Elite is Sweet
April 23, 2003 2:43 PM   Subscribe

In defense of elitism. For smart people only.
posted by adrober (65 comments total)
 
Elitism is typically its own defense.
posted by FormlessOne at 2:48 PM on April 23, 2003


I liked Starship Troopers.
posted by hammurderer at 2:54 PM on April 23, 2003


I love it. However, I question this "The democratic impulse is at odds with the idea of an elite; and, at least from the time that Woodrow Wilson decided to make the world safe for democracy, the charge of elitism has been an all-purpose tool of invective" Rather than passing any judgment, I'd like to hear what other people think. It is an easy statement for most of us who cringe at rap, Brittany Spears, and President Bush, to agree with, but isn't it an oversimplification?
posted by Grod at 2:59 PM on April 23, 2003


Surely a real elitist would have noticed that the movie Starship Troopers was a send-up of both the novel and gung-ho WWII films? I mean, Doogie Houser in a Gestapo trenchcoat torturing the enemy? How much more obvious could you make it?
posted by Armitage Shanks at 3:05 PM on April 23, 2003


When the oddball uncle in the "Spy Kids 2" DVD supplemental material advises the young heroine that she can go out on stage and dance like "Britney Lopez," it's clear that the mass-culture factory is perfectly aware of the artificial and mediocre nature of its product.

Any would-be elite columnist who alludes to "'Spy Kids 2' DVD supplemental material" obviously has the mental acuity of a particularly challenged baboon, and I will not trouble myself to bandy words with or about them.

Spy Kids 1. That was the good one.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:18 PM on April 23, 2003


Woo, boy, is that a circle jerk of self-righteousness.
posted by Katemonkey at 3:20 PM on April 23, 2003


That is one long-ass URL!
posted by jazon at 3:34 PM on April 23, 2003


We're not pretentious, we really are better than you.
posted by nyxxxx at 3:38 PM on April 23, 2003


Kafkaesque, you make me laugh.
posted by adrober at 3:47 PM on April 23, 2003


Starship Troopers? How about excoriating an NPR program for being a "pornographic farce"? Sarah Miller is still just part of the culturally deluded rabble in the Curtis White brand of elitism.
posted by eddydamascene at 4:12 PM on April 23, 2003


goddammit, why do they always have to attack hiphop?

well, it must be because its all about gunz, bitchez, and hoez, right?

give me a break.
posted by joedan at 4:34 PM on April 23, 2003


The reason people don't like the "elite" is the because people don't like seeing people as being better than them. Noboby likes the smart-ass who knows everything about a subject and lets everyboby know it. That's what the word "elite" has become to mean today.
posted by mr. man at 4:51 PM on April 23, 2003


ahh! "come to mean today!"
posted by mr. man at 4:53 PM on April 23, 2003


once you develop a taste for the good stuff, whether in art, music, literature or cognac, it's hard to go back.. Or more realistically, once you immerse yourself in a particular cultural world-view (or should that be "Weltanschauung"), then it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate others points of view.

I'd also like to point out that her argument of High-Art=Elitism=An Informed View in no way proves that High-Art =An Informed View. You can be Elitist about which was the best series of Star Trek, and you can be informed enough to back up your opinion, but it doesn't mean I'm not going to take the piss.
posted by seanyboy at 5:00 PM on April 23, 2003


The downside of being better than everyone else is that people tend to assume you're pretentious.
posted by krunk at 5:02 PM on April 23, 2003


For a slightly more confused look at this, there's always Bel Littlejohn on culture.
posted by seanyboy at 5:13 PM on April 23, 2003


The downside of being pretentious is that you tend to assume you're better than everyone else.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 5:27 PM on April 23, 2003


Robert Hughes said it best in "Culture of Complaint":
Democracy's task in the field of art is to make the world safe for elitism. Not an elitism based on race or money or social position, but on skill and imagination. The embodiment of high ability and intense vision is the only thing that makes art popular. Basically, it's why the Rijksmuseum is full of people and the remedial art-basements of Amsterdam are not. The greatest popular spectacles in America are elitist to the core: football games, baseball games, basketball, professional tennis.
People who know what they're about are worth paying attention to. If that's elitism, then we are all elitists. (Pace Bush voters.)

It should be mentioned that technology is increasingly able to substitute for quality and skill, at least amongst the not-particularly-fussy: I've heard that Britney Spears doesn't sound anything like her recordings when she sings live -- although they can process her a bit through the sound board, it's a lot better with the amount of post-production they can do in a recording studio.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:28 PM on April 23, 2003


Well, OK...but this writer equates elitism with love of classical music. Most of us elitists are popcult elitists. And we think we're better than those oldcult fuddyduddy elitists. Which makes us metaelitists!!
posted by kozad at 6:04 PM on April 23, 2003


Well, OK...but this writer equates elitism with love of classical music.

