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June 18, 2005

Patio Man and Radiohead

David Brooks is reverting to type: In a column called Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack, he laments the demise of what he calls "middlebrow culture" (hereafter, MBC).

For Brooks, MBC is a phenomenon: social climbers consuming elite culture as a status symbol. Allegedly, back in the good old days, socially ambitious people had to expose themselves to elite culture whether they liked it or not:

If you read Time and Newsweek from the 1950's and early 1960's, you discover they were pitched at middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite.

The magazines would devote pages to the work of theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reinhold Niebuhr. They devoted as much space to opera as to movies because an educated person was expected to know something about opera, even if that person had no prospect of actually seeing one. [...]

That doesn't happen today. And it's not that the magazines themselves are dumber or more commercial (they were always commercial). It's the whole culture that has changed.

Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said.

Amanda has already done a good job of dissecting Brooks' arguments. Be sure to check out the comments on that thread, too. There's a lively discussion afoot.

Still, I thought there might be a grain of truth in Brooks' steaming pile of elitist bullshit. It seems as if people are less interested in the conspicuous consumption of elite culture than they were in the 1950's and 1960's. I don't have any personal basis for comparison, but for the sake of argument, I'll assume Brooks isn't just fantasizing about an era when the average middle manager from Omaha felt obliged to bone up on opera and mainstream literary criticism in order to climb the corporate ladder.

I'm not suggesting that people are less interested in culture today, nor that social striving is on the wane.

However, it does seem as if there's less social cachet in consuming elite cultural products. Today's social climbers seem more interested in acquiring the lifestyles, manners, and consumer goods of the class they aspire to.

For example, people used to buy leather-bound books by the foot as an interior design accent. Today, people are more likely to invest in glossy coffee table books as a signifier of taste. The fanciness of your stereo system is probably says more about your social status than the titles in your CD collection. Live performances still have a cachet, but ticket price seems to count for more than content. Opera tickets are a status symbol, but you can get at least as much mileage from posh seats at The Lion King.

Every week there's another story about how a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, or an opera house is "struggling to adapt to modern world." That's a nice way of saying that aspirant people don't feel the need to buy tickets to sleep through the season anymore.

The book club is overtaking the bridge club as a middle class institution. If the books marketed for group reading are any indication, book clubs are more about having fun discussions with friends than about slogging through dry but edifying works in the name of self-improvement. Good.

Unlike Brooks, I don't have much of an emotional stake in these apparent trends. They aren't cause for cultural pessimism, or whatever Brooks wants to call his gloom. I see the blurring of "high" and "low" culture as a good thing. It's better that people feel less pressured to define themselves by embracing the "high" and shunning the "low." These days, everyone can afford to admit to liking their share of both. David Brooks might be embarrassed to admit that he watches commercial TV, or prefers a night at the movies to a night at the opera, but most people have moved on.

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Comments

Thad, you are not the only person who reads this thread. You said that the LA Phil are studio musicians. When they are playing as an orchestra, they are not. They are a legitimate philharmonic orchestra, not a bunch of itinerants thrown together for a gig.

Yes, it is bad for musicians to have to play behind Yanni and for commercials and all the rest. They have to do it to eat but it is not good for their art. It is humiliating and the humiliation sneaks into the music. But at least in an orchestra where the administration cares more about music and less about pandering the musicians don't have to eat shit on their own stage.

This is how Uematsu describes the concert on his website: "The audience of nearly two-thousand not only greeted us with a standing ovation; many were screaming wildly as if they were at a rock concert." Pathetic, isn't it.

I read the link you provided to the Melbourne Symphony experience, and what jumps out is that the marketers had no influence on the programming. The marketing effort did not dictate what the musicians played.

How interesting from TomK. It is bad symphonic music but Karoly is a bitch for not wanting to play it. She should know her place, right?

You said that the LA Phil are studio musicians. When they are playing as an orchestra, they are not.

JR, do I really have to explain it again? Yes, the LA Phil are an orchestra. As an orchestra, in addition to their regular season of performances of works from the High Art Canon, they do lots of nonclassical gigs, including recording film scores and backing up pop artists. This is normal. Every orchestra does this. You evidently don't like it, but there's nothing unusual or exceptional about orchestras being "required" to play works outside of the High Art Canon.

"The audience of nearly two-thousand not only greeted us with a standing ovation; many were screaming wildly as if they were at a rock concert." Pathetic, isn't it.

Wait... you think it's "pathetic" when an audience expresses wild, screaming enthusiasm for live orchestral music?

You're surely aware this wild screaming and cheering happened at the original performances of many of the works that are now part of the High Art Canon?

Flann O'Brien wrote a wonderful column (I think, in the 40s) about 'professional book-readers' who would dog-ear and annotate the pristine collections of the nouveaux riches.

Anyway, Brooks is one to talk about the decline of the middlebrow, given his schtick, in which there is no apparent middle. The point about the inaccessibility of high(ish) culture is an important one: if you say that 'high culture has been left to those who enjoy it for its own sake', you haven't seen many corporate hospitality boxes.

The point about the inaccessibility of high(ish) culture is an important one: if you say that 'high culture has been left to those who enjoy it for its own sake', you haven't seen many corporate hospitality boxes.

None, really, except the ones at sports arenas. The higher-ups at my jobs occasionally commandeer museums after hours for cocktail parties, but that's about it. They darken the exhibits and serve nice drinks, so there's no pressure.

