G. K. Chesterton on enjoying lowbrow art

A wise man wrote:

[The bombast in the novels of Sir Walter Scott] will always be stirring to anyone who approaches it, as he should approach all literature, as a little child. We could easily excuse the contemporary critic for not admiring melodramas and adventure stories, and Punch and Judy, if he would admit that it was a slight deficiency in his artistic sensibilities. Beyond all question, it marks a lack of literary instinct to be unable to simplify one’s mind at the first signal of the advance of romance. “You do me wrong”, said Brian de Bois-Guilbert to Rebecca. “Many a law, many a commandment have I broken, but my word, never”.  “Die”, cries Balfour of Burley to the villain in Old Mortality. “Die, hoping nothing, believing nothing–”  “And fearing nothing”, replies the other. This is the old and honourable fine art of bragging, as it was practised by the great worthies of antiquity. The man who cannot appreciate it goes along with the man who cannot appreciate beef or claret or a game with children or a brass band. They are afraid of making fools of themselves, and are unaware that that transformation has already been triumphantly effected.

— G. K. Chesterton, Twelve Types: The Position of Sir Walter Scott

I am confident that Chesterton, if he lived today, would be a big fan of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who.  And he would be right to be.

15 responses to “G. K. Chesterton on enjoying lowbrow art

  1. When I was a sophomore (I started school very late, so I was probably about 25 at the time) I used to teach one of my housemates to play Go on whatever night Buffy aired on. We played in the living room, so I got to see whatever season Buffy was at then (season 2?) as well as the first seasons of “Dawson’s Creek” and “Sex and the City.” There were, like, eleven people living there at the time, but the girls controlled the remote.

    I’m not sure Chesterton would have liked Buffy. I think he might have thought that Buffy was the inevitable result of dividing things into low-brow and high-brow as we have. I am inclined to think that Chesterton was warning us that if we continued down this path we would wind up with a culture whose greatest achievement was Buffy.

    And he was right. Kind of sad, actually. Shakespeare, Blake, Milton, Whedon… alas, Albion.

  2. Well, Tagore, I couldn’t disagree more. The high-brow/low-brow distinction goes back much, much further than our generation, and indeed the main reason Chesterton wrote his essay about Scott was in response to critics writing his work off as low-brow — as I think the quote makes pretty clear.

    As for the list of authors that ends your comment: Buffy stands firmly and proudly as a natural successor the Shakespeare. Like the Bard’s plays, it takes a blend of hokey supernatural elements and borderline-farcical relationship drama/comedy, and weaves those unpromising elements into profound insights into the very nature of what it is to be human. Also like Shakespeare’s plays, Whedon’s work was aimed squarely at popularity rather then respectability from the start; that both Shakespeare and Whedon have achieved that respectability is a mark of their work’s innate and universal quality.

    For Macbeth‘s witches, read Willow and Tara, or if you like ’em darker, Amy. The demons of The Tempest have plenty of descendants on the streets of Sunnydale; and what are vampires if not the direct modern-myth equivalent of the wicked, charismatic, amoral faeries of numerous classic works including Spenser Faerie Queene and of course Shakespeare’s own Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Is it a coincidence that Season 5’s Big Bad Gloriana is named after the eponymous faerie queene?)

    Am I saying Buffy is as good as Shakespeare? No, I’m not going that far (and I don’t know enough Shakespeare well enough to make a judgement). But it certainly stands squarely in the same tradition, maybe more so than any other modern work.

  3. This is a great reflection on the vacuousness of literary critique. Proving that literary criticism has been bankrupt for far longer than most think.

    No true critic would wax eloquent on how fantastic the series Babylon 5 was but I don’t care, it was the best TV series ever.

    Literary critics with their long-standing snobbishness have earned the near total lack of respect they have in the modern era.

  4. You’re suggesting DW is lowbrow? Hmrf.

    I suppose definitions need throwing in .. high brow is not ‘high art’, else we’d all mostly like low brow; highbrow is more .. going for the stars, trying to do somethign tats not just rote. Or not just going for pleasing the audience, but challenging them.

    ‘Friends’ is low brow, since theres no challenge; its just popcorn amusement.

    Dr Who .. it does at times try to challenge you,a nd certainly can be taken as a mystery worth pursuing until it unrolls at the end, so I’d suppose DW as high brow, or ‘mid brow’ if high brow is some artsy thing unattainable by mortals.

    IS low brow just another word for .. ‘guilty pleasure?

