Saturday, April 14, 2012

800 Words: Bad Culture - Part 1


I’d have rented my current apartment anyway, but I was in love with it for an exceptional reason. Once one walks into this apartment, the first thing to be noticed (at least when its bare) is the two built in bookshelves on the corner wall. I quickly imagined those bookshelves filled with all the books I could read and never finish, or pretend to read. I have no idea whether or not this is an apartment begging to be rented by a bookworm, but it’s certainly the perfect apartment for someone with aspirations to bookworm-dom that may never be fulfilled.

On my living room coffee table currently sit Cultural Amnesia by Clive James, Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera, From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun, Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, the score of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, an anthology of Jewish Poetry, Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter, and an anthology of music criticism by George Bernard Shaw; and that isn’t even counting the books on my dining room table or my bedroom nightstand (which include a book I bought since beginning this post). I don’t mention this to brag, quite the opposite. I can say with absolute certainty that there is only a single one of them of which I’ve read every page (it’s not the Mozart), the rest of them dwell in various states of incompletion – anywhere from 90% complete to 9 words read. I’ve long since reached the point when the idea of methodically reading books provokes more anxiety than pleasure. I’m 30 now, and can finally admit that there are plenty of ‘great books’ that are either beneath my intelligence or beyond it.

No matter how stupid, dangerous, bereft a place or time seems of reason, there will always exist places within it – homes, libraries, coffeehouses, coffeetables – where something approaching the life of the mind seems possible outside of a school. These places are inevitably more fun than school: we become less encumbered by requirement to parrot received opinions, we become freer to speak whatever heresy we wish, and most importantly, we have greater liberty to seek out learning on whatever far-flung subject we like. Education no longer seems like something that ends in your early 20’s, rather, it’s something that only begins then. There is no cramming for a test and no worry that what you’re learning is useless so long as it’s useful to you. It’s only after the official education is over that the good stuff begins.

All too few people understand that. Most people are so ground down from years of school that they want to have nothing associated with learning for the rest of their lives. My brother Ethan set the gold standard for this approach when he was six. He said that he would only come on a trip my parents were planning so long as there would be ‘NO LEARNING!’ Thanks to the greatness of American education, that’s the mantra of most adults too. Some people go to the opposite approach, and go through deacades of additional schooling merely so they can stay close to books – never mind the dullness of the classes, the inevitably narrow specializations they have to choose, the decades of student loan debt, the paucity of jobs in a career of the mind, the stress of trying to keep them, and the constant bombardment of intellectually worthless jargon which intellectuals are expected to write on a daily basis. In contemporary America, being stupid sucks, but being smart isn’t much more fun.


Surely, in this as in all other things, there has to be a balanced middle ground. Yet few ever find it. Have I? Well…keep reading.

There were times and places in history when aspiring to intelligence were considered honorable pursuits. Really, there were. Is this one of them?..... Need I really ask?

Nevertheless, it’s not as dishonorable as it could be. As an example, let’s briefly consider my own case: I am what some might call a businessman (others, a ‘professional idiot son’) in Baltimore in 2012 from a “newly” upper-middle class (the last 40 years) immigrant family. For twenty-five years I have been obsessed with classical music and in the last five I worry that I’ve developed a similar one for TV. I have abiding loves for movies, literature, painting, poetry, politics, and history. For lower brow pursuits, I love baseball as much as any sane Orioles fan can, I’ve always loved sitcoms, and I think I at least know more about popular American music it than the average American philistine (though without the depth they devote to their narrow slivers I’m afraid). I’m beginning to read comic books and graphic novels, and maybe one day I’ll start playing video games and start doing LARP’s (live action role playing). I wish I knew more about math and science, and I wish I could do more than be the disaster I am in the half-dozen foreign languages I’ve tried to learn over the years. I hope that one day I can find a way to teach myself these more technical pursuits, and I’ve hardly given up hope. I’ve had the great fortune of being born to a family that values learning and encouraged my pursuits in this regard, even though (especially because?) I was a disaster of a student. I’ve found many friends over the years that put a similar value on life-long education (though I wish that 17-year-old me would have known that). I may be from Baltimore, but I grew up in the county and most of my friends from there have long since moved to DC anyway. Baltimore is still a new city for me, but I recently held a weekend-long 30th birthday party with roughly 40 guests over the course of it, some of whom virtually traveled across the country to attend. I’m currently sitting on my living room couch on a Saturday night, but that bothers me far less than it would have when I was fifteen. All the same, this is certainly not the optimal life for a person like me. I’d rather make my living as a writer, whether of words or music, and I’d rather not have to go 50 miles out of my way to see the majority of my friends in Washington, as I usually still have to do. I have no doubt that even in optimal circumstances for 2012 Baltimore, someone like me would find a far more sympathetic environment in Washington DC or Boston, still more sympathetic in New York or Chicago, and probably still more so in a European capital. But for now, I have more than enough reasons to stay that I’m not going to run screaming to any of those cities for at least a bit longer.