Actually, not quite (I saw Duke Ellington float by). As arguments for elitism go, this one was relatively ecumenical: it was less about defining X genre as suitable for consumption only by "elites," and more about discriminating the best in all things, including those things normally denigrated by true High Culture freaks--TV, the movies, science fiction. It's not clear, for example, if the writer would sneer at a rap artist who decided to adapt Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" (um, yes, I concede that that's an unlikely event). Really, the essay seemed to be primarily an attack on IMHOitis, or the sort of "how dare you criticize a brilliant musical like Urban Cowboy!" thing you see on theater chatboards. Or, perhaps, the often violent (rhetorically speaking) responses to critics' reviews of, say, Andrea Bocelli or David Helfgott.

*sneaks off to Elitists Anonymous meeting*
posted by thomas j wise at 6:29 PM on April 23, 2003


Ah, pretentiousness (or is it pretense? I forget), is not about assumed superiority, it's about feigned superiority. Lest we forget. True elitism is about assumed superiority. After 5 glass of a nice 2000 Pauillac, it's all so clear to me now.
posted by psmealey at 6:59 PM on April 23, 2003


what, no mention of The Real Cancun? hogwash!
posted by poopy at 7:03 PM on April 23, 2003


kozad: metaelitists

That is just a pretty word.
posted by quin at 7:05 PM on April 23, 2003


Yeah, thomas, Duke "floated by," but I still think the article reeked of upper/upper middle class elitism, where literacy in classical music is assumed.

Most of us Web elitists are more eclectic than this author. (That said, I grew up in St. Louis and went to the symphony regularly. My grandparents were friends with Wm. Burroughs' parents. But that was a long time ago.)
posted by kozad at 7:06 PM on April 23, 2003


It sucks being called a snob, but what's worse is going through your entire life without exercising the innate ability to choose between what is good and what is mediocre. Listening to shitty music and reading awful books is like going out to eat and filling up on bread. Every day.

Then again, what do I care? It's sad that most people choose to distinguish between a given two things on the basis of popularity rather than value, but it's sad for them, not me. No skin off my nuts.
posted by Hildago at 7:08 PM on April 23, 2003


It's sad that most people choose to distinguish between a given two things on the basis of popularity rather than value, but it's sad for them, not me.

no, actually, it's not sad for them. everyone has their own perspective and while it might look like a bad choice from your own view, others might disagree.
posted by poopy at 7:20 PM on April 23, 2003


I was thinking about that, poopy, but I wondered why 90% of the same stuff seems to satisfy 90% of people, unless it wasn't (as you say) a subjective decision based on perspective, but a measurement of something arbitrary and observable, like popularity. I honestly think most people just don't care whether something is good or not.. above a certain minimum standard, anyway.
posted by Hildago at 7:25 PM on April 23, 2003


I guess I should say this: you are pointing out that one person's trash is another person's treasure. Ok, that's true, but I suspect that the problem isn't that people apply different esthetic standards, but that they don't apply any at all. While there's no single definition of what's good and what's bad, I suspect there are plenty of adequate ones, and any of them would agree that many of the same things are good and bad.

It's like how nobody can decide what a perfect definition of "art" is, but any definition you'd want to say is acceptable would be able to decide that the Mona Lisa is art, and the oscillating fan on my desk isn't.
posted by Hildago at 7:32 PM on April 23, 2003


It would depend on who desiqned the fan.
posted by nyxxxx at 7:44 PM on April 23, 2003


Hildago... something has to be voted more popular, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's rubbish. frankly, i'm getting sick of the anti-pop vibe that's been so prevalent with the so-called cultural elite over the past decade(s)... i blame the hair-bands :).

on preview:

It's like how nobody can decide what a perfect definition of "art" is, but any definition you'd want to say is acceptable would be able to decide that the Mona Lisa is art, and the oscillating fan on my desk isn't.

duchamp might disagree :)

also (and this isn't a jab at you Hildago): it's interesting to see that the same people who claim to champion the cause of the 'common man/woman' are the first to belittle them.
posted by poopy at 7:45 PM on April 23, 2003


Though sometimes it seems that the ones who defend most vigourously against criticizing the tastes and opinions of the masses can be so adept at manipulating them for their own ends. (see AM talk radio hosts)
posted by Space Coyote at 8:22 PM on April 23, 2003


I think we are all elitists in our different arenas: wherever our passions are, we tend to accelerate our tastes and then scorn those who don't meet our elevated standards. This holds true in movies, sports, politics, food...

The problem, I think, is walking the tightrope between a carefully sculpted original vision and accessibility to the masses. If you alienate the masses, no one will see your work... if you pander to the masses, your work won't be as good. That's why I think popular artists--- the ones who are both accessible AND accomplished--- are our most important (though not necessarily our best).

I think it should also be noted that while elitists see others as missing out on great things (as stated in some above comments), elitists miss out on being part of the larger communities that surround them. So, for example, when I go home on Spring Break and my mom and entire family want to see "Bringing Down The House" and I want to see "Talk To Her" who ends up feeling alienated? Lil ole me.

