Two noteworthy events happened in 2015: the premier of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the publication of Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Seemingly different, the two works actually have a lot to do with each other. Notes on the Death of Culture is a brilliant and challenging work that argues for the vital importance of culture in human flourishing and the health of societies. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a piece of junk that serves as a prime example of the cultural collapse that Llosa describes in his written autopsy. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Notes on the Death of Culture is one of those books, like The Culture of Narcissism or The Closing of the American Mind, which comes along once a generation. With staggering lucidity, Llosa drives to the heart of a devastating problem in the culture of the West: the erosion of culture. While culture can certainly be comic books, movies, and pop songs, we have increasingly lost sight of, and appreciation for, the more complex and challenging works of art that can more deeply change us. LLosa cites books by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Homer, and Nietzsche; works of art by Picasso, Rembrandt, and Seurat; and plays by Chekhov, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Brecht as examples of things that “enriched to an extraordinary degree my imagination, my desires and my sensibility.”
One thing all of these works have in common is the great effort it took to create them and the effort it takes to consume them, at least if we are to truly understand them. Great works of culture should change who we are. They should also attempt to engage with complex cultural and spiritual issues.
But with the democratization of culture, the digital revolution, and the elimination of middle and highbrow culture in favor of pop culture, this is no longer necessary. Llosa argues: “Now we are all cultured in some way, even if we have never read a book, visited an art exhibition, listened to a concert or acquired any basic idea of the humanistic, scientific or technological knowledge in the world in which we live.” Culture becomes not something that you have to actively work at—even as that work is intensely rewarding and joyful—but something you passively consume. “Of course, culture can indeed be a pleasing pastime, but if it is just this, then the very concept becomes distorted and debased: everything included under the term becomes equal and uniform; a Verdi opera, the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones and a performance by the Cirque du Soleil have equal value.”
And Star Wars becomes War and Peace. There have always been pop culture entertainments that have captured a society’s attention, from the circus to The Untouchables to Marvel’s string of hit superhero movies. I myself love pop culture, finding deep metaphors in the music of Taylor Swift or an epic like The Dark Knight Returns. (Llosa is also no snob, admitting he loves movies and goes to them twice a week.) Yet what has been lost in the last few decades is a willingness by cultural consumers to do some heavy lifting and take on more challenging works of art: The Brothers Karamazov, Beethoven’s symphonies, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Without such anchoring and altering works, Llosa argues, a culture becomes adrift, feckless, and childish. Even George Lucas based the first Star Wars movie on a substantive work, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been greeted as a realty-shifting cultural phenomenon. At heart it is simply a mediocre movie. Harrison Ford looks tired and silly reprising the role of Han Solo. There is no exposition or backstory to explain the characters’ motivations. The action is relentless yet somehow boring. The destruction of yet another Death Star is particularly lazy. Our cultural muscles have atrophied, allowing works of marginal value to be praised as high art; it’s all become one big pop culture Death Star, sucking everything into its mindless orbit.
But we can resist. We can say no. We can learn to flex highbrow cultural muscles again and to take on challenging works of art. We can say: Nicki Minaj is junk, James Patterson is a hack, and Lady Gaga produces lazy provocations, not art. We can even say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is cotton candy that is forgotten seconds after you leave the theater.
Perhaps then we can get back to what Llosa sees as the truest, noblest calling of culture—nourishing our souls while examining the big questions. Despite our vast scientific and technical knowledge, Llosa argues, “We have never been so confused about certain basic questions such as what are we doing on this lightless planet of ours, if mere survival is the sole aim that justifies life, if concepts such as spirit, ideals, pleasure, love, solidarity, art, creation, beauty, soul, transcendence still have meaning and, if so, what these meanings might be?”
Llosa’s critique offers a challenge and a warning: “The raison d’être of culture was to give an answer to these questions. Today it is exonerated from such a responsibility, since we have turned it into something much more superficial and voluble: a form of entertainment or an esoteric and obscurantist game for self-regarding academics and intellectuals who turn their backs on society.” In other words, culture should not merely be passive entertainment, but an active (and often edifying) journey toward a better understanding of what it means to be human.
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