Better yet, perhaps it would be nicer to stay in Baltimore and simply rewind the clock by about 50 or 60 years. When you tell most people in my generation that ‘culture’, or at least ‘highbrow culture’, was as late as the 1960's a genuine middle class aspiration, their usual reaction is amused disbelief. You don’t even have to scour youtube for all the evidence of prime time documentaries and opera on network television. All one has to do is look at a few old copies of Time or Life Magazines. Everybody knows that Time Magazine is a shadow of its former self, yet few people actually know what that means – not only were the articles longer (and better informed), but they used to cover a shockingly wide range of global cultural events. In an issue from the early 1960’s one might find everything from speculation about the next director of the Boston Symphony to profiles of the up and coming Spanish language authors from Latin America. It routinely commissioned articles from the world’s top writers, not only non-fiction but fiction as well. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was a Life Magazine Publication. The closest modern-day equivalent to either Time or Life is our era's incarnation of The Economist. But whereas The Economist has anonymous authors and a world-wide circulation of 1.5 million subscribers, Time and Life at their height had between them national circulations of roughly thirteen million. Imagine, there was a time not long ago when a general American public numbering up to thirteen million people were interested in all those ‘high-minded’ pleasures which seem to interest million and a half people worldwide today – the English speaking ones anyway. And this was at a time when America’s population is half of what it currently is!

When we talk about the decline of small town America, it’s highly probable that the decline of this ‘middlebrow’ culture had as much to do with it as any number of closed factories. When mass media stopped being interested in high culture, it became that much harder for someone from small town USA have any idea of how weird and large the world can be.

Of course, they can…all one has to do is be one of the 20 million Americans who listens to NPR, or the 3 million Americans who subscribe to HBO, or live near an artfilm theater, or study at decent schools. In some ways, our contemporary scenario is preferable. We live in a seeming infinity of cultural choices, with the ability to watch hundreds of television stations and to see things on the internet only limited by our imaginations (rule 34…). To paraphrase the critic Terry Teachout – without whom this post would be impossible – there is something in today’s America for anybody, but there is nothing in America for everybody. With so little common currency among today’s Americans, is it any wonder that Red and Blue America seem to speak two different languages?

It’s not helped by the fact that there are many intelligent people in ‘Blue America’ who would say that there is nothing inherently superior about ‘high’ culture except for its snobbery. There is no reason, in their estimation, why Van Gogh would be considered a superior artist to Banksy. Perhaps they’re right, there is no truly objective criteria which says that one has to be ‘better’ than the other*, but there are subjective preferences, and every one of us has them. History has far too many examples of what happens to societies which drop their standards without installing new ones, however arbitrary. Liberality and anarchy are very different things, and nature abhors a vacuum. If a liberal regime does not uphold a certain standard, in aesthetics as well as politics, an illiberal one might seize the opportunity to uphold its own.

