Elitist, moi?
July 13, 2002 6:16 PM   Subscribe

Elitist, moi? This is interesting in itself, but given some of the comments on MetaTalk at the moment it takes on greater resonance. Should the great unwashed be allowed access to art, or be allowed to produce art from a distinct, lowbrow perspective? Should Mefi only be available to those who post "the best that has been said and thought"? Is elitism good?
posted by Fat Buddha (26 comments total)
i was mostly with him/her until this bit at the very end:
and no one on the left should therefore think that a taste for high culture - which means, in short, a taste for the best things in all arts (emph. mine)

maybe i wasn't reading very carefully, but this seemed to come totally out of left field for me (ie, didn't follow as a natural corollary of any of the rest of it).

anyone care to elucidate if i did, in fact, totally miss the point?
posted by juv3nal at 6:26 PM on July 13, 2002

juv3nal : You missed the rest of the sentence, which continues " -- is anything but as conducive to the general good as it is to their own."

The author also says :

"In Matthew Arnold's definition, culture is "the best that has been said and thought" - and, it should be added, done - in respect of all that matters in intellectual and artistic life. The term's second and broader anthropological meaning is very different; it neutrally embraces everything about the way things are done in a society, among which its most highbrow interests are only a small part. These latter have accordingly come to be called "high" culture to differentiate what is most valued and esteemed by those supposed to be in a position to judge; and the term is therefore expressly discriminatory.

The question therefore becomes: does an enjoyment of high culture involve a justifiable form of discrimination? I think most would still think that the answer is "Yes", but it no longer suffices to say so without comment."

He or she then goes on to politicize the definitions, tying them to issues of political correctness and multiculturalism, and assuming, perhaps correctly, that such concerns are mainly the purview of the 'left'.

The author says :

"The Right attacks a leftwing orientation which aims to valorise all cultural activities, no matter whose they are, privileging no endeavour, and no gender or ethnicity, above any other, in the interests of giving everything and everyone a place in the sun. A different leftwing orientation, agreeing with this determination to universalise justice and mutual respect, sees with dismay that the multicultural egalitarians have made themselves easy targets for rightwingers by being guilty themselves of a kind of oppression, hounding those who fail to adopt scrupulously undiscriminatory attitudes and language in pursuit of their otherwise admirable aims."

The sentence you quote follows from the argument that the author builds out of these two (lengthy, sorry) thoughts.

Your question about 'a taste for high culture' being equated to 'a taste for the best things in all arts' is an interesting one, though, I think, and the author frames it within his or her political musings like so : "Can people of left-liberal political sympathies believe that high culture has special and superior value which justifies state support for theatre and grand opera, but not for pop concerts or darts competitions?"

I suspect someone attacked him or her recently with something like "How can you, as a Big Leftie, believe that things like ballet and opera have greater intrinsic value than pop concerts and tittie mags, and thus deserve government funding?", and this article is the result.

I don't think you missed the point, but I'm not sure the point is a good one, or that the intended point was the one that Fat Buddha has picked up on. Still, a very interesting question.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:16 PM on July 13, 2002

I think Grayling was harking back to his earlier allusion to Matthew Arnold ("the best known and thought..."). The only difficulty with Arnold's position is that, as my undergraduates are usually quick to point out, he never really explains how we are to recognize "the best" when we see it. Arnold's concept of the "touchstone," for example, leaves many readers baffled: it isn't clear why X example constitutes a "great" work of verse.

Grayling is right to argue that the older leftist tradition actively promoted cultural elitism; indeed, old-fashioned Marxists still are (as was Marx himself, incidentally). This point has been made exhaustively by Jonathan Rose in his study of working-class reading habits in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My father owns a copy of an early twentieth century Latin grammar that was explicitly advertised as part of a socialist project for giving power to the people.