And the more refined we get--- the more we enjoy nicer foods, better films, greater books--- the more out of touch we get with our culture. The harder it is for us to eat at Chilis, watch Adam Sandler movies and read Michael Crichton books. What's the benefit? We---(or at least we tell ourselves)---experience the world more profoundly. The cost? We mostly do it alone.
posted by adrober at 8:30 PM on April 23, 2003


it's interesting to see that the same people who claim to champion the cause of the 'common man/woman' are the first to belittle them

Strangely enough, traditional Marxists--including Marx--are often firmly elitist. My father owns a terrific early-20th c. Latin textbook by a real hardcore British Marxist; in the introduction, the author declares that his book's purpose is to liberate the working classes through classical literature. No cultural relativism there.

In any event, it's not just "feeling bad about your own tastes" that seems to be at issue among self-proclaimed non-elitists; after all, there's a strand of elitist aesthetics that really promotes the fear of appearing tasteless in the guise of "having taste." Many people just don't like professional critics because they "hurt the artist's feelings," or "don't think about putting the poor actors out of work," etc., etc., etc. Elitists who aren't professional critics tend to provoke the same sentimental response, I think.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:35 PM on April 23, 2003


Hildago... something has to be voted more popular, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's rubbish.

No, certainly not, we can agree on that. But it's rare enough to make me think it could just be a coincidence, or the infamous exception that proves the rule.

duchamp might disagree

I don't think so, because Duchamp was more of an elitist than anyone in this thread; he thought things were art because they were put in artistic context by an artist. In other words, art is whatever he does. My fan is definitely not art. It's not even the best fan...

also (and this isn't a jab at you Hildago): it's interesting to see that the same people who claim to champion the cause of the 'common man/woman' are the first to belittle them.

No slight taken, especially since I don't claim to champion the common man/woman. I am definitely among the first to belittle them, though, that's for sure!
posted by Hildago at 8:46 PM on April 23, 2003


I think it should also be noted that while elitists see others as missing out on great things (as stated in some above comments), elitists miss out on being part of the larger communities that surround them.

This is the consumer side of what you were talking about in the previous paragraph, isn't it? I agree. You have to accept, for instance, that you'll never hear your favorite album playing in someone else's car. Still, better to have heard it alone than not at all, I think.
posted by Hildago at 8:51 PM on April 23, 2003


MetaFilter: The Reader's Digest of MetaElitism
posted by VulcanMike at 9:00 PM on April 23, 2003


The biggest elitist I can think of right now is the author of this nonsense. She does not seem to grasp that "elitism" is not something people are accused of for being "smart." It's like this was written by a manic-depressive high school honors student.
On the other hand, a few hours invested in understanding what one is to see or hear at a performance can yield rewarding results. It can bring insights into why "High Noon" is an outstanding example of cinematography, whereas "Starship Troopers" is a scandalous waste of perfectly good celluloid (and of a pretty good juvenile science-fiction novel). An understanding of what was in Mozart's mind when he wrote "Die Zauberflote" - and why it is better than Marschner's "Der Vampyr" - might begin to dawn.
So she's an expert in both classical music and cinematography? She must be a ding-dang genius! Give me a fucking break. While I have some opinions about cinematography myself, and I do know a little about William Vaughns (make that William De Vaughn), I'm not about to go around telling people I'm a goddamned expert.

She's a classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She's not the personal music advisor for the Pope. She's not the frickin' world's leading expert in classical music. She's just some hack, making like $1.50 a word. It's not that she "gives a damn" that bothers people; it's her misguided elitist attitude.

I would be angry, but I can't believe she's being completely serious. She has to either be making fun of herself, or playing "classical music heel" for more readers.
posted by son_of_minya at 9:44 PM on April 23, 2003


She's not the personal music advisor for the Pope.

He probably likes Polish folk music, anyway.
posted by nyxxxx at 9:48 PM on April 23, 2003


The author of this isn't an elitist- just an asshole.

Note: Since the fuck when did having pretentious kitchen appliances have anything to do with being cultured? I know nerdy, college professor-types that are probably a billion times more cultured than this hack who have ancient, crummy appliances...
posted by drstrangelove at 1:34 AM on April 24, 2003


I thought this high/low culture argument had been settled a long time ago. The great thing about our generation is that we took high and low culture and put it all on the same level. When I was a child in the seventies all the 'serious' newspapers refused to even discuss pop music and popular cinema. Now they run articles about the cultural implications of Pop Idol alongside discussions about the operatic version of the Handmaid's Tale.

It dawned on them some time in the eighties that their readership - who they thought was the so-called cultural elite - was listening to rock and pop, not classical, watching more than nature documentaries on TV and going to see the latest blockbuster as well as the latest art-house film and was refusing to apologise for the fact. As it should be. I like Andrew Lloyd-Webber. I also like Puccini. I can't stand Wagner. Don't even get me started on jazz.

