Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The browbeaten masses

A terrific post at The Transcontinental on the recent musoc.org dustup, and the overwhelming dominance of a "middlebrow consensus" in the classical music community:
To be clear - I am not saying high culture is better than mass culture. What I am saying is that people on the high culture side of things feel a very great tendency to say out loud, and often, that they think mass culture is just as good as high culture. . . What they are really doing is making it clear that the middlebrows are still the arbiters of taste, even though most people's complete indifference to classical music, and the classical music community's intense, nearly overwhelming desire to proselytize, to convert, the lowbrows over to the fold suggests the complete opposite.
It seems to me that this is exactly right. There is no demand from the many, many fans of Céline Dion, for example, that we acknowledge her music as having the same aesthetic and formal merits as the Saint Matthew Passion; indeed, anyone who starts thinking along these lines at a Céline Dion concert is probably missing the point. There is likewise no demand from cranky, dyspeptic organist-bloggers that Céline Dion fans should be forced, perhaps at gunpoint, to attend performances of the Saint Matthew Passion - they would probably be unhappy, confused, and disruptive. (Would you rather sit next to a Dion fan at a symphony concert - or me at a Céline Dion concert - or someone who actually wants to be there? Think hard.) The demand for a spurious "reintegration" of classical and popular music comes exclusively from a middlebrow intellectual elite, who accuse the highbrows of snobbery and condescension while simultaneously condescending to the lowbrows by their patronizing attempts to "convert" them to classical music, or Shakespeare, or multigrain bread, or whatever.

The highbrow/lowbrow distinction itself, of course, is a relic of medieval phrenology, in which the dimensions of one's skull were thought to be indicators of one's mental characteristics, particularly intelligence. I'm not sure who coined the term "middlebrow," but the concept is certainly foreshadowed in Hazlitt's 1816 essay "On Common-Place Critics":
A common-place critic has something to say upon every occasion, and he always tells you either what is not true, or what you knew before, or what is not worth knowing. He is a person who thinks by proxy, and talks by rote. He differs with you, not because he thinks you are in the wrong, but because he thinks somebody else will think so. Nay, it would be well if he stopped here; but he will undertake to misrepresent you by anticipation, lest others should misunderstand you, and will set you right, not only in opinions which you have, but in those which you may be supposed to have. . . He thinks it difficult to prove the existence of any such thing as original genius, or to fix a general standard of taste. He does not think it possible to define what wit is. In religion his opinions are liberal. He considers all enthusiasm as a degree of madness, particularly to be guarded against by young minds; and believes that truth lies in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong.
The central characteristic of the middlebrow is a sort of intellectual parasitism; because the very concept of "middle" is epistemically secondary, he depends upon the concepts of high and low culture to orient himself. As the public prestige of high art continues to dwindle, and public figures avoid showing any support for Western culture for fear of being represented as snobs and racists, the middlebrow is obliged to invent more and more ludicrous highbrow straw men against whom to inveigh. He urges artists to strive towards an integration of high-art and low-art elements in their work, in the name of artistic "diversity" - which, in this case, means that all styles should become exactly the same. The only downside to the career of a middlebrow is that he would be immediately put out of a job if his dreams of cultural integration ever came true - which shows how carefully he's chosen his target, for they never will.

Middlebrow culture, in short, is a culture that can only be defined negatively. It is utopian, therefore another example of Neon Arrow thinking, and therefore ultimately nihilistic. It claims catholicity of taste against highbrow snobbery and lowbrow Philistinism, but its position is in fact rather more precarious, with its constant nervous glances upwards and downwards to make sure they haven't slipped too far in one direction. But no-one who reads classical music blogs can plausibly claim their tastes to be "lowbrow," nor can anyone cling exclusively to European highbrow culture in this media-saturated age. The only alternative seems to be what Robertson Davies, writing as his inimitable alter ego Samuel Marchbanks, described as the "concertina brow," able to alternately enjoy "middlebrow" red wine, "lowbrow" farces, and "highbrow" Wagnerian opera. (It seems to me that this is probably what the folks at hilobrow.com mean by "hilobrow," but I find myself stymied by their cryptic website.) The concertina brow will partake of artistic products and other cultural artefacts solely because he enjoys them and for no other reason, and will resist the efforts of the middlebrows to consolidate and amalgamate highbrow and lowbrow culture into mush.

1 comment:

Andrew W. said...

Osbert, thanks for the kind words and the link.

I think what the hilobrow site opened up for me was the fact that there are lots of people who simply don't care about anyone else's tastes, and it really got me thinking about why people are so terribly concerned about whether or not 8 per cent or 9 per cent of the population listens to classical music on a regular basis.

That being said, I don't know if all utopian ideas are nihilistic by definition. I think a playful kind of utopianism is perfectly healthy and indeed necessary. Forcing people into your utopia on the other hand...not so good.

I tried to avoid in my post getting into the fact that I find the middlebrows problematic, in part because I really wanted to try to keep it as much in the spirit of a critique as possible - I simply wasn't very cranky today! That doesn't mean I disagree with you however...

The thing I am really wondering now is whether or not my thoughts about the absence of a truly lowbrow musical culture anymore is accurate. You post makes me wonder a bit about that.

Interestingly enough, I think hilobrow's cryptic site is an attempt to represent its own critique. If you just keep reading it, it all starts to make a frightening amount of sense...