Although I somehow doubt that many cultural conservatives would agree with me, I think that one of the paradoxical results of the interest in "non-canonical" literatures has actually been a new interest in aesthetic quality. It's a nascent interest, true, but something I've definitely noticed in conversations with other junior faculty of my generation (late 20s-early 30s). It's hard to maintain the fiction that "all works are equal" when, as I have been lately, you are slogging through the morass that is Victorian evangelical fiction: non-existent plotting, characters painted solely in black and white, predictable outcomes, religious correctness rather than the messiness of everyday life, and lifeless prose. I mean, the stuff is dreadful. It has considerable historical interest, in the sense that it tells us quite a bit about Victorian cultural anxieties and preoccupations, but...it's deservedly forgotten. (My motto is "I read this stuff so you don't have to.") The thoroughly tedious Mrs. Sherwood is nowhere near so good as Benjamin Disraeli, who can't really put a finger on Anthony Trollope, who is thoroughly outgunned by George Eliot...

Certainly, it's true that aesthetic discrimination often is "elitist," in the sense that you do have to spend a lot of time learning what's good and what isn't. I'd hardly describe it as a conscious process, however, and it isn't altogether a matter of formal education, either. On the other hand, I don't think aesthetic appreciation is about snobbily dismissing some things as "not worthy of one's time": for example, many of the people I know who are capable of a genuine, heartfelt appreciation for classical music are also big fans of rock music. Every great artist I can think of has always had enormously catholic tastes in the arts. T. S. Eliot, for example, loved Sherlock Holmes, adored the pop music of his day, and enjoyed going dancing as much as any contemporary teen. Real snobbery, unlike elitism, seems to be about the fear of appearing tasteless, as opposed to the actual possession of taste. Authentic elitism doesn't insist that you can't find pleasure in push-pins as well as poetry--indeed, it finds value in playing push-pins--but it also doesn't argue that the two are aesthetically or intellectually equivalent.

I'd describe myself as an elitist, by the way, although not a left-wing one.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:30 PM on July 13, 2002

I'm still confused about the actual point of this piece - I've written and deleted three posts about this article and can't really put my finger on what annoys me about it yet. Is the author actually making ONE point or just trying to bring up all the perspectives they've run across in one singular article? As a writer or artist myself, I tend to like to tune into the creator's motivation for a piece, and I haven't been able to connect with one here yet - maybe it's my own personal blindspot - LOL.
posted by thunder at 7:35 PM on July 13, 2002

Elitism is only good for those it benefits, so the answer to the question "is elitism good" depends on your point of view.

People with money want to be able to live at their leisure, without "party crashers" or "riff raff." Usually this is something people take for granted. If you're having a family reunion, you don't want complete strangers wandering in uninvited do you? It kinda diminishes the entire point of having a family reunion. People are probably elitist in their day to day lives and don't even realize it. Why else do we lock the doors to our houses and cars? We don't want a stranger coming along and taking our stuff as if they were entitled to it, or even breathing in our space.

When a company has a dress code, they stipulate that they will allow you as an employee to enjoy service with said institution, so long as you abide by their rules. Again that's elitism. It allows the security detail to question and perhaps remove from the premises anyone who "looks suspicious." If you happen to be a part of the in, then there really isn't anything wrong with elitism from your perspective. Or perhaps you can rationalize that whatever elitism you favor is good but other elitism is bad. If you're part of the out, elitism is really not good to you, and so you'll believe it's not good for anybody.

Elitism becomes a target when it gets institutionalized. When it becomes something almost tangible. People question the fairness of it. Racism is a form of elitism that today's society finds unpalatable, but less than two centuries ago it was the opposite that was unpleasant. Discrimination means discriminating between the in and the out. Any kind of economic or societal class structure is also elitism. If you have money, you don't want people who don't have money to appreciate what you do, or else all the sudden having money really doesn't mean anything anymore.

