In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« American High Culture Redux | Main | Policy Break »

November 07, 2002

American High Culture re-redux; and Continuing Ed: Lawrence Levine

Friedrich --

Many thanks for your ongoing series about the stresses between popular and high cult in America. You're touching on a bunch of topics I'm primed to rant about myself, among them the greatness of 19th century (ie., pre-modernist, pre-NEA) American art, and the scandal that is a modernist art education. Much else too, but I'm feeling scatterbrained at the moment, and can't pull together anything of much interest or use.

Except a mention of a book I suspect you'd enjoy, Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (buyable here).

Levine: Give the man a Blowhardy

It's a terrific book of cultural history (and a book of facts and inductions, not theory). Levine discusses 19th century America and American culture in eye-opening ways. His topics include Shakespeare (whose works were central to American popular and elite cultures both); sheet music; folk songs; opera; Mozart; marching bands, and much more.

The shitty art-history brainwashing, er, education we were given back in the '70s left us with the impression that pre-modernist American art was an embarrassment -- a crass mess, by and for rubes who could never quite get it until Euro-modernism showed the way. In fact, pre-modernist American culture turns out to have been rather like what's currently developing on the Web -- a wonderful, patchworky jumble.

It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the stress line between popular and elite cultures, always present, became hard and almost absolute. It's interesting (to me, in any case) to note that one of the reasons for this was the way the rate of immigration went soaring. How does this work? Well, the immigrants brought with them Old World beliefs, preferences and tastes, as well as a pushy verve, and knocked aside the old debates and conversations. For better or worse, American modernism was, like Hollywood, largely the creation of immigrants. The other reason was that the native-born, at least those with enough money, found these crowds of rowdy newcomers a bit much; they retreated from the newcomers and the public cultural sphere into enclaves, private life, and a "high culture" that became rather like a country club.

John Philip Sousa: Great American artist?

Part of the strength of Levine's book is his honesty about his reactions to the story he tells. How refreshing and democratic the rowdiness of the 19th-century American crowd! Yet, gosh, do you really want every aria disrupted by a tomato-throwing, cheering, spitting public? It can be too easy to mock the elites, as it can be too easy to be sentimental about the popular crowd.

I'm curious to hear about your responses to the elite-popular split, one of the distinctive characteristics of American culture. (I gather, if with rather little evidence, that the popular and the elite worlds are more prone to coexist than to be at war in Europe and Asia.) Myself, I'm rather like Levine. I approve of the profit motive, and acknowledge that it's into popular culture and commercial art that most of America's art-and-culture talent (let alone energy) goes. People gotta make a living, after all.

That said, that said... Impressed as I am by our popular culture, dazzled though I can be by its sexiness and drive, amazed as I am by the world-beating effectiveness of it, amused though I am to drop into that world from time to time, and annoyed though I can be by people who sneer at it... I'm also often dismayed and appalled by much of it, feel a need to limit my interactions with it, and am in any case unmoved by much by it. I'm temperamentally more drawn to high art, folk art, and oddball art. (I'm sorry more Americans aren't -- I'd like to see the markets for my favorite art forms grow.) Though, of course, it's hard to beat those great moments (swing jazz, for instance, or '30s Hollywood comedies) when high and low moved in synch. And why are these moments so few, short, and far-between, darn it?

Levine does a good job too of separating the art from the case made for or against it. I notice that many commentators -- from Marxists to conservatives, from lefties to libertarians -- have a hard time doing that. They try to deduce an artistic case from their political or economic preferences. For example, libertarians fall into the trap of arguing that if it's popular, it's good; Marxists and conservatives often approve or disapprove of art depending on its political message. It's all too rare to find someone able, for example, to acknowledge that while a prof, critic, patron or class might be a pain, and their arguments might need tearing down, the art they champion or identify with might well be terrific. (Why not enjoy good aristocratic art, good popular art, and good folk art? Art isn't like politics; there's no conflict here.) Levine negotiates this kind of thing well, maintaining a consistent distinction between the art itself and the social uses made of it.

Sample passage:

In the late nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, culture became an icon as never before. Even while anthropology was redefining the concept of culture intellectually, aesthetically it proved remarkably impervious to change; it remained a symbol of all that was fine and pure and worthy.

An idea: Where scholarly nonfiction's concerned, I propose that we award the occasional Oscar-like trophy to Books We Should Have Been Made to Read As Freshmen -- the idea being that we'd have been spared a lot of confusion, searching and foolishness if only we'd been given this to read early on. I hereby nominate Levine's book for one of these awards. Hey, what should we call the awards? Hmm. I'm not sure "Blowhardy" is quite right...

Looking forward to the rest of your series.



posted by Michael at November 7, 2002


How about if we call 'em "Golden Windbag Awards"?

Posted by: Friedrich on November 7, 2002 1:29 PM

Much better!... Or "Golden Gasbags"? Over time, as people grow familiar with them, maybe they'll become known as the Baggies.

Posted by: Michael on November 7, 2002 1:31 PM

I am a junior at Temple university. I am a Humanities major and I am 21 years old. I write poetry and folk music. I can relate to Friedrich's "sifting-through" junk reads and philosophies. I was wondering if anyone may be able to tell me, since contemporary times have made me distrustful and skeptical of information, what "junk reads and foolishness" Levin's book may save me from? Is there specific authors I may be saved from. I would be interested to find out. Thank You.

Posted by: Matthew Luczejko on February 21, 2003 3:07 AM

The following is a short essay that I wrote. It corresponds to the upcoming war with Iraq, and my best friend who was just deployed to Kuwait.

The Recruit by Matt Luczejko

Pried from his home like a kidnapped child, confused, he decided to go. They dressed him up, his feet gleaming, with flags precisely sewn. They meant to change him completely. He was shaved, branded with initials, addressed by numbers, never a name. The pop drums ring with peerless precision, powered by profits they are poisoned and pompous. We prayed for a problem to foil the process, but our prophet never came. So now who's left to blame?

On the other side of the world there is a town and a boy. In the last six months he has aged a lifetime. The heat has made him a cold young man. He has heard something of a cause, but the words were muffled by a competing voice. One, my friend, has never heard. He was conditioned to hear nothing. Many of us, have been conditioned the same.

Meanwhile, somewhere right now in suburban America there is a boy who is looking for something, anything. His dad used to hit him when he was little. I saw 'em just the other day; bleeding eyes, blinded, bored. He told me that he met a man who said he's got a way for him to make some money.

Yeah, he said he won't have to sell no dope, he'll have a new, loving family, and he'll make his father and country proud. The man was a persuasive one, but didn't have to be. It was child's play. The faulty product easily sold itself - like an infomercial that makes too many promises and has a shitty return policy. I wish my friend had never bought in to it. I wish one of us could have said something more. I wish we were back in that apartment drinking and playing cards. He wrote me just today and said he'll be landing in 24 hours. I hope he makes it back okay...

Posted by: Matthew Luczejko on February 21, 2003 3:12 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?