You like what you like. Take what you can use, leave the rest.
posted by Summer at 3:11 AM on April 24, 2003


There's a fundamental difference between being highly selective and a genuine elitist. Apparently, Ms. Miller doesn't understand that elitism involves sneering down at the masses, Ortega y Gassett style, berating or ignoring them for their artistic, sociological or cultural tastes. It involves going all the way and stating, without apology, that some people are better than others, that the general populace is incorrigible, and that they are naturally stupid and incapable of understanding or appreciating Celine or Telemann.

This isn't so much elitism, as it is a easily dismissable screed written by a bitter critic trying to drum up controversy, while failing to understand what her thesis actually entails.

"Obscenity-riddled recitations, imposed over rhythm tracks, are reckoned to be music."

And the bitch is prudish to boot.
posted by ed at 10:18 AM on April 24, 2003


From the article -
"Those who shy away from defending their tastes with anything remotely approaching rigorous intellectual argument, who are secretly afraid that their preferred entertainment is the equivalent of "Mr. Ed" or "Battlestar Galactica," can simply call the better stuff "elitist" and be done with it."

This would have more substance if the writer was presenting anything remotely approaching intellectual argument in favor of the art that she favors. Instead, she does some name calling, tosses out some sneering insults, and takes as a given that stuff she likes is inherently superior. Of course, presenting an intellectual argument regariding classical music vs. hip-hop would be a lot more work. She'd have to learn enough about hip-hop to understand its traditions, cultural history, musical techniques, leading practitioners, and the fundamental musical meaning of the form. Then she'd have to find a common language of artistic concepts between the genres that would allow her to intelligibly compare and contrast the music of say, J.S. Bach and Outkast.

If she's not willing to put forth the work, then she may be an elitist, but she's not among the elite.
posted by tdismukes at 11:47 AM on April 24, 2003


Doggerel-ridden ditties with tunes reminiscent of TV-show themes, their theology borrowed from the world of pop psychology, are to be given the same respect as the great music of Bach, the Wesleys and Vaughn Williams, because "some people like it."

music the majority likes=crap
music the majority doesn't like=art

Good. Got it. I like my world nice and simple. She does go overboard denigrating popular music for the sole sin of being, well, popular. Which perhaps begs the question - what would her opinion have been had she lived during Mozart's time when classical music=popular music?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:09 PM on April 24, 2003


Popular artists:

Charles Dickens: On the East Coast harbors, Americans lined up waiting for the ships to arrive for the next installments from Britain.

Charles Aznavour: He sold more than 100 million records while transforming the chanson and starring in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.

Pablo Picasso: His popularity surged despite cubism and a standoffish personality.

Allen Ginsberg/Jack Kerouac: They sold millions of books while changing the face of prose.

Sarah Bryan Miller: Isn't popular outside of St. Louis, hasn't accomplished one millionth of what any of the above has. Of course, the selective "elitist" thing to do would be to ignore Miller's article altogether.
posted by ed at 1:04 PM on April 24, 2003


Hey gang--- I actually forwarded the link to this conversation to the author (before it turned nasty) and she just wrote me the following e-mail:

"Well, thanks for the link, I guess. I think most of the hostility comes
down to the already observed point about some people perceiving any
criticism of their tastes (however undeveloped those tastes may be) as an
attack on them personally, and their all-important self-esteem. Sorry,
kids!
As for the unfortunate who called me "prudish" because I don't enjoy
misogyny, obscenity and invitations to violence all wrapped up with a
simplistic, mind-rotting rhythm beat -- gosh, I guess I'll just have to
live with that. But it's too bad that he had to descend to misogyny himself
in describing me.
Oh, and the Pope has rather wide-ranging tastes in music, but, from what
I understand, prefers classical. But he's a close friend of the Polish
composer Krystof Penderecki, who writes some fairly edgy stuff.
I enjoyed your comments, at least. Thanks for writing!

sbm"
posted by adrober at 1:59 PM on April 24, 2003


Tony Blair, Michael Savage, Norman Mailer, Joan Collins, and now Sarah Bryan Miller. All bitches in my book. Let the record show that I'm equal opportuity on this point.
posted by ed at 3:25 PM on April 24, 2003


I think this article exemplifies exactly what's wrong with elitism, which is its bias in favor of the past. Most people/genres that are considered elitist now were once considered outrageous, scandalous and Definitely Not Art. Jazz, which now holds a thoroughly elitist place in music, was once considered as garish as rap is today. People during a certain period of ancient Greece were dismayed that no more great literature could possibly be produced since the days of Homer were behind them.

I'm all for being informed or expert, but to me there's a lot of really interesting stuff going on right now that creates its own category which cannot be dismissed just because it's not Bach, or Shakespeare, or da Vinci.
posted by dagnyscott at 3:28 PM on April 24, 2003


Hopelessly late comment because poster wants to be part of the cool crowd. Mission Failed.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:22 PM on April 24, 2003


to me there's a lot of really interesting stuff going on right now that creates its own category which cannot be dismissed just because it's not Bach, or Shakespeare, or da Vinci.

Ok, think of who those people doing the really interesting stuff are, and tell me if they're getting the recognition they deserve, compared to whoever is on the top of the charts right now.