I happen to enjoy Renaissance paintings and classical music, but I'm far from a part of the in. Perhaps the people who don't enjoy such things but take up space at such functions which display fine art are the real criminals, because they don't go to see or hear so much as to be seen and heard, which I believe is the point of the article. Then again, if they enjoy it, and it's harming nobody, what's the problem?
posted by ZachsMind at 7:50 PM on July 13, 2002

Like thunder, this article annoys me and I can't quite put my finger on why. The fact that anyone would feel it necessary to write an article reconciling their love of art with their political beliefs seems bizarre to me. Couple that with the distaste I feel when I read about political groups who put pessure on artists to alter their vision to suit their own agenda, be it left- or right-wing.
posted by MrBaliHai at 8:05 PM on July 13, 2002

i pretty much fart in its general direction, but that's me.
posted by quonsar at 8:42 PM on July 13, 2002

pretentious? watashi?
posted by fnord_prefect at 9:17 PM on July 13, 2002

having another (albeit still quick) read-thru, i think it's passages like this:

But an attentive eye can see the difference between a rough carving and a fine one, whatever its social or religious significance. The latter typically shows more observation and care, and evinces more skill or painstakingness in the working; in short, manifests the marks of quality.

which irk me.
art doesn't have to be about "painstaking" care or skill or craft.

IMO there's "quality" art that's just as much about being a product of serendipity (if you believe in it) or fortuitous circumstance or even the naivete that's precisely the product of an absence of craft (artifice).
posted by juv3nal at 9:19 PM on July 13, 2002

There seems to be a confusion in the article, and more generally in discussions over this issue, between questions of aesthetic judgement on the one hand, and high vs low culture on the other hand. The two are far from synonymous. High and low are ways that we classify cultural products depending on various factors--usually their economics and the class status of their audiences. Anybody who equates this kind of classification system with aesthetic quality--as in, classical music is good art, pop music is bad art; or novels reviewed in The New York Review of Books are good art, but science fiction and crime novels are bad art--is giving me reason to suspect that he/she is judging more out of snobbery than aesthetics. (There are, of course, exceptions: Harold Bloom has, for me, an uninterestingly conventional and conservative list of what the great literary works are, but his reasons for liking what he likes are so idiosyncratic that I have total respect for his judgement, even though I often do not share it).
If you take culture seriously, you have to judge it on a case-by-case basis. I mean, I love Beethoven's late string quartets, but I find Brahms' symphonies creepy and insufferable. I also love Sonic Youth, Bjork, and Outkast, To my mind, Cormac McCarthy is a great writer but Saul Bellow is an overblown, crushing bore. Philip K Dick is also, to my mind, one of the greatest novelists of the last century, but Tolkien just irritates me. (Note: I know that just expressing these opinions, without talking about WHY, is not in itself very useful or interesting. I am just trying to give examples of how aesthetic judgement is one thing, and classifications of high and low culture are another).
posted by Rebis at 9:20 PM on July 13, 2002

so when the article talks about "quality" which difference is it referring to? the difference between high/low or a difference of aesthetic quality?
posted by juv3nal at 9:25 PM on July 13, 2002

IMO there's "quality" art that's just as much about being a product of serendipity (if you believe in it) or fortuitous circumstance or even the naivete that's precisely the product of an absence of craft (artifice).

I agree with your point, but I think we have to keep in mind that art like this is rare and exceptional. If I am a crappy photographer (wait, I am!), then I can break lots of photographic rules, and show my naivete, but in the end, most of my images will be utter crap. However a very small fraction will be great, due to luck, serendipity, whatever.

We must remember that such images will be few and far between. The vast majority of art created by the unskilled and unpracticed will suck.
posted by websavvy at 9:42 PM on July 13, 2002

Time to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations . I would enter the debate but if I recall Pirsig had a breakdown over the meaning of quality and Wittgenstein may have had several breakdowns dealing with similar but broader conceptual issues.

