University of Wisconsin sophomore Kim Plude is reading “Death of a Salesman.” She is watching Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for her theater class. But there is a life-sized poster of Justin Timberlake hanging next to her desk. She is a self-proclaimed pop-culture junkie.
This classification is problematic.
College life is spattered with both high culture and pop culture. What seems like a bold line between Plato’s Republic and Cosmopolitan Magazine is blurred, crossed or even eliminated by university-level thinking, which sometimes strays into analyzing meta-pop culture or morphs high culture into everyday contexts.
UW offers global religious studies classes that may lecture about Buddhism or the Dalai Lama, for example. But when The Pipefitter on State Street sells novelty books of quotations from the Tibetan leader, high culture has become pop culture.
Similarly, Robert Pirsig wrote a best-selling book called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” “The Simpsons” makes references to Shakespearian drama and biblical verses. And where does the analytic text of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” go when it is turned into the hit movie “Bladerunner?” Does it change classification?
Or should one even bother to classify culture?
Plude says pop culture simply permeates her life.
“I use pop culture, more than anything, as a background to everything I do,” she said. “While I’m doing my homework, for example, I’ll always have the TV on or be listening to Z104.”
Although Andy Warhol said, “Everything is beautiful. Pop is everything,” most experts disagree. Pop isn’t an all-encompassing classification.
Culture can be divided into two groups. Popular culture is consumed in mass at any given time, particularly by youth.
High culture, as a term, has been defined as any cultural phenomenon that crosses generations and endures the test of time. So, although the Chicago Art Institute might see more patrons in a season than Soldier and Wrigley fields combined, French Impressionism is high art.
OK. What about modern art museums? Will a brand-new exhibit endure the test of time?
In Shakespeare’s day, Shakespeare was pop culture. Now, that it has moved into university study, it has moved into high culture.
“There’s the distinction that if you are studying it at the university level, it’s high culture,” UW English professor Michael Hinden said. “If you’re not, and it’s popular, it’s pop culture.”
Chris Golde, senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, taught a class at UW called Campus Cultures. It examined how UW’s size contributed to a fragmented culture, but also common connection, among students.
She said, similarly, that pop culture becomes a necessity for any U.S. citizen, just as consuming high culture is the goal of studying liberal arts at a university.
“Pop culture is the easy, simple-to-consume packages that end up being a common experience for Americans,” she said. “If you don’t watch ‘Survivor,’ you won’t know what people are talking about when they make references to the pop culture.”
Golde said part of the role of a university community is to foster the transfer of social discussion from pop to intellectual.
“High culture is a way to bond generations,” she said. “I guess that would be great if people made more references to literature than to pop music. Who’s going to remember N’Sync in five years, anyway?”
Because the mass media avidly covers what is classified as pop culture — constant updates on the MTV Video Music Awards and Angelina Jolie’s latest mishap are a few examples — pop culture is almost impossible to avoid.
“It’s too hard to hide from it, so why not just embrace it!” Plude said as she gazed into Timberlake’s glossy eyes staring straight ahead from her wall.
When the news comes on, one is forced to question if the mass media can be classified as part of pop culture, too.
“Mass media is pop culture,” said UW journalism and mass communications professor Robert Hawkins.
Golde said part of university culture is the rift between students’ and professors’ cultural values. When some professors do not own TVs, their ability to keep up on the most recent episode of “Survivor” is directly impeded, as is their bond with students that pop culture provides.
“Am I ‘above’ “Survivor? No. Are some professors? Yes,” Golde said.
At the same time, though, UW’s communication arts department studies popular music, television and movies.
The concept of studying the culture of cultures brings up the academic idea of meta-culture, said Hinden.
“That hard line between the high and the low is not as well-defined as it used to be,” Hinden said.
UW’s recently founded Arts Institute employs professors from not only communications arts, but also English and anthropology. Executive director of the Institute and communication arts professor Agatino Balio said all films, independent and blockbuster alike, are created in the name of pop culture.
“The decision of a film’s content is not made in a vacuum,” Balio said, indicating that current cultural trends drive market forces. “The director might be following a trend or base it on a best-selling novel or use a star with a name with a proven track record.”
UW sophomore Kristi Schneider is particularly smitten with Julia Roberts. She said although students occasionally spend time downloading music when “they should be studying,” keeping up with popular trends “makes students more well-rounded individuals.”
Pop culture manifests itself in low-cut jeans, Kate Spade bags, Jamba Juice … culture is in classrooms and in State Street shops.
Pipefitter manager Gregg Hinkley said the store relies on picking up trends from East and West Coast campuses and profits from the sale of pure trends. At the college level, Hinkley said drinking defies the laws of pop culture crossing generational lines.
“On the UW campus, beer drinking is pop culture,” Hinkley said. “Some pop culture doesn’t die, and this one has really sustained itself.”