Is it possible to use theory and intellect to draw deeply complicated conclusions about silly, simple pop culture art? I faced this question in the writing of my Master’s thesis, in which I used such illustrious examples of animal imagery as Mr. Winkle (see photo, right). For many reasons, my answer to this question is a resounding yes, but it is difficult to convince scholars that there is academic and cultural value in guilty pleasures.
I’m raising this point because of a Very Special Episode of Grey’s Anatomy the other week, in which one of the doctors (an MD for humans) saves a deer. The episode addresses the issue of childhood attachment to animals. It can potentially be read for its commentary on the legitimacy of adult empathy for nonhumans. However, in discussing the episode with my husband, I realized that the more interesting issue at hand was expressed in a question I posed: Would people stop taking me seriously as a writer and animal advocate if I wrote about a trashy soap-opera like Grey’s Anatomy? It seemed to me that the answer, yet again, was a resounding yes.
So here is the dilemma: latent and explicit meanings embedded in pop culture can reveal societal paradigms in their purest form, yet pop culture is often viewed as mindless entertainment that is devoid of greater worth. How can these intertwined and opposing viewpoints be resolved? To start with, by establishing why pop culture is worthwhile.
In the book From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions (1995), author Murray Edelman explains how and why art and popular culture can provide insight into every day life. Edelman says that “part of the meaning of artistic talent is the ability to sense feelings, ideas, and beliefs that are widespread in society in some latent form, perhaps as deep structures or perhaps as unconscious feelings, and to objectify them in a compelling way (p 52).” If art synthesizes basic beliefs, then scholars ought to be able to learn a great deal from studying art.
To summarize some of Edelman’s relevant points, what we see and hear is constructed and influenced by imagery that we all have acess to. This means that in addition to personal interpretations of art, our culture has a collective understanding of images as well. This is what makes art an integral part of political behavior, attitudes, virtues and vices. When art and the mind are applied to real world situations, they can influence and transform beliefs about the social world, problems, solutions, hopes, fears, past, present, and future. Kitsch art, “art that sentimentalizes everyday experiences (p. 29),” has just as profound an impact on the social and political world as any other form of art. And kitsch art, more than any other form of art, leads to a unique dilemma.
The study of popular culture (kitsch in particular) suffers from an unusual problem. A lot of pop culture art — not all, but a lot — lacks quality. It is not often that a field of study is generated from lackluster product. In the study of popular culture, scholars ask their audience to accept the intellectual rigor of their research, even though the topic of their study may have none. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many critics, the scholar’s ranking as a legitimate academic is only justified by the quality of his subject of study. For instance, an academic who writes about the Sopranos might be warmly received because of the artistic merit of the TV show, whereas an academic who writes about Grey’s Anatomy would get the cold shoulder because the show’s ambitions go no further than entertainment. And yet, there might be as much useful commentary generated from fluff about Meredith and McDreamy as there is from Tony and his gang. Again, it’s the integrity of the analysis, not the quality of the art being viewed, that ought to determine academic worth.
It is dangerous when scholarship is judged by the subject or topic being studied, and not by the academic rigor of the research. Yet, this does happen, and anyone in the field of human-animal studies has intimate knowledge of this idiosyncrasy. Because animals are not taken seriously as a worthwhile academic interest (aside from biological) many scholars in human-animal studies experience a lack of respect for their work — even if the quality of their studies are stellar. When the study of animals is combined with the study of popular culture, scholars may be digging themselves into an academic grave.
Steve Baker, author of Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (2001) offers a perspective that compliments Edelman’s theories about pop culture. Baker asserts, “much of our understanding of human identity and our thinking about the living animal reflects — and may even be the rather direct result of — the diverse uses to which the concept of the animal is put in popular culture, regardless of how bizarre or banal some of those uses may seem (p. 4).” Like Edelman, Baker places value in even the most frivolous imagery of popular culture representations. Using a butter TV commercial and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as examples, he explains that any understanding of animals is reliant on our understanding of their cultural representations. Baker explains that animal imagery is purely a human construction and is not an accessible reality. Thus, understanding greater cultural mentality about animals will come from exploring the meaning, both latent and explicit, in these manufactured representations.
Without placing judgments on either the symbolic animal or the real animal, it is possible to recognize value in exploring their qualities as mutually informing influences. For example, it is almost impossible to interact with a live pig without thinking (consciously or not) of the charming personality of Babe, Wilbur or Gordy. The childish voice and do-gooder nature of these pigs have created a lasting mythology around the innocent kindness of an entire species. This symbolism is based on fictitious human-made creatures, but the influence on the real is undeniable. The artistic quality of the films from which these pigs came is subject to debate. But the truth is, Babe, Wilbur and Gordy do not have to come from artistic masterpieces in order to generate, influence or reflect cultural attitudes towards animals. It is for this reason that scholars ought spend time evaluating and theorizing about popular culture and, in particular, instances of animals in popular culture — even if such studies are tantamount to academic suicide.
To return to the question with which I began this essay: Is it possible to use theory and intellect to draw deeply complicated conclusions about silly, simply pop culture art? I’ll reiterate again, yes. I’ve outlined here some of the many reasons why. But finally, let’s return to the question that began my thoughts on this subject: Would people stop taking me seriously as a writer and animal advocate if I wrote about a trashy soap-opera like Grey’s Anatomy? Unfortunately, I think the answer is still yes, but perhaps with room for change.
Baker, S. (2001). Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Edelman, M.J. (1995) From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Regan, L.J. (2001). What is Mr. Winkle? New York: Random House.