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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of radio stations.

An Arts Bar(d)

After a quick drive to town and a frenzied parking search a little before 8pm, I spent the next several minutes walking around to every place I could think of that had a TV I might be able to watch. The TV’s that I found were on and not all were being watched, but when I asked for a particular show, each person’s brows raised, and they shook their head. Not one was even remotely interested in accommodating my programming choice. What I had asked for was the most watched regular show on television — American Idol (AI).

So I went home, stood on my deck peering out over the valley toward Grizzly Peak and wondered why in a town so prolific in artistic, theatrical and musical talents, there would only be sports shown on bar TV’s? But even more than that, why would I receive these “you gotta be kidding looks” when I enquired if could watch American Idol?

I became involved in the AI saga just a few months ago completely by accident when I accepted the invitation from a friend to have dinner and watch TV. It was American Idol night and there was a small gathering of people; we ate dinner and watched the program.  I laughed and joked about it…but eventually I found myself sucked in.

In watching the sunset that evening on my deck, it came to me that although Ashland certainly does have an aesthetic sensibility, alive and well within it is the high art/popular art dichotomy. This led me to another question: What is popular art and why is it so often viewed as beneath high art?

What we consider “the classics” today were often considered popular art in their time.  Greek drama was a very popular, raucous and bawdy affair. The reciting of Homer and other verse by roving, poetic musicians was the popular style of storytelling and more recently, even Wuthering Heights was judged in its day as commercial trash much like we think of Harlequin romances today. Ah, and Shakespeare created his work for the greater populace, not just an elite few.  All of this popular art was first and foremost about humanity, the pleasures and woes, the dreams and realities, the truth and the timelessness of life, love and loss.

What of the Mona Lisa? Do we know that she was not the Lady Gaga of her day? Picture this: Gaga in her own gilded frame, sitting before an elaborate landscape with smiling red lips and heart shaped face. Mona Lisa is not only popular art, but she is a popular art. Her iconic image is seen on handbags, umbrellas, postcards, with a moustache, wearing a hat, as a Goth and even a Mona Lisa zombie.  Is there a difference, yes, but only 500 years. Who is to say that in another 500 years Gaga, today’s queen of pop (and just crowned most powerful entertainer in the world surpassing Oprah), will be the inspirational look of the feminine enigma. Introducing Mona Lisa Gaga....

[The day after writing this my 20 year old son called to ask if I knew there is a film set to be made about Salvador Dali – Salvador Dali 3D. I did not. In it Dali goes to the Louvre and while viewing the Mona Lisa she comes to life and steps out of the painting. They go to coffee. Mona Lisa will be played by Lady Gaga. Which is precisely my point, that popular art/culture is akin to a collective consciousness, not simply mass media propaganda.]

What I’m addressing here is less about idealism and more about truth and that popular art, yesterday’s and today’s, is about the reality of the human condition.  And that to not acknowledge the bridge between popular art aesthetics and the realm of high art aesthetics is both divisive and ahistorical.  It touches a note of humanness that plays us in our everyday lives. It plucks the heartstrings of a lived experience, be it a dream or a reality, which I perceive may be the most likely reason for AI’s popularity. Hasn’t each of us, in all truth, daydreamed about being ‘discovered’ and becoming the latest ‘popular art’?

There are those that would choose a Seurat over a Warhol, or Beethoven’s Fifth over the Black-Eyed Peas but that doesn’t mean that one is more classic or less popular. It’s more about the perspective of aesthetics and the allusions of art and reality that are often considered to be ‘lost’ on the popular art audience (read less educated lower classes) but who in reality are often more literate in their artistic traditions than are the viewers of so-called high art within theirs.

American Idol is a reality show that showcases popular music and culture. Yes, it has pomp and glitz (and lots of blue eye shadow) but so did Shakespeare and Greek drama. American Idol has glory and competition and just like sports, it has winning and losing. Personally, I would prefer to watch some incredibly talented young adults, who most likely would have gone undiscovered, be given the chance to live out their dream and grow into maturity from their experience.

So, wouldn’t it be nice, if in a town that prides itself as a purveyor of both cultural and popular art, that there was a place, with TV’s, offering programming other than sports. An arts bar, a place offering a taste of what makes Ashland tick – the arts. Anybody game?