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Sociology

An artistic tradition borne of tensions

Intellectual creations and the culture industry engage in dialogue through blows and kisses

DANIEL BUENOIn “The Lost Halo” from his collection Paris Spleen: little poems in prose, Baudelaire tells of a poet who, hastily skipping through a muddy street, allows his halo to drop from his head into the mire. But rather than retrieving the aureole, he confesses his relief to a passerby: “Now I can stroll about incognito, do mean things, launch into debauches, like ordinary mortals. So here I am, just like you, as you see.” So he who “sips the quintessence” and “drinks the ambrosia” now realizes that he must willingly leave his aura in the “dirt” in order to live the new times. As writes University of São Paulo  (USP) sociologist Sergio Miceli in an article published in Pesquisa FAPESP, “In 19th century Brazil, we already have the beginnings of a dialogue – brought about by a burgeoning press – between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures. After all, without commercial products like newspapers, the fruit of a rapidly-emerging culture industry, there would have been no place for figures such as Machado de Assis, Lima Barreto or João do Rio. Paradoxically, it was a movement within the ‘low’ culture that spurred the creation of ‘high’ literary works.”

According to the researcher, leaving the aura in the “dirt” and creating art through media that are not imbued with “ambrosia and quintessence” became characteristic of the development of Brazilian culture. “Our culture,” says Miceli, “is the result of this complex interaction of ‘intellectual’ and ‘elevated’ elements with the media of the culture industry. It is a relationship marked by tension: at times harmonious and at others openly hostile. This relationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture is typical of Brazil. In Argentina, for example, the culture industry weighed much less heavily and its influence took a long time to affect the society.”  To understand this dilemma from a novel perspective, the sociologist brought together a group of academics and initiated a research project titled Development of the intelligentsia and the culture industry in contemporary Brazil.  

“We understand,” says Miceli, “ that a genuinely critical history of Brazilian culture must show the links between strategic outflows of erudite cultural creativity and the expansion of dynamic sectors of the culture industry that are, in general, incorrectly viewed as mere redoubts for the vulgarization of intellectual creativity, entirely removed from the high culture.” Miceli likens the national culture to a two-way street: “We have intellectuals and artists forming new paths and idioms within their various media throughout each historical epoch. At the same time, transformations within the culture industry keep lending new attributes and meaning to the works of these creators.”  The project’s most innovative feature is the dialogue it stimulates about how the erudite culture and the culture industry interact, blending the interests of the intelligentsia and commercial media. According to Miceli, “Historically, our culture emerged from the inextricable bond between intellectual and artistic projects and the structural conditions that render these projects viable.”

Miceli’s group sought to break through the analytical barrier imposed between the popular and erudite cultures to underscore their periods of divergence and continuity, the constant struggle between defensive biases, the negotiations overseen by businesses and corporate leaders, and the development of language, ideas, standards, authors and their works. “Thus it  is possible,” says the sociologist, “to appreciate the situation of dialog and conflict these writers and artists faced, especially those subject to the circumstances of history and the conditioning factors of the media and the means by which their works were circulated and received.

DANIEL BUENOTo try to get an understanding of all of this, the research projects that, were gathered from an initial impression, had little relevance one with the other. This apparent incoherence, however, served to illuminate the subtle nature of the interactions:  the link between Lima Barreto and newspaper articles concerning the senseless criticism of the work of Paulo Coelho, and, beyond the transformations that occurred in the contemporary press, the advent of the regional novel, the divas of the São Paulo theater and, finally, the current issues that the “shantytown films” examine. “In each of these historic periods,” according to Miceli, “the creators of erudite culture relied on material that was formatted and delivered via the commercial media, much as the foundations and genres of the culture industry drew sustenance from the so-called high culture.”  It was one of the trajectories that began with the expansion of the press and illustrated magazines, was thrust ahead with the entrepreneurial surge in publishing, and culminated in the trend-setting developments in the theater, radio, television and cinema  “In these cycles, each transformation within the various media stimulated changes in the intellectual life of the nation, thereby creating between the creators and their patrons a bond that illuminated the substance of our culture.”

Fashions
Marking the project’s beginnings is the work of University of São Paulo (USP) historian and anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz on Lima Barreto: “The new journalistic medium changes the contours and forms of literature, and Lima Barreto is held up as an extraordinary example of this development. In Barreto, we find at once the erudite critic who opposed literary fashions and those that pandered to the popular culture, together with the writer who struggled to find his place in the world of letters,” says Schwarcz.  In this ambivalence lies all of the cultural tensions that marked this formative epoch.  “In the Brazil of that time,” Schwarcz adds, “what was popular and what was erudite had not been clearly established, and Lima Barreto is part of this context: as both creator and creature of his work.  He combined the moments, the space for transmission, thereby lending even greater ambiguity to these bonds.”

