... the danger for many of us is that love of popular art is so easy, so comfortable, so insisted on by our commercialized environment that the less accessible world of high art is ignored. To some extent, as Ross points out, this is the fault of the way high art currently presents itself (a topic I hope to take up later). But it is also due to the blindness of the lover to any merits the beloved lacks. My argument has tried to show lovers of popular art how much more there is to love.
Not long ago I got back into reading a lot of the classics I'd either missed or glossed over while I was in college. Two things spurred this on. One was the presence of excellent new translations of a lot of this material (e.g., the Pevear / Volokhonsky translations of the Russian classics, which are not always to my taste but more often right than wrong). It was nice to finally read these things and not feel like I was reading them through the gauze of a previous age's genteel notions. The other was a growing sense that so little of what was going on around me, culturally, seemed worth the effort, so why not look back and see what I'd missed?
It took some time to make sense of, or make peace with, the impulses that had driven Thing #2.¹ No cultural period is without its discontents, and I can't argue with a straight face that things were better back when, because a good deal of the time they just plain weren't. I'm not sure I'd want to live in an era that had neither Coltrane nor Rurouni Kenshin, because I get something from each of those that I don't get from the other — and, more importantly, I get something from both of them that I don't get from anywhere else.
It's always tempting to believe the more cultured your tastes, the more infallible they will be — the more attuned they are to knowing what is real art and what is simply pap dribbled out to pacify the masses. But the point of studying high art is not to take refuge in it, not to shore it up as a bulwark against all that other garbage. Even a lot of high art is of debatable quality by most any critical standard, and you can rarely get two critics of great articulation and insight to agree on what's really worth putting above everything else. (I would have killed to put one of my high school English teachers and one of my college professors — the first a lover of Dickens, the second utterly contemptuous of him — and see what sort of argument they had.)
But again, the point isn't to come up with a hierarchy. Culture isn't a checklist where we start from the top and work our way down. It's about having the needed viewing equipment to sustain an informed dialogue about what's going on around us. We need Star Wars just as much as we need A Midsummer Night's Dream, and we need War and Peace and Seize the Day just as much as either of those — because they all refresh the parts the others do not reach.
¹ Sorry, the Dr. Seussian implications of that choice of phrase just hit me as I was typing it.