Fueling the Elitist Fire

Annoyingly long posts often suck the life out of a blog, or so I’m told. But hey, look on the bright side, you’ve got your health. So be grateful. Enjoy it while you got it. And if you want to stay for a spell, just put on some background music, dim your screen and let me take you on a long ride in a short bus.


The LA Times writers have been quite aggressive these past few days, penning what seems to be a large number of opinion pieces dealing with attitudes toward art (a whole two articles, in fact). Both Scott Timberg’s High culture meets low culture in a mass-media world and Mark Swed’s Elitism is not a dirty word have garnered numerous responses on the blogosphere and elsewhere. Most are favorable and they incite a load of discussion. Awesome. They deserve it.

So what are they all about and why am I here? Scott Timberg’s subtitle lays out the problem quite nicely:

Many stigmas are gone as the lines between highbrow and lowbrow blur. But will a loss of quality be the price?

To me and, I’m sure, many of you, this is not a new thought. In fact, I can’t remember a time when this wasn’t part of the discussion. But here it is in the Times, published this past Sunday, as if it were novel. However late it may be, it’s still worth the time to read and consider (props to the Tim and the Times).

Tim goes on to talk about the blurring of the lines:

Most people I know share my disparate taste, enjoying " South Park" alongside Franz Schubert, the crisply plotted novels of James M. Cain as well as the philosophically searching films of Antonioni.

“Hey Franz, remember the underwear gnomes?” Good times.

He goes on:

I WONDER sometimes if we may have succeeded too well in getting rid of distinctions, though. It's hard for me to avoid a low-grade worry that we're losing our ability to recognize quality itself.

A fine concern, indeed. To help him sort it out, Tim talks with people he knows, including music critic Alex Ross, book critic Laura Miller and film critic Steve Erikson. They all have interesting things to say. But it’s what travel writer Pico Iyer says that catches my attention.

"What we seem to have nowadays is more of a hierarchy of media," said Iyer, "whereby, for example, dance, classical music, opera, and even theater and books, all of which commanded their own sections in Time magazine only a generation ago, are now regarded as lofty and remote subjects for only a handful of connoisseurs." Those pages, he said, are "given over now to a Britney watch or extended investigations into the new iPhone."

Uh, Tim. Pico. As I read it, arts are still separated into hierarchies. So, there is no blurring of the lines, after all? Are you saying that things are separated into, you know, third tier, second tier, mezzanine, orchestra pit, books?

Also, classical music, because it’s regarded as “lofty and remote,” sure sounds elitist, doesn’t it?

Instead of feeling guilty about reading pulp novels, he said, we worry that we've become "elitist" if we go see chamber music or jazz.

Really? That’s the worry? The fear of becoming an elitist? That precedes peoples tastes? Being an elitist? Really?

“You know, honey, whenever I hear Carl Orff on an advetisement, I feel this inexplicable and sudden urge to go the symphony. I think I really like this kind of music.”

“That’s great! But don’t forget, if you go to a concert, you’ll look like an elitist.”

“Ewww. I don’t want that! Maybe it’s better to stay home and enjoy it in private. Or better yet, let’s go see the Lakers, instead!”

I bet Mark Swed has something to say about this.

EVERY NOW and then, writers at The Times lose a word. Mainly these are adjectives subject to misuse. Some years ago we were advised to let go of legendary. Similarly, don't expect to see iconic, which has become equally cheapened, in the paper much anymore.

The adjectival criminal I'd like to see handed over to the word police is elitist, especially in its relationship to the arts and popular culture.

I know, right? I’m in complete agreement.

To explain:

In the "elitist" Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of "elite" is the "choice part, the best (of society, a group of people, etc.)," none of which sounds so terrible. But that is not what is meant when, say, classical music, my field, is scorned as elitist, as it regularly is.

And to echo Pico:

The arts are seen as for the select few -- too expensive, too inaccessible, too chichi for the general public devoted to movies, pop music, television and sports.

Ah. To remember the days of Bernard Holland, elite of the elite...

...Oh, right! Stay focused.

Mark drives home an important division: that the word elitist has been thrown about so much in the pejorative sense, even though it is by its very definition innocuous, that it has taken on a new and very strong negative connotation, which is often used to describe classical music. And that sucks.


In fact, the reverse can just as easily be true.

Ever see High Fidelity?

A ticket to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic in fancy-schmancy Walt Disney Concert Hall may not always be easy to come by at the last minute and top seats are now $147. But for most programs, bench seats behind the stage (which many love) go on sale two weeks before the concert for $15. Do I need to detail the princely sums in the thousands it takes to attend an NBA playoff? On Broadway, $400 tickets no longer raise eyebrows. At Disney, we are a democratic audience who sit together. In the supposedly populist Staples Center, luxury suites resemble nothing so much as the royal boxes in European opera houses of old. Anyone can go to an art museum, but not anyone can get past the bouncers at the latest in-crowd club.

