"As John Gardner said in his book ON MORAL FICTION, there is room in the world for trivial art, but it is only because high art exists and is recognized and is worshiped and honored that the world is safe for triviality."-- Harlan Ellison,"The Harlan Ellison Interview," TCJ #53 (1980).
As I've not read the Gardner book in many years, I can't say if Ellison has fairly summarized that author. I do seem to remember thinking that Gardner didn't offer much logical proof for his artistic judgments.
Judgment is a key factor here. Ellison is certainly not the person one would go to-- today or in 1980-- for a reflective analysis as to what makes one work good and another bad. What's interesting about this 1980 quote is that so little has changed after 30 years. To this day, would-be critics in any medium rail against trivial works as if they were direct threats to the survival of the "good stuff." Few critics stop to ask whether or not the same audience that wants to lose itself in what Ellison chooses to call "shit" are likely to ever be attracted to what any elitist, be it Ellison or someone else, considers to be "high art."
One irony of Ellison's excoriation is that, in contrast to his interviewer Gary Groth, the author seems to cherish his memories of "trivial art." On one hand he sneers at mainstream comics for putting bad work out there just to fill pages and meet deadlines. Yet he speaks of his passion for the character of The Shadow, which was certainly framed by the same pulp-adventure aesthetic one sees in comic books. I doubt that I've read as many of the Shadow's adventures as Ellison, but what I have read strikes me as not only trivial art, but bad trivial art. The Shadow is IMO a classic character, but most of the actual pulp adventures strike me as dull mysteries that are just barely redeemed by the hero's supernal presence.
Later, following Howard Chaykin's less than reverential treatment of the Shadow for a 1986 DC Comics limited series, Ellison was irate with the artist for profaning the character. Suddenly, trivial art was important, because it was something Ellison liked. In a radio show for HOUR 25, Ellison commented, "At what point do we say, 'You're mucking with our myths?'"
It may be that for Ellison, calling the Shadow a myth is no more than empty rhetoric. Certainly it would seem to contradict his statement above. If trivial art is only redeemed by the existence of high art, then how can any example of trivial art stand on its own enough to be a "myth?"
In my Jungian-Campbellian view, of course, the Shadow is a myth not simply because I like it; it's a myth because it incorporates dimensions of Campbell's four functions: the psychological, the sociological, the cosmological and the metaphysical. The depth with which a pulp-character comments on these aspects of life may be much more limited than that of whatever Harlan Ellison deems high art-- which, going on the TCJ interview, would seem to include Michael Moorcock-- an inclusion that might have raised the eyebrows of John Gardner. But the salient fact is that even "trivial art:" can sometimes incorporate serious content, just as some "high art" is capable of moments of extreme triviality. This would include petty roman à clef attacks on one's real-life enemies, for example-- which just might appear in some of the works of-- Harlan Ellison.
Number 2118: “Hot dawg! Ain’t I nifty?”
2 hours ago