Pop Culture

High and Low

People create art for many different reasons. For some, art is an intensely private pursuit of self-expression, while others do so to alleviate an acid-burning insecurity. No matter why people decide to create, at some point they will probably look for an audience. And those works of art that not only manage to garner the praise of turtlenecked critics but a huge following as well are astonishingly rare. Whether in architecture, television, literature, or any medium, the one commonality to massively successful creations is their ingenious combination of the high and low. Combining the two is not about selling out; it’s about expressing a universal truth, universally. Which is much harder than it sounds.

Consider the television show Breaking Bad, which reached that danger point of cultural ubiquity where people who had never watched it had become tired of hearing others talk about it. Breaking Bad is genius in an accessible form not because it’s dumbed down, but rather because it presents complexity in a readily graspable fashion. Instead of watching screenshots of a 500 page white paper on the reality of a country with an eroding middle class and failing education system, we watch methheads get head-stomped by their own stolen ATM machine, which is a visceral and darkly entertaining way to articulate the same concept. The show begins with a befuddled white dude in his underwear—think Homer Simpson or Ed Bundy—taping his own confession. The show subsequently sucks us into a soap-opera mineshaft of ego, cunning, and star-crossed love. If you watch Walter White’s saga with a discerning critical eye, you’ll be rewarded when seeming throw-away moments boomerang back with exquisitely-plotted precision. But you can also watch it purely on the level of waiting for Saul Goodman’s next terrible pun, or Jesse Pinkman’s incomparable utterance of “bitch.” No matter what level at which you engage with the show, all the other elements end up seeping in. And either way, you’re watching the unraveling of a socio-political infrastructure to one of the best soundtracks ever assembled.

Even among culture forms that have traditionally been categorized as either exclusively “highbrow” or “lowbrow,” mixing the two strengthens and broadens the reach and complexity of both. “High” art is traditionally defined by the rigorous mastery of a challenging craft, while “low” art encompasses cavemen lighting their farts aflame. It’s a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between intellect and base instinct: the only commonality is the human spirit and the desire for connection. As an example, architecture used to be a profession for effete detail-oriented masochists until Frank Gehry waltzed in and demanded that it look fun. Having once spent a year and a half in his employ, I was struck by his methodology (which he himself mocked in cartoon form on The Simpsons).  In part, he designs according to what looks intriguing to him on an emotional level, and then he makes sure the client digs it too. While each design element is ultimately refined and thoughtfully realized by him and his staff, it’s the gut-level impulse to please that makes it remarkable to people who don’t known a mullion from an escalator. The most successful art is not only aesthetically gripping or commercially viable: invariably, by expressing the universal, an artist acheives both simultaneously. Frank’s not designing according to an abstract intellectual concept, or plopping a box down because it’s cheap. He’s creating buildings that please aesthetically without writing a dissertation or simply giving into the developer’s demands. His complete fearlessness in regard to designing stunning, occasionally insane-looking buildings in formerly culturally desiccated areas has transformed economies and brought glamour (and popular awareness) to architecture.

And then there’s literature. Literature isn’t strictly the province of the high-minded, although many so-called literary types have worked hard to marginalize it. Real literature has always been a celebration of the banal and the profound, despite the intense, cross-purpose efforts of MFA schools and Dan Brown’s publisher to separate the two. Think Chaucer, think Shakespeare. These fellas wrote about the entire spectrum of humanity, which is why we still read and celebrate their works half a millennia later. Basically, “serious” literature is often like slapstick in schematic form: From Tyler Durden to Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom to Orlando, literature is a catalogue of misadventures, whether it’s dragging plastic-wrapped human fat over a barbed wire fence, having affairs or waking up one day as a different sex. The characters in books often do things that would get them expelled from the stuffy libraries they so often end up inhabiting, only because a book appears to be “quiet” on the outside. So how do we show people who have been turned off by the reputation of literature the delicious chaos they’re missing? Once again, it’s by virtue of combining the high and the low.

Literary Death Match,  the roving international literary showcase that is as likely to book Pulitzer Prize winners as porn stars, has been going strong for nearly eight years in fifty cities, with a global audience somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000. Literary Death Match features four readers in two rounds who endure the irreverent commentary of celebrity judges to compete in the finale. The final round is a signature blend of beer-hall sporting event and literary one-upmanship, drawing in a crowd split evenly between those who regularly bellow at cockfights and those who sit in leather-backed chairs perusing tomes. During the bowling-style finale of a San Francisco Death Match, in which books stood in for the pins while the finalist writers “bowled” for points, host and creator Adrian Todd Zuniga noticed that one of the books had accidentally engulfed another book. “There’s a book inside of a book. That’s probably been done by Mark Leyner recently,” he quipped. And yet, only moments later, he shifted into frenetic sports announcer mode by running a hand through his perpetually vacillating mane and crouching down at the foot of the stage. “I want you to cheer like fucking nuts,” he said, and the audience did.

What’s startling about Literary Death Match is how seamlessly comedy and deep, introspective prose work together. This is not a show that dumbs down any of its content, yet it manages the trick of making it accessible to everyone. As a result, the utterly serious learn how to laugh, and the booze-addled learn how to think. You don’t have to have read the classic canon to enjoy a Death Match; but if you are a bookworm, you’re going to appreciate the sly jokes and references that invariably flower during the show. Partly by featuring brand-name entertainers like Moby or Michael C. Hall, and partly by featuring writer’s writers like Rachel Kushner and Susan Orlean, the show is a marriage between the high and the low. From a purely commercial perspective, Literary Death Match is also the missing link for a publishing industry still struggling to find a good promotional vehicle for its product. Instead of a traditional bookstore reading stuffed with fold-out chairs and the smug coterie of English majors, Literary Death Match is like a hip circus with a book tie-in. Whether an author has sold thirty-five million copies in hardback or thirty-five chapbooks at the local bookstore, Literary Death Match is a way for authors to connect with a large, willing audience. No matter how rowdy the crowd is, whenever the writers begin to read their work the audience immediately becomes silent and watchful, like spectators at a tennis match. With a time limit of seven minutes per reading, the audience knows it can focus intently without being mercilessly drug around unfulfilling (and unrelenting) narrative bends.

Ultimately, critically and commercially successful art showcases incredibly complex, intricate material in a way that appeals to anyone with a soul. Those who sneer at the notion that art should be aided by something as vile as accesibility may have a point. But then again, no one ever remembers them. Purists and snobs usually reach the zenith of their influence at an isolated cocktail party near the aged gouda plate. Those creators who wish to leave an impact on their culture must be mindful that it’s neither the high end nor the low end that counts, but rather both in nuanced combination.

Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Salon, Dwell, The Nervous Breakdown, The LA Weekly, Forth Magazine, and 89.9 KCRW. She's into it.