U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ebert Odds and Ends: Public Intellectuals, Art, and Canons

Just a few odds and ends left over from some of last week’s discussions of Roger Ebert.


A week ago Sunday, I wrote a post about Roger Ebert’s importance as a public intellectual. I was a bit surprised that, in comments, a couple folks questioned whether or not we should consider Ebert to be a public intellectual.  Don’t get me wrong. I was expecting my claim that Ebert was a significant public intellectual to be controversial and, perhaps, disputed. But it seems to me pretty irrefutable that he was a public intellectual.  I think what’s at issue here isn’t Roger Ebert, so much as what we mean by “public intellectual.” So let me be clear what I mean, minimally, by the term. Those who wish to dispute that Ebert is a public intellectual can tell me what they mean by it.  By “public intellectual” I mean someone whose vocation (or, in certain cases, major avocation) involves discussing ideas in the public sphere.[1]  In my usage, “public intellectual” is not, in and of itself, an honorific, nor a badge of quality. Pundits, even terrible ones, are public intellectuals. 


I thought Ray’s post on Ebert was fascinating. I found particularly interesting the way Ray positioned Ebert on the issue of film-as-art:

Were [Do the Right Thing and The Conversation] art? Did and does it matter? To me, the significance of Ebert’s career was the role he played in making those questions nearly irrelevant.

That sounds right to me.  It’s not that Ebert went out of his way to deny that film was art, but rather, as Ray suggests, that he was a noted non-participant in the fights over film-as-art that had dominated so much film criticism from the silent era through the 1960s.  Nor was Ebert alone in this. His post-art (if you’ll pardon the expression) criticism reflects, I think, a much broader change in the way in which we think and talk about culture…a change that goes beyond film criticism.

The issues that motivated essays like Clement Greenberg’s (pro-art) “Avant Garde and Kitsch” (1939) or Susan Sontag’s (anti-art) “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964) often seem distant to undergraduates when I teach these texts today.  But the once knock-down debates over high-brow, low-brow, and middle-brow culture haven’t been replaced by a callow cultural relativism (as some cultural conservatives have feared).  Indeed, my students often have fairly sophisticated ways of valuing certain cultural objects over others.  But the question “but is it art?” is simply not at issue.

Where I depart from Ray’s post (if I’m reading him correctly) is in the claim, made in passing, that questions of canonicity disappear with the fading away of the battles over film-as-art.  In fact, we live in a great age of pop-cultural canon construction.  Websites like The AV Club and podcasts like Filmspotting (which features a weekly Top 5 List) devote enormous energies to the construction of (often arcane) lists: 15 Notable David Bowie Cameos, Top 5 Turning Over a New Leaf Movies,  16 Onscreen Drug Trips that Don’t Go Over the Top, Top 5 Movie Pets, 8 Truly Scary PG-13 Horror Movies, Top 5 Bicycle Scenes, and so forth.  Such AV Club features as Inventory, Gateway to Geekery, and Primer are devoted to constructing different sorts of cultural canons.  One feature, the recently concluded New Cult Canon, even uses the word.  And each of these features attracts vigorous reader discussions.  In this sense, the canon, usually described as a top 5 (or top 10) list, is one of the central ways in which we talk about texts in contemporary culture. Such lists feature prominently in the Nick Hornby novel High Fidelity and the movie adapted from it, which changes the location from London to Chicago, but keeps the lists front and center.

Ebert was, himself, a producer of canonical lists, whether in his best-of-the-year lists, which he started producing in 1967 and continued through last year, or in his three books of essays on The Great Movies.  Unlike some other aspects of Ebert’s cultural output, there was nothing particularly innovative about either these lists or these books—though both became unusually influential because of Ebert’s prominence—but it’s telling that this representative post-art critic did not abandon the project of canon construction.

[1] Ever since our 2010 conference, which focused on intellectuals and their publics, I’ve been haunted by Robert Westbrook’s repeated insistence that the term “public intellectual” is redundant, that the noun “intellectual” itself means someone who discusses ideas in the public sphere.  Ultimately, I haven’t followed his bracing advice to both drop the word “public” from the phrase “public intellectual,” and to insist that our many scholarly friends who don’t have public voices are academics, but not intellectuals.  But clearly Westbrook’s argument made enough of an impression that I’m repeating it here.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As a writer, I always felt that words, as well as images, were Ebert’s home turf–and I’m stunned that anyone would object to calling such a thoughtful and humane man a “public intellectual.”

    Unless the title simply isn’t good enough somehow for his warmth.

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