Poetry could turn out thousands of fans in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Long before the advent of poetry slams, Russians crowded into soccer stadiums to listen to the likes of Yevgeni Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. It was a time when, as Voznesensky writes, “Russian poetry broke out to squares, concert halls and stadiums. We had an urge to shout at the top our voices.”
Poetry has long roots in Russian culture and, by way of Pushkin and Mayakovsky, to Russian politics as well. In the aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1953, before a dissident movement gathered force, the new Soviet poets began to test the limits of expression, carrying on a tradition that Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam had kept alive in the most dangerous periods of Stalinism. Yevtushenko’s denunciation of Russian anti-Semitism in his most famous poem, Babi Yar (1961), led to its ban until 1984. The Soviet publishing houses refused to publish Voznesensky after the Soviet leadership denounced him in 1963.
Despite or perhaps because of this official censure, millions learned to recite the poems of the daring poets. Their words became as much part of the popular culture of that time as advertising slogans have become in the postmodern era, recited in taxicabs and bars as well as the foyer of the Bolshoi Theater. Although poetry can no longer compete in Russian popular culture with the new game shows and violent movies and romance novels, Yevtushenko was still able to draw more than 6500 for a poetry reading at the Kremlin Theater in 2002.
Popular culture is usually defined as the “low” arts of pop music, pulp fiction, and television compared to the “high” culture of opera, classical music, and poetry. The distinction is made within genres as well: pop culture is Quentin Tarantino, not Andrei Tarkovsky. But as the example of Soviet poetry of the 1960s demonstrates, it is not always so easy to distinguish between “high” and “low,” for poetry was a mass cultural phenomenon in the Soviet Union.
This is not a uniquely Soviet phenomenon. A landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled “High and Low” and curated by the late Kirk Varnedoe, sought to show the interpenetration of different levels of culture in the work of painters, sculptors, and writers. Similarly, the “poetry slam” features an art forum usually considered highbrow (poetry) but the style (comic, theatrical) and the setting (bars, cafes) appeal to popular tastes. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area: Gorazde focuses on a deadly serious topic of foreign policy (high brow) but in the form of a graphic novel (popular culture). Aaron Copland’s music usually falls into the category of highbrow (classical) even though it draws its inspiration from folk melodies. And what about a tattoo (lowbrow) of a Japanese ukiyoe print (high culture)?
Cultural critics have long associated high modernism with high culture (the difficult novels of Joyce, the 12-tone serial music of Schoenberg) but have placed postmodernism with its reliance on satire, pastiche and parody more fully in the realm of popular culture. But here too, the high modernists were often drawing from the well of popular culture (the Cubists’ incorporation of advertising into their paintings), while the postmodernists frequently borrowed from the lexicon and styles of high culture (the footnotes and asides in David Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius).
Yes, there are works of popular culture like MTV’s Punk’d or the music of Black Sabbath that make no pretense to appealing to mandarins. And there are works of high culture that make no concessions to popular taste, like the films of Stan Brakhage or the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or the poetry of John Ashberry. In between, however, is a wide range of high-low blends that ensure that popular culture appeals to couch potatoes and public intellectuals alike.
Can popular culture be held responsible for the law of the falling rate of intelligence – which states that the more commodities a society produces the dumber it is – or does the ever growing academic interest in television, pop songs, and celebrity suggest that the market does not have a single, simple effect on public discourse? Has the ironic distance of modern popular culture – think Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” or the self-referentiality of a Seinfeld episode – driven a wedge between the culture of entertainment and the politics of commitment? Is popular culture necessarily pulled in the direction of the lowest common denominator or does it constantly reinvigorate society by drawing in the once forbidden (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), the previously scorned (jazz), and the formerly unknown (tapas)? Does mainstreaming in turn necessarily alter once marginal cultural activities for the worse by “taming” them for the masses? Why are some political activists inspired by popular culture while others inspired despite popular culture?
On a trip to Provisions, you can read Thomas Frank’s analysis of how advertising co-opted the counterculture in The Conquest of Cool, find the latest in film and design in the magazine RES, check out this guide to Chinese popular culture on the Web, check out the unexpectedly complex paintings of quintessential pop artist Norman Rockwell in the 1999 exhibition catalog Norman Rockwell, listen to De La Soul’s game-show concept album 3 Feet High and Rising, and change your whole idea of turntables by seeing the documentary Scratch.