Friday, August 7, 2009

Dumpster Diving

While slipping into my player a DVD of "I Married a Monster from Outer Space" (1958) the other night, the thought struck me (along with the inevitable one, "Who doesn't?") that this movie, considered throwaway trash in its day, is now "classic 1950s sci-fi."

The line between high and low culture always has been fuzzier than most self-styled connoisseurs admit. Regardless of how they style themselves though, few people would deny there is some distinction. It is not just a question of money: baseball cards can be more valuable than paintings. It is not just a question of difficulty: catching a greased pig is as hard as scoring a goal in polo. It has nothing to do with prudery: there is plenty of nudity in an average art gallery but none at a roller derby. It is something more ethereal. It is the difference between a wine tasting and a keg party, even though both are just get-togethers of folks who like to drink.

As mentioned, the line never has been sharp, but there is little doubt that in the past few decades it not only has further blurred but has lowered. This is no bad thing. It has allowed, for example, talented director John Waters to shift his residence from one to the other without changing his style, though his budgets have gone up. Waters often comments that American culture is trash culture. He doesn't mean it as an insult. Arguably we are witnessing a return to classical tradition: Aristophanes certainly had no trouble being both ribald and erudite.

To be sure, crack dens never will be afternoon teas and burping contests never will be reviewed on the same pages as the latest revival of "Richard III." Nor should they be equated. Nonetheless, perhaps we should less often (not always, but less often) employ the class-loaded words “high and low” and simply judge with the terms “good and bad” instead. After all, there are good beers and lousy wines, as well as the reverse.

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