*much as der Koosh would disagree


“They belonged to the class of those who are by birth aristocratic, but who themselves go over to some freer and more radical mode of thought and of action. There is something singularly attractive about men who retained, throughout life, the manners, the texture of being, the habits and the style of a civilized and refined milieu. Such men exercise a peculiar kind of personal freedom which combines spontaneity with distinction. Their minds see large and generous horizons, and, above all, reveal a unique intellectual gaiety of a kind that aristocratic education tends to produce. At the same time, they are intellectually on the side of everything that is new, progressive, rebellious, young, untried, of that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond. To this type belong those intermediate figures, like Mirabeau, Charles James Fox, Franklin Roosevelt, who live near the frontier that divides old from new, between douceur de la vie which is about to pass and the tantalizing future, the dangerous new age that they themselves do much to bring into being.”

These words were uttered by one of my personal heroes, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin – the great political thinker of the twentieth century (whose work I’ve read). The best periods of history have people like Roosevelt at their vanguard, ‘great men’ who ushered in periods of greater freedom as though it were their personal gift. Social classes exist, now as much as in the 19th century. And while people certainly get more opportunities to ascend or descend than they did in 1900, it’s probably more difficult now to ascend to America’s next rung up, yet easier to descend, than at any point since before the GI bill. To a certain extent, we all (at least those people reading this blogpost) have privileges and opportunities which make us privileged above 99% of the world population. But rest assured, there are still higher echelons of privilege that will never open to those of us who couldn’t get into first-rate universities, or those (thankfully not me) who ran up hundreds of thousands in student loan debt, or those who didn’t get the right boss, or those who didn't marry into money. The ultimate arbiter of social mobility is not merit, it’s luck. Occasionally there are wunderkinder who stun the world with their talents, but even they have to be noticed. We do not choose what family we are born into, nor do we choose what opportunities present themselves to us. All we can do is work as best we can at we do and hope that a capricious whim from a more privileged person distinguishes us from the thousands of deserving others who have precisely the same ambitions, capabilities, and drive which we do. And even when their winds blow in our direction, they blow but a few times in the entirety of our lives, and if we do not strike with full force to keep their direction affixed on us, those particular winds will probably never blow again, and few other winds ever will.

To an extent unknown to our parents, we are stuck exactly where we were born, and nothing but the always inconsistent generosity of more privileged people will ever get any of us to realize higher ambitions than precisely the ones our parents already realized. Most people reading this are the middle class, and the only opportunity to move into a higher echelon which most of us will ever have is by kowtowing to the arbitrary desires of those with greater power than we shall ever get. If we find ourselves unable to do that, we must surrender ourselves to the fact that we will one day retire in middle management; this is even truer now than it was for our parents. Social mobility is all too rare in the best of times, but the best of times for America is forty-five years in the past. We are now a country in unmistakable decline, and the family of every person to read this post probably exists –at best – in the exact same social class it was in thirty-five years ago. The ‘elite’ still exists, and is more exclusive in 21st century America than it was for most of the 20th. Whether ‘high culture’ is embraced or decried by those with the financial means for access to it, it is increasingly their exclusive property. Those who enjoy special privileges never enjoyed by most of us are rarely ever cognizant of the daily difficulties incurred by those without their privileges. And of those few who are aware, still fewer have any desire to help those without it, lest their own privileges be compromised.

History does not happen from the bottom up unless it has to. In most historical periods, powerful people are there to turn the spigots of opportunity on and off at will, and whether they decide to do so often depends on what side of the bed they wake up. Some of these powerful people are remembered by history; others (perhaps most) are forgotten. But in today’s cultural environment, few powerful voices in ‘high’ culture will ever be remembered. It’s not a terrible fate: so long as a person lives an enjoyable life that leaves the world a better place than (s)he found it, who cares whether they once gave a great performance of Coriolanus or Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, or wrote a great scholarly article on the use of turn-of-the-century Irish slang in Finnegan’s Wake? History has little use for such contributions, and even the work of the very best performers, critics, and scholars must disappear in the sands of time. But many of the figures who will be remembered for many centuries afterward are not those who helped their times, but rather those who hurt them. There is a special place in history for those who were so blind to their times, so tone-deaf to the feelings of those beneath them, that they were rebelled against. There should be little doubt that John Rawls will be forgotten, even though he was mostly right. There should be equally little that Francis Fukuyama will not be, even though he was almost totally wrong. The former speculated that liberalism is a relative concept that can make periodic gains through increments, the latter one declared that liberal democracy was the singular end of history. One was a genuinely powerful thinker, the other a grotesque parody of a thinker. Yet it will be Fukuyama who will be remembered. He may one day have new champions, but he will fundamentally be remembered as an historical joke whose thesis was disproved at virtually the moment it was published.

