A.O. Scott wrote a smart, long, deep piece about the death of adulthood in art and culture in contemporary times. He’s right about most stuff, though very, very safe about everything. It has of course inspired and will inspire a vast number of Hot Takes. Some will praise him. Some of them will be part of the invincible genre of “entitled fans of pop culture cry and whine about their bogus self-conception of being oppressed.” Most will lament with Scott in the general while contributing to the phenomena he mourns in the specific. I am here to cut through the noise for you and speak to you like an adult.
1. Pop culture such as comic book movies, sci-fi, pop music, and genre TV shows has become the most powerful force in the history of human culture. There has never been a cultural force of greater economic power, artistic hegemony, media ubiquity, or social enforcement than today’s pop confections. Never. In any civilization or period of human history. Ever. Base determines superstructure. But as far as superstructure goes, this is as powerful as it gets.
2. There is no such thing as high culture. There probably never was but even if there was it died long, long ago. Outside of your fantasies, there is no group of intellectual elitists looking down their noses at the music or TV you like. Such people do not exist. When you imagine them you are being Homer at college, raging against that grouchy dean.
3. There is no conceit in current intellectual life more demonstrably false or more ubiquitous than the notion that lovers of pop culture, genre fiction, or similar “low culture” are an oppressed and denigrated minority. This is not only true, it is the absolute opposite of the truth. If you are a typical Game of Thrones/Harry Potter/Beyonce loving pop culture lover, you are part of the most spoiled, entitled, serviced, and coddled cultural group in the history of human culture. Ever.
4. In fact, the opposite of the conventional tale is the case: those who like any kind of art or media that has not been blessed to receive the bullshit, self-serving mantel of “pop culture” are subject to a never-ending stream of disdain, dismissal, and abuse. To believe that different types of cultural products should exist, and that some of these should create artistic pleasures based on work, ambiguity, or difficulty, is to be immediately and permanently labeled a snob, an empty signifier that exists simply to provide people with a convenient label to apply to those whose artistic tastes are different than their own. If you like any kind of artwork that does not leave its pleasures totally and utterly accessible at all times and to all people with no expectation that consuming art should involve effort, you will be lectured to by the aggrieved. You will get yelled at by the AV Club and Vulture and Slate, by Steve Hyden and Andy Greenwald and the rest of the crew at Bill Simmons’s Geographical Center of the American Middlebrow, in the New York Times and the New Yorker and every other sundry magazine, blog, site, app, Tumblr, Twittr, Tindr, Grindr, newsletter, listerv, forum, message board, image board, room & board, surfboard and broadsheet that humanity produces. They will deny that what you like is good, deny that you really like it, and invent all sorts of nefarious reasons that you say you like the thing you say you like. They will question not just your right to like what you like but undermine the very notion that someone else could have an aesthetic sense that is different from theirs.
5. The proximate cause of this instinct is an economically broken society in which the society of abundance and security we were promised by national mythology has turned out to be an intricate machine through which the number of winners is steadily reduced and the rewards for those still within that number are steadily increased, leaving us with permanent precarity, an inability to face the desperate need for total economic revolution, and subsequent aggression about the consumptive and aesthetic choices that we feebly use to fill the holes in our heart where our satisfaction, feelings of meaningful work, and sense of life security and fulfillment are supposed to go. Nobody, in a functional society, could really care that much about whether Jim Parsons deserves another Emmy.
6. Everyone who writes any kind of response to Scott’s piece that even minimally agrees with it will feel compelled to lard that response with genuflection and reassurance to the aggressive nerds who police our artistic discourse like prison camp screws, searching everywhere they can think of to find the disrespect they believe is simultaneously their burden to bear and the confirmation that they are part of a great and powerful master race that will rise with the completion of their very own Hero’s Journey story arc, which they imagine to lull themselves to sleep at night on their Boba Fett comforters, which we are forbidden from ever making fun of because then we are guilty of commiting a cultural Kristallnacht in the eyes of said nerds, and they own the executives who own pop culture and the writers who write about it.
7. Pop pleasures do not require defending. It’s like feeling compelled to defend respiration.
8. They’ll keep building the notion of the High Culture Elitist Monster in their minds forever, no matter how palpably unreal it is, because they have so thoroughly entangled the pleasures of art with the soothing novacane of invented victimhood. It’s not that you feel the pleasure and feel the guilt. It’s that the pleasure isn’t pleasurable if you don’t get to pretend that it’s guilty. You throw money at a vast multinational corporation and they give you sugar and you still get to keep the subversive thrill.
9. The only part of adulthood that really matters is the part where when you finally grow up, if you ever really do, it’s because you recognize that there’s other people in the world and that they matter and their needs matter and you need to set aside your self-obsession for long enough to recognize that other people’s needs are often more pressing or important than yours and to act accordingly. Every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy exists to tell you that you are the only human being in the universe.
10. None of this would ever exist if the right people weren’t getting paid.
11. Beyonce is boring.
Update: 12. Tony Scott’s problem is that he refuses to actually consider real-world virtues that come with maturity and adulthood. Like, even a little bit. For all its tweedy NYT weight-shifting, there’s no point where Scott actually bothers to look at factors like 9. here. He’s too concerned about not appearing to be a man of the people. Which is Scott’s singular, existential failing as a critic: he has the instincts and chops of someone willing to criticize the public taste, but not the heart for it. He’s too interested in being beloved to be provocative, so he settles for that NYT Sunday magazine approximation, “thought provoking.” It’s a shame.