Wednesday, May 02, 2012

How Highbrow Killed Culture

Fred Siegel has a cultural overview essay at Commentary.  (HT: Bird Dog at Maggie's.) Early on, the set by
Ortega’s extended essay and Huxley’s novel were written at a dark time for democracy. In the course of the 1920s, first Portugal, then Spain, Italy, Greece, Japan, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, followed by Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and a host of Latin American countries had turned to dictatorship. Fascism was in the saddle in Italy and the Nazis were threatening to seize power in Germany as both The Revolt of the Masses and Brave New World were being composed—yet both Ortega and Huxley saw American culture as the greatest threat to the future.
 Siegel is clearly a supporter of high culture, Western Civ, and regular Joes absorbing as much of it as they can.  As access to great ideas, great art, and great literature exploded in the 1950's, the general public scooping them up greedily, despite all prediction that they never would or could do any such thing, what were the elites supposed to do?  They were in danger of being out-competed by ill-born Americans who didn't agree with them. Clearly something horrifying was afoot.  What to do, what to do?  Either the high culture or their personal feelings of superiority would have to go.  Not that they recognised this blatant self-interest at the time.
Sontag, who thought of herself as a displaced European suffering among philistine Americans, argued that “intelligence” was “really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.” And the “new aristocrats of taste” were those led by homosexual men who saw that comic books, popular art, and pornography viewed with the right spirit of irony and mischief were an extension of the new sensibility that saw “life as theater.” In this victory of style over content and aesthetics over morality, Sontag defined the emerging ethos of the 60s. The middlebrow menace was banished to the sidelines.
 I say this with some venom because I was this sort of person, at least in part, who saw himself as better than the uninronic people who didn't "get it." I have relatives who are still much like this, all in favor of the Common Man, while nursing the comforting idea of the superiority of the few.


Sam L. said...

One simply MUST preserve one's own sense of superiority to the lower classes. Heaven (should one so believe in one) forfend!

james said...

It is always possible to claim greater and greater refinement that the masses could never have the time to appreciate. The price you pay is that you have to concentrate a greater part of your life on such details. And that attitude militates against fashion, which is such a useful tool for displaying wealth.
("If you're anxious for to shine"...)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well put, james. You may want to do a post on that yourself.