If anybody is saying that nothing good has ever been created since Bach, Shakespeare or Da Vinci, they are stupid. I don't think that's what anyone is saying though. The idea is that the majority of people usually fail to recognize the best of what is being produced at the time, exalting instead a vastly inferior product. Why is this such a controversial proposition?
posted by Hildago at 7:36 PM on April 24, 2003


The idea is that the majority of people usually fail to recognize the best of what is being produced at the time, exalting instead a vastly inferior product. Why is this such a controversial proposition?

It isn't controversial at all as long the referents are all merely empty placeholders such as "the best of what is being produced at the time" and "vastly inferior product". The controversy is when you actually put something in the position of the placeholders.

The other issue I have with your statement is that there is a big assumption that people out there actually care. Most people I know don't exalt any cultural product.
posted by srboisvert at 9:18 PM on April 24, 2003


There's a fundamental difference between being highly selective and a genuine elitist.

Exactly ed, and thank god. elitism is the idea that the masses are not capable of appreciating the "finer" things in life. Forget matters of taste. Even if us "educated folk" sat them down and spoon-fed Bach and Milton and Plato, they'd still prefer 50 cent with their Miller Genuine Drafts.

Which is all to beg the question: Why is it that they prefer these things? Which Hildago has determinedly attempted to discuss.

I think it's a matter of a "what you're into right now" type of thing. As people become interested in something, their knowledge level, their "elitist" tendencies, increase. Some people simply live their whole lives without ever getting turned on by Bach, so what?

And Starship Troopers is a classic, btw.
posted by cohappy at 9:18 PM on April 24, 2003


I dunno. I love all sorts of music, including some pretty low-brow stuff, but I really see the great classical music as on sort of a different aesthetic level than other forms of music, simply because the theoretical underpinnings of it are so complex. Functional harmony is monsterously complicated which turns composing into a highly intellectual endevour. I mean, it took Brahms like 20 years to write one symphony. All the rules of harmony (and all the clever ways to break them) create the opportunity for structural complexity that is just not available in other forms of music with less advanced theoretical canons. If you sit down and study pieces like the Bach fugues or Wagner's major operas, the sheer genius of it is just kind of awe inspiring. The result of all this complexity, is that for an informed listener, the depth with which it is possible to appreciate classical music is far greater than with other forms of music. Of course, you have to have trained ears and at least a basic understanding of harmony, rhythm, and musical forms to truly appreciate what is happening.

Now I'm not saying that rappers or folk singers or whoever don't have to be very skilled at their craft as well, or that they don't produce some great music. But I just can't see it as comparable to the great classical masters. It's sort of like trying to compare Hamlet to Green Eggs and Ham (which I love, BTW). One can concede that both are really well done--brilliant even--and still view Hamlet somewhat objectively as the more valuable contribution to our culture.
posted by boltman at 10:48 PM on April 24, 2003 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but see, boltman, this is exactly where the whole argument begins that classical music isn't really music at all, but some guy in a powdery wig intellectually jerking off with the aid of an orchestra. Yeah, sure, I appreciate that the composer took twenty years to figure out note such and such for the umpteenth measure of his symphony, and that each player in the orchestra has sacrificed the greater portion of their life and sanity to produce that not correctly... But when I've gone to classical performances in the past, and having dealt a bit with the people in such musical circles, it really starts to sound like they're more concerned with these trappings - the intellectual creation process and herculean players - rather than any appreciation for the music itself. And we see a real elitism spring up here, because you have to dress and act properly to give these performers the respect they deserve, which neccesarily excludes the guy who can't pay $50 for his seat and has never owned a suit in his life. There are few classical composers, I think, whose work is able to stand on its own, which is to say that if you are buying into classical music on the whole, you are to some extent buying into the trappings that support the music. Now, I'm not saying that all classical music is a hierarchical tool of the patriarchy (in so many words), but only that the trend is at least as common as the mysogonistic and overly violent rapper. Furthermore, you can make a good argument that certain classical movements (Baroque springs to mind) were like the House Techno of their respective centuries...

Of course, we can see this product-trappings system going on in any genre of music, and particularly in hip-hop there seems to be a lifestyle being pushed just as heavily as the music. (See the mighty KRS on the art of BEING hiphop.) I've personally always found the elitism that comes with classical music (from the knowledge of a labyrinthine variety of composers to the regular attendance of concerts) to be kinda scary, quite a bit moreso than the NWA. But that is, after all, just my humble opinion...

And this is probably exactly where our article is coming from: someone who has bought into the night at the opera, who believes in giving these musicians the respect they have earned. Classical music is an extremely Modern (as opposed to post-) and Western production, coming out of a time when hierarchies were running the day full tilt; I think this rubs off a bit on our author.

And any classical music fans trolling about, feel free to tear the shit out of those generalizations; I'd like to be able to form a deeper view of the subject.

"while Duke Ellington would be denigrated by rappers who couldn't pick out a simple melody"

And the Duke would certainly tear down the rappers, though he probably couldn't aspire to be half the rhymah that we hear in the Dre...

