Star Wars: Today's 'garbage' may be tomorrow's high art

If the "Star Wars" saga is "yesterday's garbage" as one scholar suggested in this newspaper recently, there would be no "Phantom Menace," today. "Popular culture" has become so denigrated that it is equated with a negative force. But let's remember that in American culture during the first half of the 19th century, Shakespeare and opera were popular culture. Many spectators would not only memorize Shakespeare, but some were such fans that they'd follow along in script books making sure the performers were saying the lines correctly, word for word.

This kind of participatory spectatorship evaporated as "high art" was separated from the masses in the second half of the 1800s. Auditoriums were darkened, and citizens were to experience "art" as they would a church service - with reverent awe awakening an "ignorant" mind with intellectual refinery. Under this argument, those who participated in popular culture became crass consumers, the victims of capitalist greed. In the 20th century, much of participatory culture was no longer to be found in the realms of high art. Instead, it branched off into popular forms of music, novels, cinema, TV, and even games and sports.

The fans who dress up in costumes as they wait in line to see the next "Star Wars" film are, in effect, building micro-communities, where they share, laugh, and coexist in a "family." Schisms of race, class, and gender drop away as fans express the ideals "high art" supposedly instills. But since the higher art forms have become things normally tucked away in such non-participatory sites as museums and proscenium theaters, the attendant community-building process doesn't happen too much - at least not for the majority of the populace.

On the other hand, the best science fiction - from the novels of Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke to the classic "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5" television series - evokes a sense of otherworldly wonder while at the same time presenting readers and viewers with the highest ideals of humanity.

"Star Wars" attempts to teach us how redemption from evil is possible - where Darth Vader renounces the dark side and becomes, once again, Luke's father, Anakin Skywalker - the adult of the boy we see in the new "Star Wars" installment, presented in a scale rivaling that of Wagner.

By waiting in line and wearing the costumes, fans are attempting to relive such cathartic emotions experienced when viewing the original films 16 to 22 years ago. In fact, today's "garbage" (popular culture) may become tomorrow's high art. It worked for Bill Shakespeare. Will it work for George Lucas?

*Kurt Lancaster is a performance studies scholar who has taught at New York University. He wrote 'Warlocks and Warpdrive: Contemporary Fantasy Entertainments with Interactive and Virtual Environments,' (McFarland, 1999).

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