Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Distinctions between high and low cultural expressions have existed at various times and places in history, though not everywhere and not always. There’s a fascinating book by Lawrence W. Levine called Highbrow Lowbrow which details how there was little difference in much of the 18th and all of the 19th century, particularly in America, where Shakespeare and Dickens (writing in that new “popular” form called the novel) and Verdi’s and Mozart’s operas were as much a part of mass culture as jugglers, banjo players and music hall comedy.

When there is a distinction, it is usually based on money and social class, and sometimes on education. There remained some mixing in the 20th century, particularly based on tastes brought over by European immigrants: Italian peasants who loved opera, for instance, and Russians who worshipped ballet. But in some ways, the distinctions certainly became more rigid.

By now, however, in a way they’ve also reversed. Rich people are still more or less in charge of high art, like the symphonies their money partly supports, or the painting and sculpture only they can afford to buy (if only for the investment.) Yet anybody can tune into a classical radio station or get some idea of great paintings from reproductions, and the literary classics are among the cheapest paperbacks you can find. Thanks to DVDs, video stores, downloadable music, etc.--even literary classics online for free--a larger chunk of cultural expression is more easily accessible than ever before.

The problem isn’t so much access to high art, it’s the lack of respect for it. There’s less looking down on the low tastes for popular entertainment. Instead there’s more looking askance at what’s defined as high art. Popular culture is the culture. So it’s become up to popular culture to keep the best of great art alive.

The distinction between high and low has seldom been made by artists themselves. The great composers took liberally from folk melodies, classical artists stole from jazz, jazz artists stole from classical, and the Beatles absorbed from everybody. The same is true in all the arts. But these days, the balance has been distorted—high art absorbs low, but popular arts and entertainment, and even their audiences, keep their distance from the forms and content of high art.

Why is that? Money mostly, but this time not concentrated in the wealthy. The big bucks are in what’s defined as commercial entertainment, which is itself so closely allied to advertising that it is as much a form of advertising as it is a form of music, drama or literature. There is little to distinguish most television from the commercials.

The success of advertising and commercial culture depends on ignorance. Few products are sold anymore on the basis of meeting a need or because they’re good quality and value. Most advertising creates a phony need and suggests, falsely, that its product will meet it. Advertising depends on people falling for it. The dumber the customers are, the easier it is. By and large, television has to be as least as dumb as the commercials if the commercials are to look smart. And sooner or later, everything becomes television, just as every business becomes Hollywood.

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