In this same way, there are literally hundreds of figures throughout our world’s cultural debates who are opening themselves up to this sort of risible posterity. Rather than being remembered as the Franklin Roosevelts of their fields, they will be remembered as the Herbert Hoovers (or the Czar Nicholas's), and are either blind to the developments of their time, or unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to turn the tide. The rebellion against high culture has been happening for nearly a century. But for a century, all these art forms have been hobbling along, contenting themselves with consistently diminishing returns.

At what point do these problems reach critical mass? At what point does not even a sustainable portion of the public think the rewards of music of Wagnerian size, novels of Tolstoyian dimensions, poetry as difficult as the symbolists, philosophy of Hegelian density, and Ibsenite drama, are worth the sustained difficulty, training, money, and commitment it takes to properly understand them (in many of these cases, I’m frankly not sure myself)? Is it truly beyond the realm of possibility that all these post-Romantic behemoths will simply be swallowed by history’s tide within our lifetimes? And if they are swallowed up, is there not an equally large chance that smaller works, works merely of Mahlerian, Flaubertian, O'Neillish dimensions could soon follow? And what after that?... And let's be even more far-fetched. If all this comes to happen, could there be a new period that will arise, perhaps in our children’s lifetimes, in which people try to revive appreciation of precisely these works?

And if that last speculation is true, isn’t it highly possible that the break in the interest, money, and training it takes to properly understand these works will be insurmountable? Massive undertakings require massive commitments, and if there isn’t enough commitment from today's public to understand why people once loved this stuff, will there ever again be sufficient interest in these works to produce them, to even study them on a college campus? And if these works are lost to history’s dustbin, won’t their future unemployed advocates remember the names of the institutions, critics, arts administrators, and even some practitioners who did not advocate forcefully enough for why this which it takes to maintain interest in these loose baggy monsters?

Furthermore, unlikely as it seems, if all of these speculations turn out to be accurate, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cultural figures who are opening themselves up to fates still worse than being forgotten by posterity. They will be remembered, and not at all fondly – their names as asterisks next to Wagner’s and Tolstoy’s as explanations as to why we people will never see a grand opera again, or why people no longer have the attention span to read a long work of fiction.*

And still furthermore, if all this rampant speculation is correct, perhaps it will turn out to be a good thing which they’ve allowed, because all the huge resources these art works demand will now be free for other pursuits. Perhaps the ground will be cleared so a greater art can spring up in its place. But history shows that that's bloody unlikely, small instabilities are usually followed by greater ones. Chaos spreads inexorably until a universal standard is set again, at a price that is typically too great to countenance until it happens. And that's as true for the arts as it is for any other of life's aspects. When order fails, a new order does not automatically spring up to replace it; but when it does, the new order imposed is that much more militant because of the years wasted by anarchy.

But no matter what occurs in the wake of a new world order, that will not change the fate of those who let it happened. The current elite of tastemakers will be remembered as the last generation of the Ancien Régime, and more importantly, they will be remembered as a generation of privileged elite so spoiled, so decadent, that they were utterly blind to history’s tide and let fall so many of the hallowed traditions which propelled them to such gorgeous supremacy in the first place. It won’t matter whether they were repressively conservative or merely limousine liberals who used pop music and indie film as ways to slum, they will all be grouped together as the people who let some of the most hallowed of old traditions fall into history’s cracks. And whether that matters to the rest of us, it should probably matter to them.

*admittedly, if humans become no longer capable of reading long books, there will probably be no asterisks in books either.

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