For as long as I can remember, I have abided by principles of aesthetic discrimination. I remember this most early taking places with video games as a young child. I carefully selected video games according to reasons I did not fully understand. Some were simply interesting and some were simply not. I remember being very proud that my selections were always very rewarding. Judging by the covers and promotional imagery, I could successfully determine what video games I would appreciate and which ones I would not. Whenever I ignored the voice, I was punished with a very boring game.
Many books were anathema to me for reasons I could not fully understand. I wished to remain deep within the realms of the Lord of the Rings, Ender’s Game, Redwall, and other very intentionally selected book worlds. Forays into other series were few and far between, and often disappointing, so I comforted myself with reading the same series(es) over and over and over. It was only later, just before donning the hoodie of teenagehood, that I would begin to discriminate heavily with movies and music and to open up avenues for broad exploration in all media. I felt comfortable in my ability to quickly reject the inane and intuit the delightful. I feel like I still haven’t gotten the knack of finding fiction books that I know, at a glance, I will appreciate. Movies, music, and games are much easier to determine. And I’ve found that the only way for me to savor them well is to go through them multiple times.
Where did these principles come from? I doubt I was born with them. Perhaps there were some vital choices made by me as an infant, or for me, long before memory became coherent. These choises perhaps shaped me to be especially attuned to images. Or perhaps it was just the ‘great’ works I was exposed to first: Pokemon, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings would not only become beloved worlds to explore, to tinker with internally, but also visual and conceptual standards by which to judge other works that petitioned acceptance into my imagination. I remain in love with those worlds and those standards to this day, although I have dedicated myself to substantial reformation and expansion in order to accept even greater works: the literary and artistic works of the world tradition. Because I am so deeply infatuated with specific manifestations of 20th century pop culture, no matter how lovely they may be, my inability to leap into other centuries easily has greatly limited by imaginative capabilities.
The exploration of works of other centuries is a noble effort that I will advance as long as I have the strength. Nevertheless, I do not think my specific attraction to the entertainment of the 20th century (century is meant fuzzily here) is entirely in vain. It will always represent to some degree a force of (perhaps undue) curiosity and disordered delight. This is why it must be tempered with deep engagement with the canon, loving relationships with other people, exploration into the natural world, and participation in the societies and stories of those places to which I’ve been called by God. I should be clear: if my life should be about anything, it should be mainly about those things, love of God and fellow men, a full and noble life to which this project is but a quick game of shadows and light. But for what end, then, do I bear this specific love? Why does love for games come with ease and love for people come with difficulty?
Perhaps this project may be the first steps towards bearing fruit from this wild and unintended childhood love.
I was inspired by the history of American popular culture presented by Leroy Ashby in his book Amusement for All. It was deeply informative and important, but it also troubled me that few of the works of art and entertainment of the latter half of the 20th century that I care about appeared at all in his work. It makes sense: there are millions of artifacts out there to choose from. Any broad history of media will go for the most massive, fatty, floundering whales of pop phenomena. It was right of Ashby to do so. But then what about all of the cult classics of film, music, art, comics, games, books? What about the stuff that is actually interesting and valuable? Where is the comprehensive history for the counterpoint pop culture? Perhaps with the internet it is easier for the cults of these delightful works to flourish and gain faithful congregations (big or small, they are always faithful) of celebrants.
Culture is really just about keeping cults. I worship at no cult but Christ’s, but nevertheless, trapped in this temporal kingdom, any step I take sends my foot through the roofs of tiny festivals, liturgies, fandoms, religions, idolatries, and hobbies. They have sprouted up all around us like fairy rings. There is no defense and no escape. The only answer is to conquer. We must sweep away the garbage. We must uphold the rare, good, excellent, and interesting.
And so I want to create a history of popular culture based on my individual standards of aesthetic discrimination. It will be a wonderful project for me personally and will, I hope, bless people that I care about and teach them to care for greater things. It will perhaps be a way for overlooked greatness to take a step closer to introduction into the canon decades or centuries from now–depending on what tier of canon we’re talking about. I must do my research now while more ephemeral canonical tiers still exist for works made within living memory.
I imagine this could sprout into many things. A book, perhaps, or blog. Part of me envisions it as a massive collage, a delta of images swarming across an enormous wall, ripples of the curious imagination. This is the type of project to work on over the course of a decade or so. It should not supplant my exploration into the classics. Rather, it should be my attempt to contribute, in however small a way, to the great western project of art curation through centuries.
It might be valuable at some point to create a small sample anti-stream that contains everything I find to be repulsive, or even just boring, in order to better understand what is or isn’t worth valuing. I range from irritated to disgusted by the aesthetics of… post-vietnam military, the super bowl, 9/11 related media, Elvis, Extreme Home Makeover, new atheism, cable news, mexican television, tabloids, Call of Duty, Marvel movies, Disney at its worst, creative content websites (deviantart, youtube) at their worst and even sometimes at their best (truly an unending cursed treasure hoard of disgust to dig through), facebook, the original MtG as well as its recent iterations (it peaked at return to ravnica!), most advertising, contemporary school text books (twaddle! twaddle in content AND in graphic design!), evangelical music and movies, generic anime, furry culture. Is it enough to renounce these works of culture as dumb and lame? Am I deluding myself by trying to flee to other similarly sensuous and basic works? I feel this deep desire to gather together all of the images of the last century that I find powerful and put them all in one massive collage of beauty and curiosity, while forming another collage of repulsion (perhaps smaller because I would hate to put in as much effort, or perhaps just as big because it wouldn’t require as much effort) to pair together. Then I could show this pair to normies and, in one sudden revelation that they would spend the rest of their entertainment-based life contemplating, they would understand what they have missed. Their minds would be instantly wiped of all the dull dregs of culture with which their imaginations have been cloaked.
Ha. Nevertheless, if an inkling of that were achieved, with just a few people, then I would feel all my own indulgent entertainment practices have not been in vain. Perhaps there could be a series of parallel streams, perhaps ‘the beautiful stream of music’ through a given decade or the whole century, and then its counterpoint of everything repulsively boring. Or perhaps it would go by color scheme, or something more thematic tying in all sorts of lovely media, only to be paralleled by its drab counterpart. Perhaps in the end it would make even more clear the limitations of contemporary entertainment, and awake in viewers of the collages (and in readers of the companion commentaries) how we must go back and recover the beauty of past centuries.
Maybe it’s all been a waste of time. Maybe it’s been straw all along.