I think, at heart, the article is really an argument for the Modern hierarchical system over the postmodern rally against those hierarchies. The modern artist wouldn't be hot on a new Rembrandt because, well, Rembrandt's work has really lost relevance over the years; his particular borders were pushed over a century ago. The modern artist isn't inferior to Rembrandt because he can't prepare a canvas, he's probably just working on something else entirely, like xhtml-coded, environmentally sensitive installation art. She gets so wrapped up in her hierarchies that she's likely to miss when something amazing comes along in an 'inferior' cultural category.

Well, any further writing would probably just expand on this point, but it's already getting bloody long for being this late in the thread....
posted by kaibutsu at 12:08 AM on April 25, 2003


well put kaibutsu.
posted by joedan at 1:10 AM on April 25, 2003


not music at all?! That seems to be a bit hyperbolic. The "intellectual creation process" and "herculian players" are very much a part of what you ultimately hear, so it strikes me as odd to argue that to admire them is somehow a "trapping." Sure, there are elements of large-scale classical forms that are more or less inaudible even to educated people with very good ears, but the vast majority of it really can be geniunely heard and appreciated if you take the time and effort to get educated about the music. And there are lots of people (mostly musicians and people with musical backgrounds I suspect) that aren't into the other "trappings" of classical music at all but just geniunely love the music. I myself can't afford to go to the big concerts very often, but I can still listen to CDs and still go to the many free or low-cost events that anyone that lives in a decent sized city can find if they look hard enough.

In the 20th century, classical music did take a kind of alienating turn, where it largely ceased to care whether anybody outside the composer could actually hear and appreciate the musical structure of the pieces. But a more PoMo aesthetic has taken hold now, and the pieces being composed are becoming more accessible to audiences.

Finally, re: your coment on Barque music, those guys basically invented the musical language (functional harmony) that everyone in the Western world intuitively understands, because we are all raised hearing it every day. Any music you ever listen to you are hearing through the lens of functional harmony, which is deeply imbeded in all of our brains--thanks to the Baroque composers. Plus, Bach is probably the most important musical figure in the history of Western civilization.
posted by boltman at 1:16 AM on April 25, 2003


One other quick point. Virtuosity, I would argue, is much less discussed in classical music than it is in jazz or in rock (and I'm guessing hip-hop, although I might be wrong about that). True, it may be less discussed because it's just expected in all the players. But what really wins you points as a classical musician is musicality--the ability to interpret the piece in a compelling and holistic way. Witness the endless debates over the best performance of the Goldberg Variations or the Cello Suites or the Beethoven Violin Concerto for examples. That musicality is so prized among classical players suggests to me that classical music fans are really listening to and appreicating the music and not simply in it for the status or to feel superior.
posted by boltman at 1:31 AM on April 25, 2003


Thanks, Boltman, for a couple starting points for further reading.

The "intellectual creation process" and "herculian players" are very much a part of what you ultimately hear, so it strikes me as odd to argue that to admire them is somehow a "trapping."

hmm.... I think you'll agree that going to see, say, John Lee Hooker (rest his soul) and going to the symphony are two completely different affairs. Whether its the early days of Hooker's career, when he was playing bars, or the later shows, when he was playing mostly to hipsters in coffee houses (and apparently loving it), you would feel no compunction to break out the pearls or the coat-tails to attend the concert. Put another way, the guy that shows up at the symphony in a t-shirt is out of place and likely to get some sideways glances. Yes, it is a different kind of culture, but that's exactly what I mean by trappings... (Of course, you'd also be out of place wearing a suit to a seedy bar, but the man who owns only suits is a rare commodity.)

There's this really wierd kind of symbiotic superiority relationship going on amongst the classical music crowd. I'm talking here (and in the salient points in the above paragraphs) about the sociology of classical music, rather than the musical structures. The musicians are 'above' the listeners because of their art, and the composers because they are neccesary to convey their creations. The patrons are 'above' the musicians since without their patronage, the musicians would not eat, but most probably acknowledge that they are 'below' the composers, many of whom are geniuses. Meanwhile, the composers are above everyone because they're geniuses, but below everyone because they're dead. Or at least this is the sort of dynamic I percieved hanging out with the Conservatory kids up in Boston; not entirely pulling this out of my ass.

The other sign that tells me that there's something really kind of askew here comes from an old teacher of mine. This teacher, Warren Senders, specialized in jazz and Indian classical music and taught methods for creating musical instruments out of just about anything and music from just about any idea for any purpose you might have. He often worked with classical players who couldn't understand that the music could be imprecise, their own, free from the restrictions of the notation, and so on. Some got angry and left, some underwent a reverie and found new life in their art, and one or two gave up classical music altogether. The analogy of classical music as an invisible cage for these players is apt. But where does this cage come from? It points, I think, to a sociology at least as deep and far more institutionalized than that which surrounds hiphop.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:45 AM on April 25, 2003


If there is a cage, it is one of their own devising and not one forced on them by the music. I really like indian classical music and LOVE jazz. Both approach the sophistication of Western classical music, Indian music may even achieve it. But I would argue that both can be just as "limiting," if you can call it that, as classical.