In other words, things that make you think are elitist. At least that’s my crooked interpretation, given the analogies. Just kidding, maybe.


By the way, let’s do away with the adjective academic, too. I mean, is Elliott Carter really academic? Or is it in the mind of the beholder?


Either way, the word elitist can apply to anything. So it must go. And I agree.

More importantly, if it can apply to anything, then the lines between media hierarchies, in Tim and Pico’s sense, have indeed been blurred. The question then becomes, strangely, why is elitism worrisome? And that’s something even Mark wouldn’t touch, because it’s so thorny.

But enough of that tenuous thread. It’s a little too hyper-inter-textually meta-nitpicky for my taste. There are a few things we can take from all this, though:

1) Classical music is often seen as elitist, but that distinction has blurred.
2)The word elitist is cheapened when it’s applied to anything; therefore, it must go.
3)Once we get rid of elitism, a synonym for “best” or “choice,” there’s a void for adequate descriptors.
4)How do we best fill that void?

Take it away Tim:

Having some standards seems more and more important in a time when the traditional arts have lost a bit of their prestige, some of their audience, and all of their monopoly on perceived quality.

If we’re going to continue to make or criticize art or music or art music, which is an important part of making our way through the blurry flurry of culture, then we might want to set up some standards. Good idea, sort of. This is how I might start.

1) Don’t refer to something as “elitist.”
2) ...

3) Profit!

This can get a little tricky, especially if you want to avoid being an elitist know-it-all. Nonetheless, and harmless enough, Tim hypothesizes what this kind of blurred-lines kind of art might look like:

The great 21st century work seems to me to merge this promiscuous blend of pop styles with a rigor and discipline that comes from the old-school approach to serious art.

To the contrary, I might say that the great 21st century work blends this promiscuous rigor and discipline with pop styles. Whatever. Who knows? Right?

It's what I expect to find when I see " The Dark Knight"...



Empiricus, what’s your point? Why the song and dance routine?

I’m glad you asked. And thanks for your patience, again.

The situation that both Tim and Mark present us with is, for better or worse, post-modern. It’s a world where the lines between one thing and another have been erased. Pre-established hierarchies of quality have collapsed, leading to a lack of standard weights and measures. In other words, tradition has been bucked, but somehow we need to get back on the horse. Aware of this, Mark sees an opportunity to throw out some useless descriptors. Originally innocuous, elitist takes on derogatory meanings, often specifically in reference to classical music. But, given post-modernism’s set of goggles, just about anything exclusive can be viewed as elitist (as a negative); so why use it?

As he concludes:

But elitism, in its pejorative sense, is a state of mind, not a cultural phenomenon.

From our perspective, here at the Detritus, this is something we’ve argued for since the beginning, only in a different way. Since our meta-goggles are focused on criticism, it makes sense to evaluate reviews with similar sensibilities. How are reviews elitist? How can we reconcile inflated language so that it’s not inappropriately self-aggrandizing? What responsibility does criticism have toward its readers or culture in general? So, if I were to rephrase Marks conclusion toward our purposes, it might be a tiny bit different:

Elitism, in its pejorative sense, is a state of mind, not a cultural phenomenon; this state of mind, however, is not limited to the word elitism, it is easily observable in critics’ unnecessarily inflated language.


Take for instance Richard S. Ginell’s review, published a day after Tim and Mark’s pieces (also in the LA Times):

Mordern approach works for I Palpiti

It’s pretty standard fare...until we dig a little deeper.

By the time the Festival of International Laureates' I Palpiti string orchestra enters Walt Disney Concert Hall for its annual showcase...

In other words, they are displayed annually. Sounds like a special occasion. A rare treat. Is that elitist?

...it usually sounds ready to take on the world.

The group is world-class. Better than most. A hierarchy rears its ugly head, no?

Such was the case again Saturday night; the young 24-member ensemble played with a ripeness and polish...

Ripe = ready to eat, perfect taste; polish = silverware? And this is all pretty standard vocabulary—showcase, world-class, ripe, polished. No fault to Richard, this is the kind of language he inherited.

[Conductor-founder Eduard Schmieder] reached into the contemporary sphere and brought forth a profoundly moving threnody...

Profoundly moving!? I don’t know, but it sounds like Richard came out of this concert a new man, a man with a radically positive perspective on life; perhaps afterwards he made himself a resolution to donate twenty-percent of his paychecks to charity. That’s how profoundly moving it was.

[...] by Britain's John Tavener, who started out as a Beatles-sponsored wunderkind...

Wunderkind, to me, smacks of a kind of word-elitism. Why not use prodigy, instead. Why use the fun German word (I know it’s a common, so lay off)? Just saying.