With the publishing boom of the 1930s and 1940s, the modernist movement emerged in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, introducing new themes with its advent. This publishing phenomenon was largely based on the sale of very viable products like the regional novel, which managed to reach newer and larger audiences. Most important were those novels whose authors and story-lines could be traced to regions – like the Northeast, or even the south – little known to most Brazilians, and penned by such writers as Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, and Érico Verissimo, among others. “Although Modernism was a phenomenon that typically emerged in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, its avant-garde principles could fully take hold only after the country’s other regions were incorporated. It was from ‘beyond’ the two metropolises the new truly came,” University of São Paulo (USP) sociologist Maria Arminda do Nascimento reminds us.  Reviled by elitists of the modernist movement like Carlos Drummond de Andrade, for whom Graciliano Ramos was a “fifth-rate writer,” or Oswald de Andrade, who referred to others as “northeastern cattle,” the northeastern writers were able to adapt to the culture industry’s new demands while at the same time, describe the social conditions of the time, and thereby question modernization through the lens of both literature and politics.

“The forces of modernization were insufficient to alter the social structure and overcome it, and they lacked the strength needed to adapt to the new dynamic. This tension gave rise to the social and regional novels of the decade of the thirties,” says Nascimento.  Furthermore, it was in this context and during the same period that artists became involved with the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), according to  sociologist Marcelo Ridenti of the University of Campinas (Unicamp). “It was a relationship that took deep root in our culture,” says Ridenti, “one that fashioned the language of a utopian dream of an alternative society that sought a viable political project that could overcome inequalities.” This relationship was very tenuous however: “Of course, it was not merely a militant movement that sought to transform knowledge into power. The interests of the party had to be heeded. But it would be unfair to say that it was merely manipulation of the intellectuals by the communist leadership. The relationship offered advantages to both,” Ridenti adds.

DANIEL BUENO“Equally subtle was the bond between the social sciences in São Paulo and the divas of the stage,” says Unicamp anthropologist Heloisa Pontes. According to the researcher, between 1940 and 1970 there were many links between the theater, the intelligentsia and the urban scene, represented by the figures of the Brazilian Comic Theater (TBC), Arena and Oficina. “The theater was the precursor. In the plays of Nelson Rodrigues, Guarnieri, and Jorge Andrade, among others. The stage presented Brazil in a way that the novel did not and that the social sciences would only achieve much later. This academic analysis, however, originated with a group of intellectuals, including Décio de Almeida Prado and Antonio Candido, who were active social critics prior to going to college.”

Pontes adds that it was the stage rather than the social sciences that served as a vehicle for the culture industry, where a dialog first began surrounding transformations that would put an end to the traditional agrarian order in Brazil and signaled the emergence of an urban-industrial society based on wealth generated by immigrant labor.  At the other extreme of the thematic as well as temporal spectrum was the phenomenon of cultural interaction repeated through the successes enjoyed by the author Paulo Coelho and the reviews to which he fell “victim.” “With him,” says University of São Paulo sociologist Fernando Pinheiro Filho, “the book becomes a highly-profitable commodity. Furthermore, as an author and international celebrity, he merges the frontiers of popular and erudite culture.   Coelho reveals the interplay of the erudite and the commercial, even through the criticism he receives regarding the degree of literary legitimacy he deserves.”  According to the researcher, the popular writer exemplifies the employment of many-faceted means of expression. “Having erudite origins, they are recycled through the commercial media, appropriated by the entertainment industry’s fictional productions, and then, oddly, converted to objects of intellectual reflection for academics.”  According to Pinheiro Filho, the great irony lies in the efforts of renowned critics to “unmask” Coelho. “The problem is that they try to achieve this through an inadequate intellectual device, which would be appropriate in the case of a Machado de Assis, but in this case has nothing to do with the author’s position or his literary aspirations.”

The same mistake can be found in the “intellectual” analyses of films that deal with violence in the shantytowns (favelas). As relates another USP sociologist, Esther Hamburger: “We ran the Beto Brant film, The Trespasser, along with the television series Antônia. The critics’ enthusiasm for Brant’s film was not shared by the community, where the people found that they were more accurately represented in Antônia. The audience of the outlying districts, then, viewed these films from the point of view of the residents themselves.  Rather than a criticism of the São Paulo elite, as the intellectuals viewed the film, the people of the favela saw in it yet another disparagement of their community, one that ignored the improvements that they had achieved.”

Newsbeats
The newspapers return to the project’s spotlight with São Paulo State University (Unesp) sociologist Alexandre Bergamo, who analyzes the press from the point of view of the “sons of beats.” According to Bergamo, “It’s like the younger generation, that of the 1980’s, the university graduates, who were hired by the older newsmen. The clash within this new product of our culture industry shows what changed in the newsroom during this period, especially with the reinvention of reporting and the news story, both now considered central to the concept of originality and how we view ourselves.”  The researcher notes the gradual erosion of the reporter’s status owing to growing rifts within the journalistic profession. “Journalism,” he explains, “before considered an ‘intellectual’ endeavor, is now defined in terms of its ‘technical’ function.” Bergamo adds that “intellectual” positions are increasingly assessed in terms of the authority and autonomy attained in academia far from the pressures and the jargon that, paradoxically, characterize the more bureaucratic and less-prestigious positions in journalism, thereby closing the cycle whose course began in the days of Lima Barreto. Baudelaire had it right: “In a place where death comes galloping from all directions, it seemed better to lose my badge than to get my bones broken.”

Project:
Development of the intelligentsia and the culture industry in contemporary Brazil (nº 2008/55377-3); Grant mechanism Thematic Project; Coordinator Sergio Miceli Pessoa de Barros – University of São Paulo; Investment R$ 549,453.60 (FAPESP)

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