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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

I always bring this up, because I hated the article so much, but Brooks wrote in the Atlantic a while back about college students and how they are all just so overachieving. The context was rich parenthood: we're all trying so hard to make great children that we've taken the soul out of them. The punchline was a pat on his own back: boy, we're doing a great job as parents, with all these toys we buy to make our kids smart; but Brooks added a wistful glance back at a picture from the WWI era, and worried that our overachieving kids (we and our because Brooks assumes that anyone who reads him is rich and white or wants to be) just don't have the toughness to be cannon fodder.

This column's the same bit. Brooks wants to celebrate everything that Republicanism has brought us, while adding a wink to say he knows he's better than this mediocre horseshit the kids and the bobos are listening to. It might have pained him to write this sort of bilge a decade ago, but by now he's on autopilot.

What worries me is the possibility that we're tearing down reverence for middlebrow culture or whatever you want to call it and putting something just as bad and empty in its place: unabashed materialism. Just because rich people build palaces for themselves and drive Maseratis doesn't mean that the rest of us should be aspiring to match that model, yet I feel like that's where we're heading in these times of "cheap" adjustable-rate mortgages and mounting credit card debt.

Old-school conservatives hate materialism because they want the rest of us peons to know our place and not agitate for something better. I think that's stupid, but I think that we're reaching a point where people's quality of life is not markedly improved by ever-greater heights of consumption.

"MBC" was never about culture. It was always about aping the rich. It still is. But now the rich are Paris Hilton and Richard Scrushi. Social climbers were apes when they went to the opera, and are apes now.

The whole game of defining high versus low is tedious, frankly. I grew up working class, now in the professoriate, had to spend a lot of time getting used to the sorts of things my colleauges valued. Are we more or less striving? Brooks's whole thing is bullshit -- he lives to oversimplify. As to the point he raised, it seems to be more about which elite culture one should aspire to understand. What I find off-putting is the idea that I should strive to understand and be somewhat in the know about an artform I have never seen. Why? What about the art or creativity I can see? There is no more essential value to jazz than opera, it depends on what a person can be moved by and why. All this decontextualized placing of work categorically above others is shit. Yes it is good for people to be cultured but establishing a gold standard of cultured is a dumbass idea. And this goes on the heap with a lot of other dumbass columns Brooks has written.

Americans are more culturally versatile now than ever before and that creates the potential for a more democratic society. Ironically, the theo-thugs are in charge and they hate cultural versatility, so who knows if any goodness will be snatched from the jaws of righteous narrowness.

A lot of music really is crap, though. People who are involved in music are often pretty diverse in their tastes as to various styles, but they all have stuff they just plain can't stand.

Hey John,

That wasn't the issue in the Final Fantasy/LA Phil kerfuffle. The issue was one of the musicians in the orchestra bitching to the press about a concert she was being "forced" (i.e., paid handsomely) to play. She only got away with it because Uematsu (who was present at the rehearsals and the concert) is a video game composer, and therefore the lowest of the low. She wouldn't have dared pull that shit on, say, Howard Shore, when the LA Phil performed his "Lord of the Rings Symphony." Or before the American premiere of a "legitimate" work.

Orchestral musicians have to play a lot of stuff they can't stand all the time. It's part of the job. Some of 'em, as you might imagine, even get tired of the High Art warhorses that get trotted out every season. But it is absolutely the height of unprofessionalism for someone to go whining to the press about repertoire. If she had just gone on an anti-Uematsu tear to the other players over a beer (like everyone else), that would be fine.

I've written some pops arrangements for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and I'm sure a lot of the players thought they were too good to be playing what I wrote. [You get the other end of it too -- they expect Pops stuff to be easy, so if you try to make it interesting for them, they complain about that too.] But none of the players there would have the chutzpah to complain to the Journal-Constiution about how demeaning it is for them to accompany (for instance) Shelby Lynne.

IMO, the flutist's comments say volumes about the tenacity of the High Art/Low Art distinction (especially amongst the High Art folks whose turf is being threatened), despite the good-faith efforts of many involved.

On a somewhat related note, Alex Ross had a series not too long ago about the bizarre fetishization of the "don't clap between movements" rule. Despite what most people think, this tradition is entirely a 20th century invention, and only became universally adopted about 60 some-odd years ago. But try applauding after the first movement of a concerto sometime, and see what kind of a reaction you get from your fellow audience members. The rule survives largely as a "punk the newbie" gesture -- "Oh, look, someone actually responding enthusiastically and spontaneously to the music -- shame them! SHAME THEM!"

