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November 05, 2002

American High Culture


After reading a history of the NEA last week, I got to pondering the whole question of “high" culture in America. As you might imagine, the term gets tossed around quite a bit in any such book. But once I started thinking about it, I got a bit confused: I mean, can anybody tell me exactly what is "high" culture? From sociological observations over the years, I would say it would include painting (but not Norman Rockwell), classical music (but not R&B), opera (but not Broadway musicals), ballet (but not square dancing), poetry (but not the kind that rhymes if written between 1910 and 1990), literature (but not best sellers), etc., etc. It seems to help a work’s high-culture quotient a lot if it embodies a well-defined artistic tradition that was nurtured someplace other than America (if possible, Europe) and if that art, previous to the French Revolution, was created for kings, aristocrats, and/or the prelates of the Catholic Church. I guess a working definition of "high" culture in today’s world is anything that (1) wasn’t dreamed up by Americans, or, at the very least, will never be understood by the average American (2) conveys social cachet and (3) can’t charge its consumers enough to keep it afloat. Now, it may seem harsh to condemn all cultural activities originating in America as “low.” But I think the following quote from historian Clinton Rossiter accurately summed up many generations of American and European intellectual thought on that subject:

…no great nation can be said to be worth respecting or imitating if it has not achieved a high level of culture, and it is at least an arguable question whether this nation will ever achieve it.

Obviously, in the 20th century America has plenty of institutions that have guarded the gate against the barbarians of the “low” and nurtured the flame of the "high"—universities, museums, symphony orchestras, etc. But it got me thinking where these institutions come from, because when I look at America in the 19th century, I can't see any such thing as "high" culture, in the sense of artistic activities fulfilling all three conditions I outline above. For the skeptics in the audience, I’m prepared to lay out some illustrations, limiting myself to music in order to keep this posting at a manageable length.

Music began its history in America in church, where, by the beginning of the 18th century, it was conceded by even the Puritans to be necessary in order to keep everyone together when reciting the Psalms aloud. Let's face it, though: there has never been any social cachet attached to the Puritans. The Revolutionary War saw a flowering of musical creativity, but it was aggressively anti-European in nature, with American musicians deliberately changing the words of British songs, such as "Yankee Doodle," to taunt their adversaries. William Billings, a Boston tanner, composed an anthem called "Chester" that expressed his confidence in the ability of the new nation to shake off the "iron rods" and "galling chains" of tyranny—but of course that would never have gone over well with European aristocrats and was far too, well, American to cut the mustard, high-culture-wise.

Concert music written after the Revolution deliberately echoed European models but made the mistake of attracting sufficiently large audiences to pay its own way. Outside the concert hall, Americans created their own music, sometimes for performance but often as an everyday activity. Stephen Foster's songs were popular with audiences, which pretty much dooms his shot at high culture. African-Americans used the call-and-response style to tell stories in work songs, sang in the pre-blues style of the field holler, and developed a tradition of spirituals, but the lack of any aristocratic tradition and the low social standing inherent in being a slave shoots down any “high culture” claims for these innovative musicians.

NewOrleansSign.jpg Opera The New Orleans Way

New Orleans was a major center of opera throughout the 19th century, premiering more than 400 operas (the vast majority of them, moreover, in French!) This sounds distinctly promising, high-culture-wise, until one looks a bit closer: songs were frequently borrowed from other operas by the performers, and requests might be shouted from the audience, resulting in inserted numbers and encores. The public sometimes became rowdy—in the gallery, the section farthest from the stage, there was often drunkenness, gambling, and prostitution going on during the performance—which caused some understandable controversy over the morality of theatrical productions. During an 1835 performance of a Mozart opera in New Orleans, the lead soprano was compelled to sing such popular numbers as ‘The Light Guitar,’ ‘Should Be Upbraid,’ ‘Come Prithee Kneel to Me,’ and ‘Bright Eyes” to avoid an audience insurrection over Mozart’s hopelessly old-fashioned music. The resulting pop-opera hybrid, if for no other reason than its sustained profitability, could never qualify under today’s standards for "high" culture.

Even the first major symphony orchestra in America was developed for distastefully mercenary reasons. Tough times in the latter 1830s closed down many theaters in New York, throwing a lot of musicians out of work. In response, a group of them banded together to provide themselves with jobs by creating the New York Philharmonic. Holding their first (financially successful) concert in 1842, they organized themselves into as a cooperative business, where members regrettably paid dues, managed their own affairs, and shared any profits at the end of each season, thus killing their hopes for high-culture status.

With the coming of the Civil War, marches and songs that spoke of home, sweethearts, and mothers became popular—damn! Many of these were printed by composer-entrepreneurs such as George F. Root, whose Chicago publishing house thrived by selling sheet music to middle-class households with a piano. Well, you know where that gets you, high-culture-wise.

Plenty of Box Seats Here: Metropolitan Opera in 1883

In New York, the Metropolitan Opera was formed in the early 1880s when a group of successful businessmen, unable to get box seats at the smallish downtown Academy of Music Theater, decided to build their own opera house in Midtown so they could listen to Italian Opera in comfort (and glittering social distinction). While this was a truly promising beginning, they frittered away their chance to go for high-cultural gold by ditching their highflown Italian opera company after it cost them $300,000 the first season and switching abruptly to a cobbled-together German opera troupe. Given the reduced costs (German singers didn’t cost as much as Italians) and the increased revenues (the large German population of Manhattan turned out in strength for every performance) the owners embarked on a highly profitable path, thus flushing their chance at high-culture glory down the drain.

As the 19th century wore on, performances by military-style bands reflected the popular (that word again!) taste for dances, marches, and symphonic excerpts - an audience-pleasing mix dreamed up by John Philip Sousa. Vaudeville theaters offered comedians, scenes from Shakespeare's plays, dancing, and minstrel songs. Regrettably, one must conclude that vaudeville (despite the Frenchy name) is unacceptably American in orientation, as well as profitable, and thus must be tossed in the “low” culture bin.

Towards the end of the century there was a noticeable flowering of creativity among black musicians. The products of this flowering included the cakewalk dance, ragtime and the earliest forms of jazz. However, this music derives largely from the marching-band traditions of New Orleans and is far too much of an American musical expression to make the high-culture grade.

So, you may ask, if America utterly lacked a high culture in the 19th century, where did all of today’s flourishing high-cultural musical activity come from? I’ll answer that in another post, but I’ll give you a hint: think non-profit.



P.S. The above account derives from many sources, but chiefly from “My History is America’s History” (fittingly, a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities), the website of the Metropolitan Opera, and the essay “Satchmo Meets Amadeus: Mozart in 19th–Century New Orleans” by John H. Baron, which you can read here, here and here.

posted by Friedrich at November 5, 2002


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