The folks we're sucking up to would be embarrassed if they actually sat through a 3-hour opera without their beepers going off. Huge loss of face, that.

Well, we are not communicating very clearly. "Studio musicians" is a term I introduced to the discussion to imply the sort of pick-up ensemble that might be pulled together for a single recording gig. We agree that the LA Philharmonic is not that.

Yes, I do think it's pathetic when an audience screams at musicians without having heard them play yet. It was pathetic when it happened to Sinatra and the Beatles and it's pathetic here. The audience is not expressing appreciation for live music; it is expressing excitment at the prospect of hearing music that it knows from electronic sources. The audience would have screamed just as enthusiastically if the setting had been the Rose Bowl and the music had been amplified through giant speaker arrays.

People yell and scream at wrestling matches and tractor pulls. Yelling and screaming is no indication of artistic merit.

Flann's [actually his alter-ego Myles na Gopaleen's] column in the Irish Times was entitled "Buchhandlung" and described the book-handling service provided to persons of "wealth and vulgarity." The service included not only what you mentioned but also a delightful selection of marginal notes [my favorite: "Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151"], actual forged letters used as bookmarks, and inscriptions in random volumes from the authors. "Every volume to be well and truly handled, first by a qualified handler and subsequently by a master-handler who shall have to his credit not less than 550 handling hours..." That is only available under the most expensive of the services, the "Superb Handling." In the Deluxe Handling, "not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains...each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets."

"dog ears four-a-penny."

It was pathetic when it happened to Sinatra and the Beatles and it's pathetic here.

Was it pathetic for audiences to applaud and cheer wildly when Liszt took the stage? Or Paganini?

I don't want to live in your world, JR. Frankly, it doesn't sound like very much fun.

No. You misunderstood what I said. That bitches complaint was irrelevant, closed-minded and ignorant because it ignored the fact that composers have mined the mythology of their culture for inspiration forever, and that the Final Fantasy games are important tools that trasmit myths, and as such are legitamate targets for serious artists to incorporate into their work. Final

Some form of replaying the loops would be bad symphonic music. A skilled composer (as surely the LA orchestra would have) would adapt the music so it was both inclusive of the mythology and condusive to good symphonic experience.

JR. It's art and it's music. The term Art Music is not only pretentious, it's redundant. I may work for the LA PHIL, btw, but my background is rock, pop, soul, garage, folk and bluegrass. All of it art, all of it music. It goes without saying.

And come on, most musicians, regardless, take what ever gigs they can get...it's an ethic, not a humiliation. It's all a matter of material (good or bad) and performance (good or bad) etc. Nobody wants to play a bad piece of music well. On the other hand you can play a good piece of music badly, or merely simply, and it can still be beautiful.

And no, I'm not in marketing nor administration.

THAD -- the laphil also has an exellent children's education outreach...very extensive and on-going. I facilitate tours for schools all the time, and that's just one aspect of what they do. The Summer Sounds @ the Hollywood Bowl program for children is the best children's musical program I have ever heard. Adult music for children...they respond to it, they understand adult music from all over the world. Even the infants.

I say the high/low art controversy is based on a false dicotomy.

Hey Tom,

Some form of replaying the loops would be bad symphonic music. A skilled composer (as surely the LA orchestra would have) would adapt the music so it was both inclusive of the mythology and condusive to good symphonic experience.

Uematsu already made the adaptation you describe -- it's similar to the way someone like Howard Shore arranges his film score to the LOTR movies for symphonic performance. Uematsu's arrangements are used on the very popular soundtrack CDs, which are released simultaneously with the games -- and I assume those are the same versions used in concert performances.

Again, I don't want to weigh in about the actual artistic merit of Uematsu's music -- for starters, I've never played the video games so I have no idea how well his music works in context. I'm just against people making the assumption that music written for video games must necessarily be completely devoid of craft or merit. Film music used to be derided in much the same knee-jerk terms -- now the LA Phil puts out CDs devoted to the music of Bernard Herrmann et al., to great critical acclaim.

However, it may well take a high-profile film composer crossing over and doing a video game to get the slouch towards respectability going -- personally, I'd love to see a thoughtful video game developer hire Carter Burwell and let him loose.

The Beatles and Sinatra (and Benny Goodman and Paganini and Lizst) were all first-class musicians whose lasting merit transcends, and also illuminates, their appeal to contemporary live audiences.

Bobo's column contains the remarkable line denigrating current popular culture: 'Less Rembrandt, more Me.' I seem to recall that Rembrandt's 600 or so works contain 100 or so self-portraits...

People who deingrate pop culture regardless of quality and "appreciate" Art with a cap A regardless of quality are revealing (1) their self-loathing, (2) their inability to think for themselves, (3) their desire to give "the right answer" and therefore to fit in.

I think people must secretly feel they don't know what they're talking about, their opinions are worthless, or they wouldn't have the knee-jerk attitude that anything that tastes good must be crap and anything that tastes like medicine must be good for me. In other words, if it's pretentious and I don't get it, it's Art. If it's accessible and I enjoy it, it's crap and so am I, dumbshit that I am.

As much as I enjoy the word I just made up -- "deingrate," which strikes me as kinda useful maybe -- I meant to type "denigrate."

There's no reason why games shouldn't have good music.

As for film music, I like the Miller's Crossing soundtrack. And the Joe Strummer music from Walker.

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