[I should add, quickly, that the other problem with the flutist's comments was that the whole point of the Final Fantasy concert was for the LA Phil to make a big show of saying "Look how open-minded and relevant we are! Look how we're broadening our scope for the 21st Century! Look at us reach out to people who have never heard a live orchestra before in their lives!" So it was a bit of a PR disaster when one of the musicians decided to piss all over the event in a very public way.

Greg Sandow had a great blog post on this which includes comments from someone who was at the gig.]

GORDO:

As for the cultural landscape, I think Dorothy's posts remind us of the reality that Brooks misses: in an era of affordable high culture, high culture ceases to have an elitist appeal. Now that high culture has been left to those who enjoy it for its own sake, I find that most of my friends who do enjoy the arts are working class people.

Posted by: gordo | June 18, 2005 05:59 PM

I’ve heard some folks discuss the differences between the European and American Churches, in these terms.

The US churches are more spectacle and social events, so they atract more in a postmodern world. On the other hand, European churches have a tradition of doctrine and creeds, so they attract less folks, msack dab in the middle of secular modernity.

I would simply point out that we are now loud and proud of our ignorance.

After all, we have a President and congress critters who think the whole culture thing is an attack on their religious values.

NOt only are they destroying PBS which was once the prime conduit of culture to the middle class, they are destroying the entire idea of education for the masses.

Thad, I left a a "not" out of my comment. Jami said that what's wrong with Britney Spears (and low commercial culture today) is that it's calibrated to be inoffensive rather than good. If that's the point he/she wanted to make, I think Britney Spears is a bad example, because she may well be worse than Glenn Miller, but she's certainly not less offensive. So we agree on everything except the decade of Glenn Miller, on which you're unassailably correct.

Reading old issues of Newsweek will only get you so far. All it really tells you is what Newsweek believed its intended audience wanted to see. As other people have put it, this is like trying to make deductions about Cro-Magnon man by watching "The Flintstones" or treating "Leave It to Beaver" as a documentary on 1950's family life.

I remember Newsweek and the other newsmagazines as being more upscale then than now. Nowadays that niche is filled by "The Economist" or the Atlantic Monthly.

Thad - Frankly I think the question of high vs low art is irrelevant by now in this, the year 2005. The guestion of good art vs bad art, however, is still very real.

Somebody pointed out above that a Stones concert is probably more expensive than symphony tickets. True, but the symphony is also heavily subsidized by private donations and public funds -- no symphony, opera, or ballet company, and few theater companies, are completely completely through ticket sales. I'm not sure what to say this means from the point of view of "elitism."

Elitism can take a lot of forms, e.g. the fan who stops liking an indy rock band after they become popular.

In general I wish people would be less trenchant about their tastes.

Sigh. Of course I meant "completely funded."

...or it could be that Time's and Newsweek's marketing departments have become more deft. "According to this consumer data, we can sell more magazines if we write less about opera and more about Tom Hanks."

Mudkitty,

I have no idea if the Final Fantasy orchestral music was good or bad. But my point is that if the High Art vs. Low Art distinction were not alive and well, the LA Phil flutist would never have felt entitled to behave as she did.

Re Karoly and the LA Philharmonic:
An art music ensemble like a symphony orchestra cannot survive by adopting mass culture items like Final Fantasy into its reportory. Art music has certain internal values that are not met by pop compositions. These values include an elevated view of the moral worth of high art, of the high art tradition, and of one's place in it; an emphasis on the expression of finely modulated emotion through extraordinary technical proficiency developed over years of practice; the subjugation of one's own individual personality to those of the composer and the conductor, a subjugation that can occur only when the musician believes that the composer and the conductor are worthy of the highest degree of respect; a developed critical sense that discriminates between work that is worthy of inclusion in the canon by virtue of its technical excellence, the honesty of its emotional expression, and its degree of innovation and creativity; and work that is not.

You may not like or understand those values; you may think that they are elitist or antiquated. You may just not like art music. Fine, don't listen to it.

