Popular, Popular, Unpopular!
‘You’re no Poet’ — the critics cried!
‘Why?’ said the Poet. ‘You’re unpopular!’
Then they cried at the turn of the tide –
‘You’re no Poet!’ ‘Why?’ ‘You’re popular!’
Pop-gun, Popular and Unpopular!

–Alfred Tennyson

Alexandra of Out of Lascaux has sinned. Her sin was to defend Thomas Kinkade, the twinkly light guy, modestly, because she thinks some of his paintings are pretty good. (It looks like kitsch to me but I’ve never been close enough to one to say for sure.) This is too much for the reliably “elitist” AC Douglas:

So let’s hear it for Thomas Kinkade, Stephen King, Andrew Lloyd Weber, George Lucas, Williamsburg VA, and Reality TV! They are hallmarks of our populist age after all, and so not to be despised.

Oh yes let’s. I pause to note that capitalism does such a nice job of gratifying my own desires that I am even willing to forgive it for gratifying everyone else’s. But there is a still more obvious point to belabor. Nobody, certainly not Alexandra, seriously defends some work of art on the grounds that it is popular. The argument has always been between people who think some popular art is good, and people who think no popular art is good, and the second party has some explaining to do. (Shakespeare, Mozart, Dickens, Rodin, Frost, to pick four different centuries and five different fields.) Kinkade might be good, or bad, but his popularity surely does not bear on the question.

The “elitists” waste their ammunition deriding popular taste when what they ought to be doing is defending objective standards in art. Reordering established reputations, resurrecting a neglected work and explaining why it’s superior to something better known, differentiating between good and bad on some grounds other than “I prefer it” — this is useful and, I daresay, “elitist” work. It beats bloviating. On the other hand it’s much harder.

(Update: AC Douglas responds. I am amused to be called a multi-culturalist for suggesting that if one dislikes Thomas Kinkade one ought to adduce some reasons beyond his popularity. Popular art, if good, is apparently not really popular, because the many people who appreciate it fail to do so at the level at which it ought, properly, to be appreciated. It’s a neat trick, to be able to speculate unerringly on the inner life of one’s fellows. Where do I sign up for the course?)

(Another: Lynn Sislo comments. So does Ian Hamet. And AC himself, who always gets the last word, replies to my reply.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted January 28, 2003 @ 8:05 PM | Culture

5 Responses to “Popular Unpopular”

  1. 1 1. Lynn S

    Ah, good old AC Douglas. So entertaining. I regret that I can no longer spar with him since he refuses to visit my blog anymore and has disabled comments on his. Funny thing is… I actually agree with him a lot of the time but I can’t stand his "because I say so" attitude about everything related to the arts.


  2. 2 2. Timothy Murphy

    God save us from popular art, from Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, Dante. Save us from Goethe, who compressed the longings of his period into lyrics which tear me apart today. Spare me from popular art.


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