Sunday, April 11, 2004

John Holbo at Crooked Timber ridicules as "wrong on both counts" Anne Applebaum's lament that "Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it [and] High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it." The comments responding to his posting are generally divided between those who wholeheartedly agree with him and those who agree with Applebaum's criticism of popular culture, while defending high culture.

I'm hardly surprised that Crooked Timber's relatively intellectual members and audience share a common sympathy for "high culture", and are inclined to rise to its defense while lambasting popular culture. But it seems utterly obvious to me that they have everything entirely backwards. Popular culture doesn't "hate" high culture, but rather alternates between ignoring it and paying homage to it. The slighting references to it in pop-culture contexts, cited indignantly by Crooked Timberites, are only noticeable to someone looking very hard for them; more typical are ostentatious references to familiar classics, intended to lend an aura of dignity to otherwise low-to-middlebrow fare. Meanwhile, as I pointed out some time ago, art forms such as poetry separate themselves so much from their popular equivalents--such as hiphop--as to refuse even to consider themselves part of the same art form, for fear of being recognized as pitifully irrelevant by comparison.

The fact that modern leftists tend to be allies of high culture is somewhat ironic, for the very notion of "high art", which is not much more than a hundred years old, is largely a reactionary upper-class response to the rise of the middle class during the industrial revolution, and its undermining of the aristocracy's traditional patronage-based control over culture. Once old money could no longer outbid the masses for the allegiances of artists, it became necessary to justify the former's tastemakership some other way--and Matthew Arnold helpfully provided it. The nineteenth-century left, for their part, had little use for his snobbish depiction of art as moral instructor with which to civilize the Philistines (read: commoners), and expected artists to serve the workingman humbly alongside all the other bourgeois parasites living off his labors.

It was another movement, bohemianism, that turned out to be the savior of "high art", as it careened towards irrelevancy along with the vanishing ruling class it served. The original Bohemians rejected the new cultural dominance of the mass market, and rightly observed that the surplus wealth of a modern economy offered an alternative: idiosyncratic art generated for a small audience. While it couldn't compete with mass-appeal art, it could still support a single artist willing to sacrifice comfort for freedom.

From the perspective of the recently-dethroned patrons of high art, however, the Bohemians' oevre displayed certain very attractive qualities: it was smaller-scale, harder to find, and usually more difficult to appreciate than the mass-market kind. It thus offered a cultural playing field on which the leisure class, simply by applying its reserves of spare time, could claim to outperform the average consumer of popular art. And while money was declining as a definer of class, education, socialization and leisure became more central to elite identity. The upper classes soon adopted the avant-garde art of the Bohemians and their successors as their new symbol of cultural superiority, replacing Arnold's beloved instructive classics.

Today, most defenders of "high art" think nothing of lumping the reams of ephemeral drivel produced by modernist poets, avant-garde composers, "conceptual artists" and unreadable authors together with the likes of Shakespeare, Mozart or Rembrandt. In fact, they share nothing, apart from a common rival: popular culture, which threatens to obscure the earlier greats and obliterate the modern mediocrities entirely.

Indeed, the high-popular distinction would not even have been recognized by the pantheon of classic heroes, most of whom catered unembarrassedly to popular audiences. (The latter's tastes were, in practice, not always much inferior to those of the wealthiest patrons.) Rather, the current practice of elevating certain types of art to an exalted plane is more a product of a century's worth of class warfare than of any serious aesthetic consideration.

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