But don't try to turn a symphony orchestra into a vehicle for music that was written for electronic synthesizer and intended to be heard on headphones. It's a betrayal of the very reason for the orchestra's existence. Symphony members are not studio musicians who are hired by the day to lay down tracks. They are artists and their values must be respected if the orchestra is to produce work of artistic merit.

I'm support what the flutist said. Orchestras will never accomplish anything by pandering except alienating their core audience. Oh, and fuck "relevance".

JR,

Don't condescend to me. I'm a working composer with a M.Mus from New England Conservatory, and I would venture to say I know at least as much about "art" music as you do.

Symphony orchestras have been doing pops concerts for as long as there has been popular music. It's hardly new. And I hate to burst your bubble, but the LA Phil are "studio musicians who are hired by the day to lay down tracks." Film scores are (obviously) a big part of what they do. If your argument is that playing "non-art" music is somehow detrimental to their ability to play "art" music, then you probably shouldn't listen to the LA Phil. You should find some orchestra whose members never play film scores or pops concerts or anything outside the High Art Canon. Good luck with that.

Daverz,

It's fine to agree with the content of the flutist's comments, but that doesn't change the fact that going to the press was incredibly, incredibly unprofessional. Did you read the comments at Sandow's blog? The concert sold out in less than 72 hours and was received with wild enthusiasm by an audience made up almost entirely of young people, most of whom probably had never been to an orchestra concert before. How is this different from any other pops concert -- except that this one was actually successful at bringing in a nontraditional audience? If orchestras are to survive, they must find some way to attract a new audience, as the old one is dying out. How do you propose they do this, if not by reaching out to young people in some way? And how, exactly, will events like the Final Fantasy concert alienate the LA Phil's core audience? (It's not like they programmed Uematsu's music in the middle of a Mostly Mozart concert -- it was a standalone event.) Is the audience for the LA Phil so hung up on the High/Low distinction that they will boycott the orchestra's regular season if they play more events like this?

Finally, have any of you actually listened to any of Uematsu's music before passing judgment?

Brooks overlooks the fact that the financial upper classes are no more likely to have rarified tastes in philosophy and high culture than anybody else nowadays. People with more education tend to have at least the awareness of arts and culture that isn't spoon-fed to them via prime-time television. And with half of Americans having college degrees nowadays, that extra level of education isn't limited to the wealthy and well-born anymore. The converse of that argument is that, with more and more people having net worths in excess of $1 million, a lot of these folks aren't necessarily your opera-goers, your philosophy-readers or your modern dance patrons. The rise of the luxury pickup-truck market alone tells you a fair number of well-heeled folks don't know nothin' about any opera that isn't Grand and Old.

Thad-
No, the LA Phil musicians are not studio musicians. They are unionized employees, selected by fair auditions and working under a long-term collective bargaining agreement. They rehearse and play together as an ensemble.

And pops concerts can be terrific or they can be pandering. As a child I attended Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops concerts, and they were loads of fun. Last week I saw Mark O'Connor - Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg performing O'Connor's double concerto with the National Symphony and it was a great summer night out. There's nothing wrong with film scores either -- scores written with a symphony orchestra in mind have been a perfectly reasonable use of orchestral time and talent at least since Prokofiev scored Alexander Nevsky.

But if what you're looking for is to bring crowds of wildly enthusiastic young people into the hall, you could do better with a WWF match.

Maybe the symphony orchestra is a dying medium. Certainly it is extraordinarily labor-intensive in a world where machines and electronics have replaced massed human effort in almost every other context. And in our country, governments that throw hundreds of millions of dollars at football teams refuse to subsidize orchestral music. So perhaps the symphony orchestra will die out entirely. More likely, many of the current orchestras will fail and only a few orchestras will survive.

But the LA Philharmonic won't make it by playing ring tones and jingles. What Uematsu writes is not symphonic music, and it's humiliating and counter-productive to force a symphony orchestra to play it.

Thad -- my interpretation is that it was bad art. You say tomato...

Jr...I disagree entierly,I don't even know where to begin. Art music...god help us. Try Music. Period.

And no, yet again, how many centuries later; the symphony is not a dying art. The LA Phil, incidentally, has a very efficient fundraising arm.

Mudkitty, you don't like the term art music? You work for the LA Phil- is what your orchestra produces art, or not? If what the orchestra does has no value greater than what a Hollywood movie does, why bother having an orchestra? After all, the movie at least pays for itself.

