Thursday, June 16, 2005

Middle-Brow and Proud

Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack - New York Times

Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said... Today more people go to college. They may be assigned Rimbaud or Faulkner or even Hemingway. But somehow in adulthood, they tend to have less interest in that stuff than readers 40 years ago.

The trouble with social conservatives like Brooks is they look back decades rather than centuries.

Brooks imagines that middle-brow culture was killed by snarky, supercillious intellectuals with the collaboration of a self-indulgent, self-absorbed middle-class public who resisted Victorian moralizing about the edifying character of Great Art. Intellectuals despised the bourgeois and the bourgeois for their part were no longer willing to take their medicine.

Au contraire. It was the Victorian moralists and their successors who made "appreciation" a moral duty who killed middle-brow.

When it came to music at least there was no cultural divide in the 18th century. Parishioners at Thomaskirche wet their pants weekly listening to Old Bach's productions. Vivaldi is so accessible that even now everyone just plain likes it--until they learn that it's "classical music." Anyone who hears Mozart or Hayden without prejudice just likes it--that's that: if you get chocolate, you like the taste. It produces pleasure because we're wired up to like it.

It was the moralizers who trained the public not to like it by drawing a line between high art, a bitter pill that had to be swallowed, and popular culture. If you tell a kid he can't have his broccoli until he finishes his dessert, every last bit of it, it's obvious what's going to happen.

"Good taste" not only in art but in food, wine and manners has always had snob appeal and arivistes have always cultivated it. There was no moralism in that--the aim was prestige and ultimately pleasure. Snobbery doesn't kill pleasure, but moralism does. Wine-snobbery was never worked over by moralists so it remains accessible; music-snobbery was thoroughly moralized, closing off an avenue to supreme pleasure for the bulk of the population. Maybe this is what the moralizers were after in the end: eliminating all near occasions of pleasure.

Now things have turned around in an interesting way and old snobberies have become new moralisms. Food-snobbery in particular has been moralized. More generally the focus of the new moralism is the package of goods that are supposed to contribute to a "healthy lifestyle": exercise, "healthy" food and various forms of abstinence. The process is the same: the preoccupations of the elite are interpreted as exercises of virtue and snobbery morphs into moralism. Maybe it's a consequence of self-deception: no one wants to admit that they eat miserable food and recycle because it's fashionable or that they exercise and diet because they want to look good.

However we may be coming full cycle. Liking "classical music" is now neither fashionable nor virtuous. In fact it's distinctly unfashionable: admitting that you listen to it marks you as a naive striver because the assumption is that you must be motivated by unfashionable moralistic concerns. A taste for the Canon, in music or any of the arts is now popularly perceived as gauche. The snob appeal is gone and the moral appeal has all but disappeared.

So I can confess that I sit on my butt listening to the local classical music station XLNC out of Tijuana all day. They play all and only safe middle-brow canonical works--musical chocolate and McDonalds. They just finished the Polevetsian Dances--who can resist "Stranger in Paradise"? They play snippets of Carmina Burana every 45 minutes. I could use a little more Haydn, and more string quartets, but on the whole the selection suits me. By the way, they're running a pledge drive--please contribute so that they reach their goal, shut up with these disruptive solicitations and get back to the music.

So ironically nostalgic moralizers like Brooks who look back to the glory days of the 1950s, may be doing us a service. The Canon will become fashionably retro. People will consume Haydn string quartets as a guilty pleasure, like fast food, and take perverse pride in supporting XLNC and PBS. And as lit-crit departments push Theory and post-colonialist literature undergraduates will sneak off to read Jane Austin for fun. As moralism about the good things in life burns itself out people we could be looking at a new era of self-indulgence and aesthetic pleasure: hedonists gorging on the Canon while the moralizers spend their spare time sorting their trash for recycling.

1 comment:

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