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Clear and Present Danger

Posted by acdtest on September 19, 2003

Clear and Present Danger

onsider, please, the following observation.

The mark of a cultural highbrow nowadays is a cheerful readiness to embrace the lowbrow. In these playful, perverse, postmodern times, no one wants to be branded an elitist, especially the elites. There isn’t a junior professor of cultural studies who doesn’t dream of twitting his stodgy elders by showing that Madonna ranks with Mozart or that ”Star Wars” is an improvement on Wagner’s ”Ring” cycle.

—from a book review by Walter Kirn of Stephen King’s new “literary” opus, Everything’s Eventual.

That’s as neat an epitome of our present cultural environment as you’re ever likely to read. Is it any wonder, for instance, that today classical music radio, and the classical music recording industry are all but moribund? That National Public Radio — that thirty-years-old bastion of high-grade programming presumed free from the strictures and pressures of ratings and money-grubbing commerce — has, for the express purpose of attracting more listeners and thereby increasing donations, recently made the decision to dump a major portion of its cultural programming in favor of more news, news-talk, and expanded coverage of the pop culture scene? That the previously refined, uniquely informative, high-minded, and at times fairly lofty Sunday Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, our national newspaper of record, a year or so ago was deprived of its supremely qualified and erudite editor in a shakeup that saw him replaced by one devoted to (even) greater coverage of things pop-cultural?

No, no wonder at all. The rampantly promiscuous equalitarianism, and ferociously adamant populism so insidiously infecting every domain of our cultural world today looks on such developments as a Good Thing; a movement in the proper and necessary direction, and long overdue. Like the first narcotic rush of a powerful opiate, it feels so surpassingly right, good, true, and pleasurable that its ultimately poisonous effects are unthought of, unseen, even unimagined.

We’re all in the deepest sort of trouble, and seemingly unconscious of the corrupting danger that threatens not merely from all sides, but from deep within our intellectual and spiritual selves; a danger that if unchecked will eventually overwhelm all that’s lastingly valuable and nourishing in our cultural life, the resulting ineluctable impoverishment of which will sound the death knell even of our very civilization itself.

Alarmist? Overwrought? Not a bit of it. When we today have two generations of young (and now no-longer-quite-so-young) people who are all but totally ignorant of the great music and literature that for centuries past have nourished and informed our intellectual and spiritual lives, generations who imagine that pop and rock music; fantasy, sci-fi, and other genre novels; and even Spiderman comic books are what culture is all about — an imagining that today is actually given academic imprimatur at the university level, and sanction by the critical and cultural elite — you may be certain there’s much about which to be alarmed. It’s not that such pop-cultural artifacts are in themselves harmful or evil, but rather that they’re a danger when elevated to a level in the hierarchy of things cultural to which substantively and aesthetically they’ve no rightful or justifiable claim.*

An elitist view, you say, and undemocratic. Why, yes. It’s indeed both. But so-called high culture (to distinguish it from the popular sort) has always been elitist and undemocratic, and can be nothing other. There’s just no getting around it. Great Art in all its forms is, and has always been, an elitist and undemocratic enterprise, not by design but by nature. To condemn it on those grounds is as inapt and mindless as to condemn, say, Julia Roberts (or you-pick-the-beauty) for being fabulously beautiful when, overwhelmingly, most others are not.

And so having declared the problem, what, then, is the solution? I can suggest only a beginning, and that is a return to the cultural sanity that existed prior to the grotesque populist cultural upheaval that began in the mid-1960s as an adjunct to that era’s then needful if excessive political upheaval.

But that return can begin only when the genuine cultural and intellectual elite — i.e., those who by native intellect, education, and experience know the Real Deal and its what for — drop their currently fashionable pose of being champions of the common, and again start telling it as it really is rather than as the common man wants it to be, and perhaps even as the elite themselves wish it were.

As I say, it’s only a beginning, but as with all journeys a first step must be taken if the journey is to be embarked upon at all.

*Here, for egregious example, is this just hot off the wire.
Under pressure from publishers to shake up its sleepy image, the organization that presents the National Book Awards is planning to give its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters to Stephen King.

Mr. King’s selection is the first time that the organization, the National Book, has awarded its medal to an author best known for writing in popular genres like horror stories, science fiction or thrillers. Very little of Mr. King’s work would qualify as literary fiction.

Mr. King joins a list of previous recipients that includes John Updike, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison.

UPDATE 1 (17 September at 2:44 AM Eastern): Weblogger Alexandra of Out Of Lascaux comments.
UPDATE 2 (17 September at 2:45 AM Eastern): Reader Liz L sends a thoughtful eMail wherein she says,

…it seems to me that you think that the “common person” doesn’t have any real right to join the elites in their ongoing discussion, but simply has to accept the elite’s judgment. […] …do you see any room for a well-informed layperson to take some part in the debate? Do “native intellect” and “experience,” for instance, compensate to some extent for one’s lack of college degrees?

My response:

It’s not something so trivial as the possession of college degrees that qualifies one to be considered among the elite (most such are proles through and through). It’s one who by dint of native intellect, education (however obtained), and experience, has made one of his life’s priorities the study, understanding, and appreciation of the arts that determines his elite (as opposed to expert) status; that lifts him above the I-like-it-and-therefore-it’s-art common herd. In my piece I was suggesting that those who’ve made the arts their life’s work — that’s to say, the experts — must necessarily take the lead in turning things around, the first step being, I further suggested, that they drop their current idiot pose of being champions of the common. In terms of the ongoing conversation there’s room galore for all the elite, not merely the experts, and the more the better.

I trust the above will clarify the distinction I make between an elite and an expert.

UPDATE 3 (19 September at 8:06 AM Eastern): Weblogger J.W. of Forager 23 comments, on which comment I should remark that J.W. seems to have read my use of the term elite to indicate an economic or social class. As I thought was made clear in the piece, and made even more specifically clear in Update 2 above, my use of the term, as well as my use of the term common, has nothing whatsoever to do with economic or social class.

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