Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt taken from the document that accompanied, explaining and justifying, my creation of a Save Our Soaps (SOS) group called thistimeitsforever.org (TTIF), in pursuit and awarding of my Master’s in rhetoric and composition at Colorado State University. The website is still live, if you would like to visit it! In the section of the document that this excerpt comes from, I refute some common criticisms of soap operas. This sub-section deals with the “low-brow” label often assigned to soaps by the culture writ large and the many ways it is invalid and denigrates soap operas, thereby increasing the danger of cancellation they face. If we see something as, essentially, “bad,” why not cancel instances of it and seek to rid the cultural landscape of it totally? By pointing out in my project document why the negative judgments–among them, “bad”– applied to soaps are wrong, I sought to make more likely their preservation. And in excerpting this sub-section of my project document here, I seek to do the same. Please read, enjoy, and comment!
SOAPS ARE NOT A “LOW” FORM OF ART, OR
THE INVALIDITY OF THE HIGH-BROW/LOW-BROW ART DISTINCTION
Humans, in addition to being “inveterate storytellers” have been creating art in various forms since recorded history. Clearly art comes from a primal place in the human makeup and serves valuable purposes. And soaps are art. Just like any other form of it, they must be highly valued and supported by our culture as a whole like painting, sculpture, video art, literature, poetry, performance art, and a host of other human-made creative expressions are.
Since becoming a commonplace item in U.S. homes post-World War II, television has become a cultural behemoth. It entertains us, gives us domestic and international news, shows us places and people we might never see or meet otherwise, airs sports events, and of course bombards us with advertisements. One cannot speak of U.S. culture in general without speaking of the ubiquity and acute power of the television (Herman and Chomsky 24), and increasingly of other watchable digital devices in 115.6 million American homes (Nielsen 1). The ways corporations and executives now use the Internet to “broadcast” fare that would have once been on television has slightly lessened the wide reach of television. But any newer technology like the Internet still has a ways to go before it matches the cultural power of television, though it is powerful in its own ways already.
Despite or perhaps because of its common placement in U.S. homes, the cultural intelligentsia and sometimes even those who watch television, including soaps, look down on it. They see it as crass, a shill for corporations, of no artistic or intellectual value, turning our brains to mush, low-brow. I must ask the reader to excuse me for what may some an overly bold attempt on my part, but one I feel is necessary at the outset when talking about soaps then. But once I have done this, I will justify the saving of soaps that much more easily from people who might not otherwise feel they need to be saved—or even be happy to see them go.
I want to do away with the false dichotomy of high-brow/low-brow art. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, this is vital to do before discussing soaps’ value and why they should be saved, because if I do not, they will remain to some non-fans invaluable and unworthy of saving. They are a television genre, after all, and television, despite its study and analysis in limited scholarly circles, still is thought of as class-less junk food for the mind. The general public often views soaps as occupying the bottom of the totem pole even within in the television industry, basically as mental detritus. This is even true of people who watch and love other genres of television!
In the 1960’s, Jacques Derrida began an intellectual revolution in Western thought when he introduced, among many other radical ideas, that the whole idea of thinking in dichotomies—good/bad, intelligent/dumb, valuable/invaluable—was a peculiarity of Western thinking, not something inherent to human consciousness. Reality, he said, contains so many more subtleties, complications, layers. And many postmodern and post-postmodern thinkers before me have pointed out the myriad ways in which dichotomies are invalid and constructed through language use (not simply described by language), archaic modes of thinking, and as an extension of socioeconomic class distinctions that exacerbate unnecessary distances between people—those who enjoy the high-brow and those who enjoy the low-brow, though certainly there is overlap between these two parties. In short, it is harmful to many and not “real” or “natural.” So let us look at the value of soaps from a place where we reject untrue and unhelpful thinking that lumps artistic genres into one of two polar opposite camps—in this case “good” or “bad.”