In Indian classical music, what you can play on your instrument (not to mention what instrument you can play!) is extremely confined. You are not only limited to the notes of the raga (which can be a few as five, I believe), but the form also requires to you start very slow and gradually get more frenzied throughout the raga. I believe there are also restrictions on when you can move on to new harmonic ideas (the equivalent of changing keys in western music), although I'm not sure how flexible that aspect might be.

And of course in traditional jazz, you have strong stylistic constraints if you want what you're playing to sound like jazz. It's got to swing and it's generally going to fall into one of a small category of forms (blues, rhythm changes, modal, etc). Sure, there is the whole element of improvisation, but jazz improv, is at its heart, an extremely intellecual endevour, although of course good jazz players (and good classical players) put a lot of heart into their performances as well.

You do have really advanced and complex stuff like Ellington and Mingus, or, on the avant garde side, Anthony Braxton or Cecil Taylor who tend to avoid the typical forms, but once jazz is at this level of complexiy it is little different than classical music, only to swings a lot harder and people get up and improvise solos. In fact, Ellington even wrote some fairly significant classical music.

As for the sociology side, I guess, to be blunt, I just don't care. If it's good music its good music. The fact that some players can't appreciate any music that isn't composed by guys in powdered wigs doesn't mean that classical music is to blame for their myopia--in fact most classical musicians I know are insatiably curious about all kinds of music, particularly jazz and world music. The fact that some people go to see it for the wrong reasons, while sad, doesn't alter the fact that its amazing and beautiful music. Same goes for jazz, which also has its share of snobbery. Although I will say that the culture of classical music (and jazz to a lesser extent) does worry me a great deal in terms of the future of the music. Audiences tend to be extremely closed to new music, and only want to hear Beethoven and Mozart. This is bad of course, but surely doesn't mean that Beethoven and Mozart aren't worth listening to.
posted by boltman at 9:37 AM on April 25, 2003


Sorry; a bit late to the party. But I had to comment on the sheer idiocy of the original article and the woman who wrote it:

while Duke Ellington would be denigrated by rappers who couldn't pick out a simple melody...As for the unfortunate who called me "prudish" because I don't enjoy misogyny, obscenity and invitations to violence all wrapped up with a simplistic, mind-rotting rhythm beat

I live in near a high school with one of the top jazz programs in the country; kids are taught small-combo bebop from 9th grade onward, and by 12th grade many of the combos are touring europe. (Bebop (and other post-WWII jazz) is, incidentally, possibly one the most elitist forms of music by virtue of being considered noise by the vast majority of people, at least in the US.) After high school ends, a fair proportion of those newly virtuosic jazz players go into hip-hop -- making beats, writing lyrics, developing their rhythmic style, etc. After hanging out with them, watching them compose, listening to the utterly amazing new hip-hop that they listen to (which doesn't get any radio play, unfortunately) I can say this: hip-hop is every bit as rich and nuanced as bebop or classical music, has just as much depth and complexity. In 40 years, people will laugh at old articles calling hip-hop crap the way we laugh at the Ladies Home Journal decrying jazz as the devil's music in 1920.

The irony, of course, is that the people who designate themselves Elitists are actually missing out on the majority of great art being produced today because they dismiss it offhand without making any sort of effort. Most real musicians appreciate a wide variety of music (a music-major friend of mine likes Clifford Brown, Our Lady Peace, and Michelle Branch, to name a few) Culinary Arts students can appreciate a good hamburger as much as a perfectly formed creme brule.
posted by Tlogmer at 12:54 PM on April 25, 2003


Well said, Tlogmer. Each generation denounces the music of the next as barbaric noise and winds up looking idiotic.

I really see the great classical music as on sort of a different aesthetic level than other forms of music, simply because the theoretical underpinnings of it are so complex.

Boltman, you might want to check out the complex theoretical underpinnings beneath, say, the music of Anthony Braxton before you start generalizing. Complexity is everywhere. (And a lot of classical music is pretty simple; interestingly, the simple stuff is often popular.)
posted by languagehat at 2:45 PM on April 25, 2003


hip-hop is every bit as rich and nuanced as bebop or classical music, has just as much depth and complexity.

I just can't agree with that statement. It just doesn't. how could it? It's been around for what? 20 years? Jazz has been around for over 100 and classical has been around for about five centuries. Indian music has been around for a couple millenia. Think of musical forms or genres as languages. Very old forms (e.g. classical music) have had time to develop massive vocabularies. They have words with highly nuanced meanings, lots of synonyms, and a highly sophisticated grammar. Genres that have had less time to develop are necessarily going to have a less sophisticated musical language. Bebop, while great music to be sure, doesn't even come close to the harmonic sophistication of, say, a Mahler or even a Bach. Modern jazz styles (hard bop, free, avant garde) come a bit closer, but they are all still very much developing. As for hip hop, sure there are some very talented musicians out their doing hip hop, but they don't have 500+ years of tradition to draw on like classical composers or even 100 years of tradition to draw on like jazz composers. There is virtually no scholarship on it and if there is any theory to it at all, it is surely in its infantcy. Its musical vocabulary is like one of those foriegn langauge phrase books you get when you go to another country. It has the basics, but that's about it.

