Tom Sutcliffe: What's wrong with copycat culture?

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You never entirely know what's going to happen when highbrow meets lowbrow, or (if we're to be democratic and un-elitist about this) something commercially no-brow. Quite often it's the occasion for a slanging match, but when Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker issued a statement the other day about the striking familiarity of some of the dance moves in Beyoncé's latest video for "Countdown" she seemed in fairly placatory mood. "Beyoncé is not the worst copycat, she sings and dances very well and has good taste," she said, before adding that she found the video "pleasant, but I don't see any edge to it. It's seductive in an entertaining, consumerist way." Watching the original (a film version directed by Thierry De Mey), and then the flattering imitation, I found myself wondering whether you can really claim sole title to rolling on the floor, however elegantly it's done. But overall it's clear that Beyoncé's choreographer has been a bit of a magpie with De Keersmaeker's work.

Her dismissal of the resulting video coincidentally chimed with something I'd just been reading – a celebrated essay by the New York intellectual Dwight MacDonald called "Masscult and Midcult" (just republished, in a collection of the same name, by New York Review Books). MacDonald was an unapologetically elitist Marxist who deplored the commercialisation of culture and what he saw as the capitulation of American intellectuals to the notion of popular taste. In his view – crudely paraphrased – no cultural creation designed to appeal to mass taste could ever succeed as art. And while the masses might occasionally respond to High Art (the popularity of Dickens and Chaplin were his examples) the demands of popular success would almost invariably be corrosive (Dickens again). The process of marketing mass culture drives out the singular and the contradictory in his view. He compared it to the homogenization of milk, but "whereas the cream is still in homogenized milk it somehow disappears from homogenized culture".

In this spat, MacDonald would have been with De Keersmaeker and against Beyoncé. In fact, he might have seen it as a perfect example of the debasements involved when High Art is repackaged for mass consumption. De Keersmaeker's moves had been torn from their context and then exploited for a glossy bit of bump'n'grind – seductive, maybe, but contentless. Whatever they had said or insinuated in the original piece, whatever complexity of emotions they had aroused then, they could hardly be doing the same thing here. The suspicion has to be that the choreographer thought nothing more than, "Oooh. That looks cool." And this fits with MacDonald's general theory. He quotes the American critic Clement Greenberg at one point, attacking the way in which kitsch, or mass culture, "predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in the genuine art." Perfect. Don't think you've got the patience for all of Rosas Danst Rosas? Watch Beyoncé's "Countdown" instead and just get the highlights.

There is a catch though. MacDonald was writing in 1960, long before mass culture had really done its worst, and long before the notion of cut-and-paste creation had become a commonplace. And while I'm guessing that he would have hated internet culture even more than the commercial enterprises of his own time, he might just have recognised that a different kind of culture had emerged which blurred the simple oppositions of High and Mass Culture and the simple moralities of origination and appropriation. Tellingly, MacDonald writes that the cultures he most admires – Periclean Greece and Elizabethan England among them – were communities (rather than mass societies). And not only were they "remarkably small" but they were also "remarkably heterogeneous ones, riven by faction, stormy with passionate antagonisms". Something about that diversity, he notes, "seems to have been stimulating to talent". "Riven by faction and stormy with passionate antagonisms" sounds a bit like an online community to me. Bad temper and flame-wars don't make a culture in themselves, but it's hardly inconceivable that the internet (democratising the production of art and making its consumption less obedient) might, while representing everything MacDonald feared, occasionally deliver what he craved... the real, uncompromised thing. I'm not saying for a moment that Beyoncé is it, by the way, but the indifference to the old barriers that her video represents suggests that Masscult could be a cradle for High Art, not just its grave.

When a firearm is a figure of speech, not a gun

Chekhov's famous adage about loaded guns takes various forms but the most common is, "One must not put a loaded gun on stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Unfortunately this has now become so well known that it is virtually impossible to see a gun on stage without treating it as a kind of post-dated promissory note. As soon as a shotgun appeared in Conor McPherson's (self-consciously Chekhovian) The Veil, the audience understood that it would be cashed, we just didn't know when. It works with other primed objects, too, as Fiona Shaw's production of The Marriage of Figaro is demonstrating. Part of the bric-a-brac with which she fills out her servants' quarter scenes is a steel man-trap, ostentatiously cocked early in the evening. As various characters brush past it or distractedly step over it, there's no question that it will eventually snap shut. And when it does, and we can start to think about something else instead, the relief is akin to that of finally extracting a popcorn husk from behind a molar. Chekhov's remark, it perhaps needs to be remembered, was a figure of speech; not a recommendation about proper use of firearms on the stage but a note on plot construction. Like most theatregoers, I love the tension of an unresolved mechanism. But if it is actually a gun (or an armed mantrap), you might as well just chuck a lighted banger on stage. More metaphorical loaded guns, please, and fewer real ones.

A restless kind of Romantic art

I hadn't realised how Romantic a painter Gerhard Richter is before visiting Tate Modern's retrospective. Some paintings are presented as a "commentary" on German Romanticism but look to me more like a straightforward expression of it – in particular a very beautiful painting called Iceberg in Mist. Caspar Friedrich might have added a solitary observer but otherwise he'd have been proud to put his name to this melancholy, crepuscular image. Having said which, Richter is a lot of other kind of painters, too, the impression left by the Tate show being of an artist of restless curiosity and re-invention. What I liked most was the curious paradox that his "blurred" style throws up. You look at an image that is unmistakably photographic in origin (it's remarkable how persistently "photographness" breaks through even the most conspicuously painted surface) and the blur seems to exist neither in the image itself nor in your perception of it. You don't think either, "The photographer could have done better with his focus" or, "I really must get my eyes tested." You think, "This is a picture of a solidly real thing, which doesn't exist on the picture plane but somewhere behind it. Or, possibly, only in my mind." It's a fuzzy kind of logic, but the result is often wonderful.