I frequently think of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald as an example of how soaps are art and much art is soap-like. Gatsby wants to join the ranks of the wealthy who live decadently ostentatious lives, he loves Daisy and would do most anything for that love, and, in a classic soap twist of fate (Spence 143), there is a car accident in his story that changes everything. Very similar storylines have happened on soaps, but they would be labeled “melodramatic,” or as one writer in a recent issue of Variety said, “a silly, soapy mess.” If Gatsby is art, then, can’t we call soaps art too, when done well, in which love and twists of fate are mainstays of the dramatic action.
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” can be said to show the largely arbitrary nature of the high-brow/low-brow art distinction. In this case, probably no one would call a porcelain urinal art, whether they are themselves high-brow/low-brow. But Duchamp’s clever work points to the fact that simply by placing a urinal in a museum, people called it art, certainly not by some inherent quality it had. Surely there was more going on in Duchamp’s work, but I use it simply as an example of the complicated nature of what gets called “art.”
Artist Damien Hurst adhered 8,601 diamonds to a human skull as part of a show in 2007 in London (Sterling 1). In Denmark artist, Marco Evaristti placed a blender full of goldfish in a museum, allowing visitors to turn the switch on or continue browsing the museum (Clemens 1). Both artists inspired ire, fascination, and fame through these (and other) works, and they certainly have plentiful company in the avant-garde movement. On some level, perhaps even the most obvious and “first” level, these artists wanted viewers to know that art can be more than still paintings of fruit or giant sculptures or rows of photographs on a wall. Soaps then could also been seen as subverting the old-school artistic insistence on seeing “art” as something “special” or “important.” Soaps often give us two people chatting in a kitchen for an entire episode, or a woman telling her husband she feels suffocated in their relationship, or three people involved in a love triangle navigating their situation. These “banal” scenarios, then too, can be seen as art, that which subverts the canonical view of what “art” should be.
Many critically lauded television shows, such as Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey, contain elements of soap opera storytelling. Some may agree and say, “Yes, but they don’t contain the ‘bad’ elements of soaps” or “Yes, but they are ‘well-done’ and soaps are not.” And I would reply that there are no intrinsically “bad” elements of soaps, and many, many instances of what is generally considered “good” writing, acting, and production exist in the history of soaps. We as consumers of art should discard our preconceived notions, full of reified words and unfair stereotypes and judge art on its content, not snobbish, irrelevant assumptions. We should follow intellectuals, like Camille Paglia (a soap fan herself), who see soaps in a long continuum of great art, stretching back to the early Mesopotamian civilizations, to the Greco-Romans, to Ghiberti in Medieval Italy, to Emily Dickinson in the 19th century, and then to Irna Phillips (the grandmother of the soap genre) in the early 20th century.
Some may ask. ”Why should the “common” share cultural capital with the “exalted.” To this I say, that “high ” and “low ” are not among the valid distinctions to be considered among creative works. In the case of soaps, the viewer must look to skill in storytelling, character development, well-written dialogue, among other creative aspects, when determining their worth. We might also ask ourselves why, when Jann Martel writes a novel about a boy who lives on a boat with a tiger for a best friend it’s called “magical realism,” placed in the literature section of the book store and critics brand Martel a literary star, but when someone is put through a wood chipper and later comes back to life on a soap, the general public view’s it as “unrealistic,” foolish, and unworthy of attention, cherishing, or preservation
Part of TTIF’s mission then, is a reclaiming of the power to name what is art for some of those who have rarely had it—in this case, soap fans. The folk culture members that are soap fans may have had to carve out a niche culture, as it were, where there voices and opinions count, because their opinions on matters of taste were not welcome in the larger culture. Hopefully participation in TTIF will give soap fans as voice that the larger culture will hear.
Particularly, women have had a long history of being excluded from this powerful activity of deciding what is “art,” and soaps have a significant female audience (they also have a significant audience of gay men, but for whatever reason gay men have been allowed culturally-sanctioned positions as tastemakers and figuratively speaking, art curators). Also, soap fans often fall into a lower socioeconomic class than non-soap fans. Therefore TTIF seeks to appeal to and validate these marginalized voices, through simple wording, attractive and not intimidating graphics, and sometimes explicit statement of its willfully entering the arena of making decisions about what is valuable and worth saving in our culture.
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan
© Akbi Khan 2015