...and evolved into one of the most popular of the so-called holy minimalists.

First, he evolved past the Beatles; he’s better, more popular. Second, he’s one of the “most popular.” Third, “holy minimalists?” It's not Richard's term, but still. If that’s not inflated language, I don’t know what is.

How about this?

...mystic trills...

If I had a nickel for every time some said that...

Or, how about this?

...everyone in the hall finally fell under the piece's spell.

Because, you know, pieces cast spells. Ugh.

So, that’s the Tavener. What else?

Malcolm Arnold's lushly neo-classical Concerto for Two Violins and Strings was a robust chaser.

Do you mean to tell me that something neo-classical is lush? It simply does not follow. Lush seems like an inflation, to me. Is that elitist?

And finally, the Grieg transcription:

...I Palpiti passionately nailed the Serenade's tough, fast unison runs.

How do string players passionately nail things?


You’re all filthy.

Like I said, I don’t fault Richard—this is the language he inherited. We all did. It’s just that, if classical music is to be seen as not elitist, then it’s up to our critics to call a concert a concert, instead of turning it into the second coming, which is very elitist.

(in an Andy Kaufman-like voice) tank you bery much.


I almost forgot, you can listen to Mark on Talk of the Nation defending his article, here.


Empiricus said...

Over-inflated language is not partly responsible for the perceived elitism in classical music?

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, E. I guess I'll contribute a customary Gustavian comment and say that I'm pro elitism. When seeking health care I want an elite physician. If I were waging war I would prefer an elite fighting force. And so on.

Why attack elevated language? Elevated language is usually indicative of an education, something I wholeheartedly endorse. It seems to me that those things that represent a lack of education deserve derision. Have we all succumb to Bush's war on knowledge? How can anyone defend an argument that someone should write less eloquently, or less intelligently (although, clarity should never be compromised)? This isn't meant for children, therefore it is the responsibility of the listener/reader/patron to educate themselves, not the author to write to the level of his/her audience. If we worry about accessibility are we not (as you suggest E) turning towards profit as our primary standard?

Now, I hate to generalize, but post-modernism (and again, I'm not a hater) does, in some ways, try to do away with comparative analysis, which is to say, somethings are indeed better than other things. To borrow from politics, freedom of speech, better; equality for minorities and women, better; not stoning people for being gay, better. Yes, yes, it's all a rich tapestry, but I feel quite comfortable making value judgments about such things. And for me, the arts are really no different. It isn't to dismiss the power or relevance of pop culture, but I've decided the characteristics that I value (like free speech and educated, "academic" art) and I am ready to declare them better. The stakes are not nearly as high with art as they are with politics and social values, but there is good in better. Everyone is free to enjoy whatever they like, but I don't need their validation to enjoy what I enjoy.

Whatever, I do what I want.

Empiricus said...

Elevated language is fine. I have no problem with that. I think making critical judgments is important and I'd rather have someone who knows a lot about the subject making those judgments. I'm just not sure that I'm ready to say that Beethoven is better than the Beatles, or that one is more profoundly moving. This is why debate is cool and necessary.

But, if we acknowledge that "elitism" or "elitist" has been cheapened as a descriptor, therefore it's worth throwing aside, as Mark suggests, then is it worthwhile to throw away inflated language, the stuff that suggests "elitism" in its pejorative sense? For example, "profoundly moving." Not every concert or piece can be afforded such a high ranking, as they often are. To me, it's thrown about too much; it's cheapened. Or how about "holy minimalists?" It's fun, to be sure, but it's also a little inflated.

Whatever. There's an opportunity to purge some of this standard language. I'd like to see some of it go, because it fuels the perception that classical music is elitist (in the pejorative).

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Empiricus. Sure, throw out meaningless descriptors for the sake of true clarity of language. I have always abhorred the devaluing of words like beautiful and profound in art. I tend to see this as part of the modern education which severely lacks genuine criticism where modern arts are concerned. Arts/Music schools rarely train truly critical eyes/ears in their students. Technique cannot be undervalued, but a thorough knowledge of history, trends, and (at least) the major rep is essential to a fully realized artist/musician. Understanding why something doesn't work artistically is just as important as understanding why it does work. The result, in my experience, has been that most people don't feel justified or know how to efficiently criticize any piece of art, and thus are forced to regurgitate hackneyed descriptive phrases that lose meaning through overuse. Writing an effective negative review is more difficult than a positive one--and always puts more of the burden of proof upon the author.

And there is always room for debate -- Beatles v. Beethoven Celebrity Death Match. However, I am also making the point that, for myself, I embrace the negative perceptions of elitism. Please, I valued the educated, academic, and elevated. The short of it -- smart people kick ass.