  5. Interesting thoughts from Jeff on what (if anything) highbrow and lowbrow actually mean. By his definition of “going for the stars, challenging the audience” then, yes, I’d agree that Doctor Who is at least in the region of highbrow; and so is Buffy. But I think a more workable definition, or at least one with a better correspondence to how the terms are generally used, is that “highbrow” is something that sets out to impress critics, while “lowbrow” cares more about pleasing a broader audience. And on that basis both Who and Buffy would be definitely lowbrow. (Then again, so would Shakespeare.)

  6. First, I’m pretty sure that you could disagree more. Let’s be clear here- I am at least wiling to take Buffy seriously enough to criticize it. I imagine you would disagree more with people who wouldn’t bother.

    That Buffy references the bard is not material. I know Spencer, and I have read Orlando Furioso in the original- I’ve read lots of things in the original. I have really tried (and failed) to read the monogatari from Heian Japan. Someday…

    Let’s be honest here- Buffy is pretty lowbrow. Are you arguing that in 400 years people will revere Whedon as we revere Shakespeare now?

  7. If witty storytelling is still revered 400 years from now then I dare say Whedon will be remembered. :)

  8. OK, we have a bet. Now we need someone to hold the money until 2511. With interest, I imagine it will be worth a small star system, so I suggest you take this very seriously.

  9. OK, Tagore, I did not use the phrase “I couldn’t disagree more” in the literal sense that you are interpreting it as, but in the otherwise universally recognised sense as an idiom for “I disagree strongly”.

    That Buffy references Shakespeare is not the point (and also not what I said). The issue that it’s approach is the same: the cheerfully eclectic use of unashamedly lowbrow and populist elements to construct a work that has extraordinary human depth and resonance. Which is why I said the one “stands squarely in the same tradition as” the other.

    Do I think Whedon will be as revered in 400 years as Shakespeare is now? Probably not; but “Not quite as good as Shakespeare” is not the most scathing criticism possible.

  10. It is the lowbrow that is remembered for centuries, as that’s the art that speaks of universal truths and things that last. Highbrow art tends to be “meaningful” or “relevant”… and so, it’s also extremely temporal.

    The classic Lee/Kirby cosmic stories of the 60s have lost none of their impact; the “relevant” stories of the 70s are horribly dated, forced, and preachy.

  11. Well, I’d agree that “not quite up to Shakespeare’s standard” is not a terrible review. And I do think that Whedon is very clever. But I also think that Buffy is in some qualitative sense less interesting than Shakespeare. And I’d argue that this has something to do with the distinction we have introduced between the high and low brow.

    It’s not just that Buffy is not quite as good as Shakespeare. It is that Buffy could not be as good. And part of the reason is that Whedon is so self-consciously low-brow.

  12. Pingback: More from C. S. Lewis on lowbrow and highbrow art | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  13. Speaking of Shakespeare, there’s an entertaining article in the most recent NYRB talking about the creative process that Shakespeare was involved in.

    Shakespeare and Verdi were creative volcanoes. But mainly they were men of the theater, engaged in the companies they worked with, active at each stage of the production of the plays and operas that filled their lives—Shakespeare as an actor in his own and other men’s plays, Verdi as a vocal coach and director of his works. Theirs was a hands-on life of the stage, not a remote life of the study.

    The description in the article sounds closer to how people think of lowbrow art being produced and, in fact, not that different from the process of writing and producing an ongoing TV series.

    You’d have to say that Shakespeare is better at that than anybody writing for TV today, but it makes it tricky to argue for a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow based on the intent of the writer or the creative process.

  14. It’s okay if you like trashy novels, guys, just stop pretending that there’s no such thing as a hierarchy of culture. Dostoevsky is objectively better than Dan Brown, and that’s because (contrary to Ian Hararc) the former seeks to reveal and understand, while the latter seeks to distract and escape. What highbrow authors seek to reveal and understand is universal, while lowbrow authors cater to specific genre fetishes (fantasy, sci-fi, etc).

  15. I don’t think Chesterton would have said there’s no such thing as a hierarchy of culture. I know for sure that Lewis wouldn’t have. Hmm. Maybe I’ve not yet managed to properly represent their positions.

    You distinction between good and bad culture (one seeks to reveal and understand, the other to distract and escape) seems pretty good to me. But equating the latter with “highbrow” and the latter with “lowbrow” or indeed “genre” is completely wrong.

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