Brain Pickings

Greil Marcus SVA Commencement Address: How the Division of High vs. Low Robs Culture of Its Essence

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“What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t.”

However skeptical one might be of formal education, one of its great traditions remains the art of the stirring graduation speech. At the 2013 commencement ceremony for the graduating class of New York’s School of Visual Arts — which rounds out creative culture with such diverse programs as Design Criticism, Computer Arts, Animation, and Visual Effects, and the country’s only Masters in Branding degree — cultural critic and prolific author Greil Marcus delivers an absolutely remarkable commencement address that captures everything that’s wrong about our divisive high/low model of culture and all the hope that art, at its heart, gives for bridging this divide by speaking to the most profound depths of the human psyche:

Echoing Perry Meisel’s defiance of “high” vs. “low” culture, Marcus argues:

I’ve always believed that the divisions between high art and low art, between high culture, which really ought to be called “sanctified culture,” and what’s sometimes called popular culture, but really ought to be called “everyday culture” — the culture of anyone’s everyday life, the music I listen to, the movies you see, the advertisements that infuriate us and that sometimes we find so thrilling, so moving — I’ve always believed that these divisions are false. And, as a result of trying to make that argument over the years, I’ve also come to believe that these divisions are permanent — they can be denied, but they can never go away.

He points to MoMA’s 1990 exhibition High and Low, which presented wildly famous “high art” pop paintings next alongside their “low-art,” pop-culture inspirations, as a dramatization of this dichotomy, then observes:

I couldn’t understand then, and I don’t understand now, why George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strips, or the comic books by anonymous artists and inkers and graphics people, were lesser art — really, why whey weren’t better art, the real art — than the pop art classic that Philip Guston and Roy Lichtenstein had made of them. Nearly everything I’ve written is based on the conviction — the experience — that there are depths and satisfactions in blues, rock & roll, detective stories, movies, television, as rich and as profound as those that can be found anywhere else. Who, really, could argue that the sense of transportation, even in the religious sense — taking of oneself out of oneself, connecting oneself to something greater, something you know in the moment, in your heart, that every person who was ever born must experience or their life is going to be poor — who can argue that that sense of transportation is not as present in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” … as in the art most exalted in motive, most revered in history?

(Of course, in an era when MoMA is acquiring data visualization and video games into its permanent collection, the lines are clearly blurring even for traditional arbiters of “high” culture.)

Marcus makes a beautiful addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

What art does — maybe what it does most completely — is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t. There are whole worlds around us that we’ve never glimpsed.

His own sense of art, Marcus says, was shaped by the views of the late critic Dennis Potter, citing his 1987 meditation:

I think we all have this little theatre on top of our shoulders, where the past and the present and our aspirations and our memories are simply and inevitably mixed. What makes each one of us unique, is the potency of the individual mix.

Marcus extrapolates from his transcendent experience of seeing a painting of the Virgin Mary in Venice’s famous Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and being swept off his feet by the all-consuming glory of it:

That’s what art does, that’s what it’s for — to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head by something you weren’t prepared for — by a work, by a play, a song, a scene in a movie, a painting, a collage, a cartoon, an advertisement — something that has the power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person standing next to you, or even anyone else on Earth — art that produces a revelation that you might not be able to explain or pass on to anyone else, a revolution that you desperately try to share in your own words, in your own work.

He articulates beautifully the tantalizing beauty of influence:

What’s the impulse behind art? It’s saying in whatever language is the language of your work, “If I could move you as much as it moved me … if I can move anyone a tenth as much as that moved me, if I can spark the same sense of mystery and awe and surprise as that sparked in me, well that’s why I do what I do.”

Playing off the recent controversy over the two versions of The Great Gatsby cover design — one based on the Hollywood adaptation and the other featuring the original 1925 cover art — Marcus bemoans the “fascist vanity” underpinning the assumptions about each:

It all comes down to that urge to fascism — maybe a big word to use for art, but I think the right word — it comes down to that urge to fascism to know what’s best for people, to know that some people are of the best and some people are of the worst; the urge to separate the good from the bad and to praise oneself; to decide what covers on what books people ought to read, what songs people ought to be moved by, what art they ought to make, an urge that makes art into a set of laws that take away your freedom rather than a kind of activity that creates freedom or reveals it. It all comes down to the notion that, in the end, there is a social explanation for art, which is to say an explanation of what kind of art you should be ashamed of and what kind of art you should be proud of. It’s the reduction of the mystery of art, where it comes from, where it goes…

Marcus’s most recent book, A New Literary History of America (public library) from Harvard University Press, dives deeper into many of the subjects he touches on in the speech.

Complement with other remarkable and timelessly inspiring commencement addresses by Ann Patchett, Jacqueline Novogratz, Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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