finding this amazing web site, TV Tropes, which has little to do with the actual medium of TV (I personally eschew most mainstream television, which is anything but inspired and intellectual) and everything to do with tropes found in fiction. It explores and analyzes popular fiction exactly the way I do, as serious art. As an example, the article on the anime film Vexille lists 25 tropes which are incorporated into that film, including “A God am I,” “America Saves the Day,” and “Cybernetics Eat Your Soul.” Another fun article to check out is Everything is an iPod in the Future.

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5 comments

  1. Death Note is one of my favorite series. When I tell people about it, I explain that they should imagine the typical American police procedural, but then add all the thrills, suspense, and edge-of-your-seat cat-and-mouse games that the Americans versions lack.

    I’m a long time TV Tropes reader. It’s an important find for any creative type.

    I’d be interested in hearing you talk more about Michael Bay, specifically why you like Transformers. I confess, I’ve never seen a Bay film, but I’ve heard all the negatives. However, I recently read an article that suggested the director could be a cinematic genius. And this Verizon Fios commercial he did that parodies himself, his films, action films, and Hollywood Blockbusters always impressed me. Basically, I’m on the fence and I’d like to hear more opinions.

    1. Death Note blows any American police show out of the water. I consider it one of the most important pieces of fiction of our time. I have yet to see an American television show that fits that bill. (To be fair, I don’t watch television. But that’s why).
      Hmmm…Transformers…art cinema it is certainly not. Actually, I had never seen that Michael Bay Verizon commercial until you mentioned it. That was hilarious! Thanks for the tip.
      While Michael Bay is not my favorite director in the whole world, I do absolutely love the visual style of his films. And The Island with Ewan McGregor rocked! Love that film. I don’t know why so many people disliked it.
      Transformers fits into a category all of its own. Why did I like it? I guess it was the badassery of it all. I also loved the Transformers cartoon growing up. And I’m a huge Gundam/Macross/Evangelion/Code Geass…etc etc etc fan. So to see the most realistic depiction of giant transforming robots ever created was well, awesome. But honestly the story wasn’t amazing and I hated the sequels. So basically I would watch it again just to see the completely realistic transforming robots. And it was pretty funny.
      I’m watch you call eclectic…I have varied tastes…I love intelligent movies, and I also love badass movies. It’s when movies try to be both, but end up being neither that they suck. (Which happens with about 95% of Hollywood’s films.)

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  3. Excellent post! As a writer of genre fiction, I’m often asked when I’m going to write a “real book.” Surely my time and talent would be better spent creating literary fiction. But I enjoy writing romance, publishing’s red-headed stepchild that makes literary fiction financially possible – it’s the profits from our “bodice-rippers” that keep the industry afloat.

    The Question for me is, “have I created something with integrity, with a cohesive message revealing some sort of truth, whatever I perceive that to be?” If yes, it’s “good.” Regardless of what the snobs think.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

    1. Awesome comment Arabella. Just because it’s genre, it doesn’t mean it can’t be intelligent.

      I agree with you 100% about creating with integrity. I believe that the more the artist puts of themselves into what they are creating, the more honest, and therefore greater, the work of art will be. I am writing a cyberpunk novel, but I use it as an outlet to explore my feelings and things I want to express, which I feel just as free to do regardless of whether I’m creating a ‘genre’ or a ‘classic literary’ novel. Ultimately all art is a way for the artist to comment on the human condition.

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