Saturday, March 8, 2014

What Makes an Art Form Elitist?

Many of my favorite things are regarded as "elitist" in the US, and I have more than once been accused of elitism because I like these things. It's an epithet that's more puzzling than anything else. Elitism is, by definition, advocacy of an elite as a dominating element in society. The consumption of art and entertainment is therefore not elitist, even in such cases as the work actively advocates the domination of the elite. Propaganda, subtle or not, is not a magical means of persuasion. As a feminist, I regularly consume works of art and entertainment that are not only not feminist but downright misogynistic. That doesn't mean that I give up my politics. That means that I read or watch or listen to a work that may oppose my own views without actively advocating for views in opposition to my own. We all do this. So why do we consider so many art forms elitist?

The obvious example is Shakespeare. In his day, Shakespeare was a combination of Tom Hiddleston and David Foster Wallace - he was cool. And he was anything but pretentious. Read with attention or see a good performance and be amazed at the preponderance of lewd humor, from fart jokes to cracks about anal sex. Shakespeare played to the Elizabethan equivalent of a mosh pit. Yet, today Shakespeare is the epitome of pretentious hoity-toity-ness, second only to opera in the long list of cultural institutions that are now labeled elitist.

And speaking of opera, its cultural position as boring, pretentious, only for fuddy-duddies entertainment is a fairly recent development. Opera has been around for more than four hundred years and for a large portion of that time was politically and socially, as well as culturally, relevant. Verdi was a superstar in his day, lending his name as a slogan for Italian unification and having his music sung in the streets by people from all walks of life. The issue with opera is that no one has actually seen or heard any opera. If I had a dollar for every person who has ever told me that he or she doesn't like opera and when asked, admits to never having been to one, I would be rich indeed.

What is opera about anyway, or Shakespearean theater? Sex. It's all about sex. There's some murder and insanity in there too, but mostly sex. And sex sells, has always sold, and will always sell. That's why Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is universally known as the movie with Romeo's butt. So, the issue isn't content because if it were, opera would be still be as cool now as it was back in the 1850s. But surely, being merely uncool shouldn't be enough to warrant a label of elitism. Bell-bottom jeans aren't cool anymore, and they are certainly not elitist. Same with MC Hammer (and his harem pants) or Gigapets or The Nanny - all things that were cool in their day (and all things that I liked or still like - except for the harem pants, which were never okay). 

Let's take another example: Henry Fielding's hilarious, sexy, comic novel Tom Jones. In the novel, the lovely Sophia, "though she was a perfect mistress of music, and would never willingly have played any but Handel's, was so devoted to her father's pleasure that she learnt" the music his less modern ear appreciated, that is, only tunes that were "light and airy," such as "Old Sir Simon the King" and "St. George he was for England." Back in 1749, Handel was cool. Sophia is a hip character and her musical tastes express that. Nowadays, Handel, when he's remembered, is the guy who wrote that Hallelujah song, but in his time he was the equivalent of Bruno Mars.

One could argue that expense is at the heart of a charge of elitism, but the argument doesn't hold water. Yes, opera and theater have both become prohibitively expensive. But the obscene ticket prices don't stop people from going to, for example, The Lion King on Broadway, or a Katy Perry concert - both of which actually cost more than a peanut gallery seat at the Met or excellent seats for Mark Rylance and the Globe Theater Company, which just ended their run on Broadway (and were absolutely fantastic). So elitism isn't a question of content or expense. What's left?

In the end, no art form is truly elitist (or rather, derided as elitist) until it is old, a fact which makes the charge of elitism all the more silly and adolescent. It is true that simply saying that old stuff is important is not going to do a damn thing. The recent film, The Monuments Men, is pretty messy, but it wouldn't be at all bad if George Clooney didn't continually chew our ears off about the importance of preserving art. I totally agree (and have panic attacks just thinking about the art that didn't make it through World War II), but Clooney, even with that gorgeous face, isn't convincing anybody that wasn't already convinced. People don't reject things like great art, theater, opera, etc. because they don't know they're important. They reject them because a charge of elitism actually means, "I am not familiar with this and it is too much work to keep an open mind about something that is not familiar."

Part of this is an ugly American legacy. The US doesn't have a particularly vibrant cultural history. After all, it is the country that produced "Oh, Susannah" and square dancing, which is not say that there haven't been great American writers, actors, composers, artists, etc. But we don't have centuries-old theater or opera companies, or orchestras, or museums, or artistic communities. Probably the greatest homegrown American art-form is jazz, which less than a hundred years ago was beyond cool and is now... elitist. Contrast that with Italy, which can lay claim to founding opera, ballet, and vernacular poetry (not to mention many of the disciplines that lead to the modern sciences), or England, with its centuries of great theater. In Russia, ballet is still a major art-form, integrated into Russian cultural identity. In Germany, people of all ages see Wagnerian opera. And the US? Jazz clubs aren't exactly flooded (though they do have a larger audience than opera or ballet, barring The Nutcracker).

There are a lot of historical reasons for our resistance to "elitist" art forms - Puritanical rejection of art, dance, and most other art forms is still very much alive, the US is a country of immigrants that often had (or have) little or no education, many vibrant cultural traditions were willfully eradicated through the genocidal treatment of Native Americans and Africans brought here as slaves, and the list goes on. But most importantly, the US is a very, very young country. It has existed for less than 300 years, and the concept of the US as a country is only slightly older. Contrast with England, for example, which is built on several thousand years of cultural traditions, back to the Druids and the shadowy civilizations that preceded them, or Italy, which, although only a unified country for 150 years, has existed conceptually since the the heyday of the Roman empire. And, until fairly recently in history (the second World War), intellectuals, artists, scholars, musicians, actors, playwrights, etc. had few motivations to emigrate to the US.

So, what makes an art form elitist? An elitist art form is old, first and foremost. But there is also the question of quality - art forms that require huge amounts of specialized training and talent are the ones that somehow inevitably end up being labeled elitist. That's the key - if you have to work for it, it's elitist. By working for it, I don't mean singing karaoke and being spotted by a talent scout, or releasing a video and having it go viral. I also don't mean things that pretty much anyone can do, like pop singing, which nowadays is digitally corrected for pitch, or blogging, the only existing bar to which is laziness. The art forms that get the elitist label have aged enough that the generation that consumed them is elderly and require real, genuine thought, training, and years of hard work.

What about non-Western culture? This where the uniquely American form of cultural hypocrisy comes in.  It is politically correct to be respectful of non-Western culture and therefore non-Western art forms usually get a pass (though Chinese opera and kabuki theater aren't about to make any headway). But ultimately, the US is a Western country, founded on Western political ideas and in Western social models. That doesn't mean we should reject non-Western culture anymore than we should reject all Western culture. This is a rare case where we can have our cake and eat it too - we could embrace everything, explore everything, from Tuvan throat singing to Bollywood movies, Bulgarian folk-songs to commedia dell'arte, Elizabethan theater to contact improvisation. There are endless possibilities if we reject the idea of elitist art forms, if only we were willing to delve into the unfamiliar, whether or not the crowd were with us.

In other words, we could treat art forms the way we treat food and become cultural gourmets, fat with discernment and understanding instead of calories.

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