I suppose you are in marketing or administration, and I do sympathize with you. You live in a town where Britney Spears and Tom Cruise are artists and Batman Begins is a major artistic statement. Obviously, you can't offend the sensibilities of the studio execs by claiming that what they do isn't art. But the rest of us don't have to pander to the pretensions of Hollywood millionaires. We have no occupational need to jettison the distinction between art and entertainment.

Perhaps you were involved in the Uematsu businees and if so, I have to say, I sympathize with Kodaly's efforts to sabotage you, and I'm glad she has a union contract-

Thad -- my interpretation is that it was bad art.

Mudkitty -- you'll notice I actually haven't weighed in on the merits of Uematsu's music one way or the other. Maybe the LA Phil shouldn't have taken the gig -- I dunno. I will say that I'm pretty sure it's not the worst music the LA Phil has ever performed, and that from all reports, the concert was successful at its stated objective -- to get young people excited about orchestral music. But the point I've been harping on doesn't depend on the merit of Uematsu's music at all. Once the orchestra decided to do the gig, it's incredibly counterproductive and petty for orchestra members to try to sandbag the composer in the press. And if Uematsu had been a film score composer instead of a mere video game composer, Ms. Karoly would absolutely have kept her mouth zipped. Sure looks like the High/Low distinction in action to me.

the symphony is not a dying art.

Orchestras -- not the Big Leagues (yet), but the AAA orhcestras -- are folding all around the country. Hardly any American orchestras have a major-label recording contract anymore. (There's Atlanta, then... who else?) Ticket sales for many orchestras are stagnant. I don't think there's an orchestra in America that doesn't feel the pressure to make changes, and the question of how to reach a younger audience is on everyone's mind.

Again, Greg Sandow is the best guy to read on this. Check his posts on authenticy at the New York Phil vs. the Philly O. Or the Melbourne Symphony's study of how to reach a younger audience.

The LA Phil, incidentally, has a very efficient fundraising arm.

The LA Phil is an innovative orchestra. You obviously have more insider info than I do, but I would guess that part of the reason their fundraising arm is efficient because the orchestra is willing to try new things.

No, the LA Phil musicians are not studio musicians. They are unionized employees, selected by fair auditions and working under a long-term collective bargaining agreement. They rehearse and play together as an ensemble.

JR, I write for and work with orchestras all the time. You think this stuff is news to me?

Listen -- the LA Phil routinely go into the studio as an orchestra to record film scores. The individual members of the LA Phil also do a ton of freelance studio work on the side. Some of them even record music for -- gasp -- pop records and -- whoa -- commercials and -- I daresay -- video games. [shudder]

Is it seriously your contention that this studio work is detrimental to their ability to play Brahms and Mahler?

What Uematsu writes is not symphonic music

Actually, it is -- which you would know if you had read anything about the concert. The music included in the Final Fantasy games (and many other modern video games) is written for and recorded by live symphony orchestras and choruses. It's fundamentally no different from a film score.

I'm not sure why that necessarily matters, though. At pops concerts, orchestras play lots of music that wasn't originally written for orchestra. They also accompany rock and pop acts all the time.

I would make a post on the merits of Umesatos music.

It is bad symphonic music. However, it is great video game music. The objective of a video game score is to highlight the action by using small loops that can be repeated to create atmosphere. This atmospheric music then becomes the soundtrack to the mythology of the video game world. When evaluating his music, it's important to ask "are the expectations I have for this piece reasonable." The snoody bitch from the orchestra has unreasonable expectations for the music, it's her fault, and not the director of the programming, that she couldn't change her unreasonable expectations.

I wonder if the bitch flutist has a problem playing Bartok. After all, Bartok developed much of high style around low brow music of hungary and related areas. If hungarian/etc folk music is a legitimate influence for a serious artist, why can't the orchestration of the video game. The video game music probably serves much the same function as the folk music did, in bringing together a group of people and connecting them with a similar set of ideas.

Until people realize that Squarepusher is every bit as talented as Handel was, or that Robert Fripp (of King Crimson fame) is every bit as much of a master musician as Glenn Gould or Debussy, or that vivaldi could be every bit as formulaic as brittney at times, there is no hope for an honest discussion on the artistic merit of high vs low culture.

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