Give it time, and if it really has the potential you think it does, then it will survive and become a mature and vibrant music. But just because you enjoy it doesn't mean it has the same depth and sophistication of an art form that has taken centuries to develop.

On preview: Actually, I love Antony Braxton. His stuff is brilliant and yes, VERY advanced theoretically. But he's not doing hip-hop as far as I know. In fact, he's influenced by the avant garde classical composers as much as he is by jazz and is certainly pushing the envelope in both genres. But I'm not sure how that cuts against my point, unless you would argue that hip-hop and other pop music people are conscious of and utilizing these sorts of very advanced ideas in their music. Perhaps I should make clear that when I'm talking about classical music, I'm including people like Braxton, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Partch etc. as well as people like Bach and Mahler. It all really comes out the same intellectual tradition.
posted by boltman at 3:03 PM on April 25, 2003


You love Braxton? Hell, then you can say whatever you want. Actually, I wasn't responding to your point about rap/hiphop in particular; how could I? I'm too old to appreciate it in its own terms. I'm my parents listening to the Rolling Stones. (But I was down with Grandmaster Flash! And that "Rapper's Delight" was a catchy little tune... OK, I'll totter off to bed now.)
posted by languagehat at 9:25 PM on April 25, 2003


Yeah, I suspect I'm probably not as much of fan as you are (I think I recall you singing his praises in another thread as well), but I think his stuff is (or at least was--I'm not too familiar with his more recent stuff) probably the most consistantly interesting and rewarding in avant garde jazz.
posted by boltman at 11:06 PM on April 25, 2003


The other issue I have with your statement is that there is a big assumption that people out there actually care. Most people I know don't exalt any cultural product.

That's not the other issue at all; it's the very same thing. Many people do not place art anywhere near the center of their attention, let alone their lives, and so for them the idea that there could be so many layers, so many variables, so many nuances involved in appreciating something (say music) seems indulgent and pompous. Anyone who says that one example of music is bad and that another is good is just being self-important, trying to sound smart.

Whether it's a condemnation of them or not isn't the point. The fact is that most people do not indeed care all that much. They don't obsess about it, music is just there when you turn on the radio, or as background music when shopping for groceries. If you press them about what their favorite song or artist is, they'll give you an answer that's based on things like if it is catchy, or if a lot of people are buying it, or if they think the singer is good looking.

So yeah, I think people who really, really care about music (or art, or lit, or Scotch, or 1/16 scale model racing cars) have a more informed, deeper, and more valuable opinion on the subject than someone whose interest is ancillary at best. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the opinions of people who neither know nor care all that much about a particular thing are pretty much meaningless, so sue me.

If everyone's opinions mattered about the same amount, we wouldn't have any more need for judges or brain surgeons than we would for film snobs or music critics.

And after all, some judiciail decisions get reviewed and overturned years later. Tartuffe was reviled at first, praised years later, just as prohibition was repealed after much reconsideration. And some day it might come back (looking at you, Alaska)! Times change, and the values we choose to highlight get shuffled around such that what is universally appreciated in one generation is reviled in the next. So maybe the whole idea of appointing learned legal scholars to sit in judgment is a bit elitist, sort of snobbish and aristocratic. Anachronistically hierarchical.

There's absolutely no way you can convince me that there aren't some people who have better taste than other people, to make a long story short.
posted by Hildago at 1:50 AM on April 26, 2003


boltman -- hip-hop didn't spring full-formed in a vacuum; in particular, the backing tracks are built on the harmonic progressions of jazz (and classical; you'd be surprised how much symphonies get sampled) and a more fully developed verison of the idea of repeating beats (not as a linear thing similar to a melodic line but as a study in "feel" -- in repeated suspension, etc.) that made its way from african folk music into jazz and then, to a lesser extent, pop/rock.

I do agree that much of rap's vocabulary is very new (was embyronic a decade ago) -- like the increasing use of beats that fall very slightly before or after the "beat" and the whole new rhythmic dimesions that's opened up; like the polyrhythmic phrases of various length that give the impression that the music is fundamentally no longer in measures -- but from what I've seen it is already, as you put it, "a mature and vibrant music". Of course, I could be wrong; unlike Ms. Miller, I recognize that there are things beyond my understanding (e.g. Mozart sounds utterly cliched and boring to me).

There is virtually no scholarship on it and if there is any theory to it at all, it is surely in its infantcy.

Yeah, that's a bit of a weak spot. I don't think I've ever seen anything written on how it works (though, to be fair, I haven't really looked).
posted by Tlogmer at 4:56 PM on April 27, 2003


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