Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Demagogue vs the Mystagogue

One of the treasures I've picked on the Amazon Kindle is a massive collection of G.K. Chesterton's works. Chesterton is a favorite writer of mine, and had a lot of intelligent things to say on a lot of topics.

One of his essays in "All Things Considered" was titled "Demagogue and Mystagogue" and dealt with the now-entrenched idea that if something is popular, it's probably no good, but if it's completely obscure and unpopular, it must be worthy.

This is a very easy trap to fall in, especially in Geek Culture or any of the assorted counterculture groups that make up a large part of my social circle. It's very easy, being outside of the mainstream, to dismiss anything too mainstream as trash, and praise the weird and outre simple for being weird and outre.

Now, there is a very real value in searching for the hidden treasures of Art and Music, and there will always be some variation in taste, but, as Chesterton so aptly points out, an artist may be great in spite of being unsuccessful, but it's foolish to assume an artist is great because he's unsuccessful.

The mystagogy trap is so tantalizing for a couple reasons: first, there's the thrill of exclusivity. If you're one of the select few who appreciate Band X, you, in a sense own the band. You don't have to share it with the masses. Secondly, the simple fact is that claiming "you just don't get it" when one's beloved creation is disparaged by viewers is waaay easier than taking the criticism and trying harder next time.

Yes, it's true that a lot of what's out there in popular culture is faddish dreck, and will fade into well-deserved obscurity soon enough. However, there has always been "great" work that has met public acclaim and at the same time had staying power. The best of popular entertainment reaches the masses not by flattering their egos and preying on trendy consumerist impulses, but by touching on the universal, and appealing to the better parts of our souls (for a contemporary example, go watch a couple Pixar movies).

At the same time, there are less popular options that are valuable. Tom Waits is an acquired taste, but he's got musical value. So, weird can be good. But, and here's the important thing, because I like Tom Waits and my friend does not, I am NOT a better/smarter/sexier (well, maybe) person than he is. I just have a different taste.

Because when you use your alienation, however slight, from the rest to say "well I'm better than them," not only are you being a petty little twerp, but you're also taking the easy way out and denying yourself the chance to better yourself.

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