My unsophisticated 2 cents worth is that you should never waste time justifying your taste to others when you could be out there tasting instead.
posted by srboisvert at 10:02 PM on July 13, 2002

the vast majority of non-western music and art never gets an opportunity to compete for 'the best that has been said and thought' status, being relegated as it generally is to ethnomusicology and anthropology departments, respectively. if i want to see renaissance european sculpture, i can go the museum of art; for african sculpture from the same time period, i've got to cross the park and go to the museum of natural history.
posted by mlang at 10:15 PM on July 13, 2002

Elitism is only good for those it benefits, so the answer to the question "is elitism good" depends on your point of view.
It can be a healthy motivation and something to strive for. Goodness knows I had to eat enough pig brains.

I look down on fans of certain music, art, books; products and services. For example, those who can get excited over a "Porn Star" t-shirt absolutely baffle me. There's a mindset that appreciates that imagery of a 70s disco font with shimmering letters. Now "Anal Porn Star" would have been funny and clever, but "Porn Star" is both boring and predictable.

Maybe there is a person who has a "Porn Star" t-shirt, somewhere out there, that would be fun to be around. Maybe not, too.
posted by holloway at 10:43 PM on July 13, 2002

Someone can fart creatively and call it art. The difference between high art and low art is whether or not someone's willing to put down a few million bucks for it. All the rest of this is a matter of criticism: another way of farting creatively.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:45 PM on July 13, 2002

None of this has anything to do with art as creation or even appreciation, but art administration, promotion, social engineering, and propaganda.
posted by semmi at 11:14 PM on July 13, 2002

This article is irritating because it a priori associates veins of creativity with a binary political system. It also trots out the tired old "high-low" culture garbage, probably because it was written by a European, where such delineations had much more importance (and probably still do) than they do or did in America. I think anyone embarking on a career in writing about art and/or culture should have the words "THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS HIGH AND LOW" tatooed on their forearms.

I anguish over quality often, and I currently believe that there is quality and it is quantifiable, but often very difficult to elucidate. I currently find complexity to be a main component of what I consider work of quality, whether it be structural complexity, emotional complexity, &c. By complexity, I suppose I mean a slipperiness, a myriad of texture, a plainness of purpose that results in something blank and concrete. How can I put it? All I keep thinking of is Glenn Gould's late recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations"- a perfect example of this perfect, ineffable clarity and beauty that I currently associate with quality. A perfect work.

Bach's "Goldberg Variations" are/is a work of undeniable quality. Superior to almost everything I can think of, yet I cannot really find words to explain why.

Perhaps that is an earmark of quality: surpassing explanation. In the realm of pure sense.
posted by evanizer at 11:22 PM on July 13, 2002

Doing a Morton Downey, Jr and carefully checking the mirror as I scrawl "ANAL" (backwards) with a Sharpie above the applique on My baby-doll "PORN STAR" t-shirt...

Old 80's reference for the kids...

Too lazy to do a search...has Morton Downey, Jr. graced MeFi before?
posted by red cell at 11:30 PM on July 13, 2002

It can be a healthy motivation and something to strive for.

Umm.. isn't that setting up the same mentality as the Protestant Ethic? Set up a society so that if you are wealthy, you are seen as in good light with God, so that everyone strives to be wealthy?

Personally, i think that striving for elitism is horrifying, as it means striving for power and control at the expense of others. Elitism only works when a small percentage of the population control the fashion, values and means by which to dictate those. It creates desire and longing, which inevitably results in pain for most people.

For example, i remember being dragged to the Street of Dreams, an exhibition of the ideal American homes. Problem was that people paid $10 each to see these homes, to get a taste of what that power and elitism might look like. The experience was horrifying and i remember vomiting in the backyard of one of these homes, stomach overturned at the site of so many people's longings for something so artificial.
posted by zegooober at 11:38 PM on July 13, 2002

Umm.. isn't that setting up the same mentality as the Protestant Ethic? Set up a society so that if you are wealthy, you are seen as in good light with God, so that everyone strives to be wealthy?
I used "healthy" to avoid describing such a scenario. Take it to mean that good things can come from improving yourself through pressure from those around you.

You may well remember vomiting in the backyard of some display homes, but I bet you also remember being spider-man and gliding through the air ever so gracefully.
posted by holloway at 12:13 AM on July 14, 2002

Either everything is artificial, or nothing is. There's nothing less "authentic" or "real" or "natural" about wanting a nice home than there is about, say, going to a G8 protest. All are products of culture and, since all cultural 'production' stems from our nature to create, all must be natural. This isn't to say that all art or cultural production is of equal value, just that it all is a product of our intelligent nature.

There will be 'elitism' because it is also in our nature to be competitive, to strive to surpass others. This exists in all animals that group themselves into socieites. I remember watching this documentary about a pack of wolves where the alpha wolves were alpha wolves not only because they strove to surpass the others, but they also had an innate dominance. They were simply "better" than the other wolves from the start. This is not to say that they couldn't fall out of dominance, just that they seemed to possess qualities which facilitated and maintained their status in the pack that the other wolves simply didn't have.

Human society is vastly more complicated than wolf society, but there are still some essential similarities to our notions of talent, genius and ability being not only earned and learned states, but inherent ones as well.

Life isn't fair. We aren't all dealt a great hand, a painful but essential truth of our existence. But those who do possess higher abilities can facilitate, lead, inspire, and better the rest of the pack that may lack certain or other qualities. In this way we each settle into the vocational strata where we are the alpha creature. Society enmeshes itself, one leader, artist, musician, teacher or another, like an endless series of cogs and we as a whole are pushed forward.
posted by evanizer at 12:30 AM on July 14, 2002

"ii remember vomiting in the backyard of one of these homes"
My god zegooober! We just can't take you anywhere.
posted by Catch at 12:34 AM on July 14, 2002

Just do it! Or if you are interested in American views, read Paul Fussell's "Class" and note in his final chapter how he sets aside a specil group/cass for elites like himself who "transcend" class structures...
posted by Postroad at 7:03 AM on July 14, 2002

I'm with thunder in that, as an artist, I always start with the artist's motivation. And, as one who grew up in a multicultural community (before the word had both its positive and negative connotations), I see the notion of "good" art to be dependant on the background/culture the artist comes from.

For example (and since the author brought up crucifixes), Andreas Serrano's Piss Christ was impaled by The Right as being sacrilegious. Yet, no one on the Right took into consideration that Serrano, coming from Puerto Rico, was commenting on how religion had been debased in his culture. So, rather than a crucifix sitting in the artist's urine reflecting a negative belief in religion as a whole, from the artist's perspective, he was commenting on near the opposite. The controversy that developed did so precisely because people refused to take into consideration the artist's intent and culture.

Also, the notion of elitism is far from immutable. For example, opera, which these days is seen as a "high brow" activity, originally (19th century) was a mass cultural event. It was only during Victorian times that the upper crust succeeded in making opera its own.

One more thing, one can't separate the "market" from the notion of elitism. What is considered good (or more precisely what is considered to be "the best") is more often than not directly associated with monetary value. "La creme" is often a reflection of what has sold for high prices at auction. And, in order to raise potential prices, convincing a public that a piece is "it" is essential.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:49 AM on July 14, 2002

> Think, wrote the cultural critic Eunice Lipton, "about
> Michelangelo, van Gogh, Rodin, Picasso, Pollock. Could
> these artists be lesbians, Asian Americans, Native
> Americans?" Her point was that if they had been any of
> these things, they would not have been recognised
> as "artist-geniuses" (her term);

Jackson Pollock was known for pissing in his host's fireplace at parties. Highbrow? As for no Asian Americans, please explain Isamu Noguchi, Asian American, who was considered in his lifetime to be possibly the world's finest sculptor. Michaelangelo was as homoerotic as they get. "Cultural critic Eunice Lipton" isn't going to let mere facts derail such a nice rant.
posted by jfuller at 7:24 AM on July 16, 2002

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