N+1 is wrong about Cultural elitism
The journal N+1 has a big statement, ‘by the editors’, about the question of why anti-elitism in the U.S. takes the shape of anti-cultural elitism. Immediately there is confusion about what exactly is meant by cultural elitism. They refer to three quite different phenomenon. One is disdain for those feted as cultural achievers–here they refer to Paul Krugman and Toni Morrison, both Nobel prize winners. A second meaning is hostility towards ‘difficult’ culture, e.g. a book review in The Nation that takes a swipe at Perry Anderson for using big words (this in particular makes them angry, as they testily suggest the reviewer google the word amphibology, and, having learned its meaning, incorporate it into his vocabulary–good luck with that!). And last (certainly not least, in my view, see below), there are the accusations of sanctimony and self-righteousness against blue-state, NPR listening, latte sipping liberals. This mishmash suggests the importance of anti-cultural elitism, the last form of anti-elitism left in the U.S. in the view of the editors, but its persistence suggests the fight is not entirely over. To them, a key element is that cultural accomplishment seems inaccessible–the product of unpaid internships the masses can’t afford, for example–while it is still easy to dream of becoming rich.
I think this picture is largely wrong. It is important, first of all, to separate the first two forms of anti-elitism–resentment against cultural producers, and disdain for ‘difficult’ culture, from the last one, the ‘anti-blue-state’ business. Although the anti-intellectualism of The Nation book reviewer is a part of the American landscape (sort of–Perry Anderson’s enormous vocabulary is in fact kind of hilarious), I don’t think it is notably stronger now than it was fifty, or one hundred years ago. It is an enduring, if annoying and even incapacitating feature of the American national character. In any case, most of the more difficult forms of culture–postmodern poetry, free jazz, avant-garde film–have retreated into quiet corners of the academy. Hardly anyone makes fun of them anymore because no one notices them. As for resentment against cultural producers, I am not sure what they are talking about. Some people don’t like Toni Morrison and Paul Krugman because, respectively, they epitomize multiculturalism and liberalism, not because they have won Nobel prizes. Quite the opposite trend–a certain veneration for some writers and artists–is also visible in American life. In fact, art and literature are probably more central to American culture than they have been for a while (admittedly, this is a low bar. It is difficult to imagine cultural figures, rather than politicians, gracing US currency any time soon). Oprah’s book club deserves a lot of credit. I’m sure the authors featured (including Toni Morrison) for the most part don’t strike N+1 as sufficiently highbrow, but they are clearly more elevated than the typical bestseller (For those of us looking for a snobbier, more difficult form of literature, what exactly are we supposed to be reading, besides Roberto Bolano?). Oprah always encourages esteem for authors. In fact, the most notable incident of ‘elitist’ controversy that involved the book club was when the writer Jonathan Franzen turned ‘anti-populist’ and decided he was too good for Oprah. This position proved untenable and he recently appeared on her show to plug his new book. For the most part, ‘difficult’ literature has receded, while interest in a less difficult ‘literary’ experience has surged. The same is true of art, which has left behind the difficult days of conceptualism in favor of consumer friendly artists like Jeff Koons and Shepard Fairey. Attendance at art museums has surged. Opera has enjoyed a resurgence as performances are telecast to movie theaters around the country. My point here isn’t to evaluate these products and argue that American culture is in some sort of golden age (it is not, IMHO), merely to note that there is actually quite a bit of interest in cultural products that offer a more elevated experience than that of top 40 radio, TV (‘traditional’ TV, not the more elevated products of HBO and Showtime, which are also part of the trend), The Da Vinci Code, action movies, etc. I don’t think there is anything remotely resembling a generalized hostility to the producers of this stuff.
In fairness to N+1, I can think of one major exception. In New York City, considerable derision is heaped upon the ‘artistic’, ‘hipster’ neighborhood of Williamsburg by The New York Post, the Daily News, and even The New York Times. The notion that Williamsburg is a heartland for ‘trust fund babies’ is reinforced, even though it is unlikely that inherited wealth plays as central a role there than in the wealthiest neighborhoods of NYC, such as the Upper East Side, Riverdale, Tribeca, and Murray Hill. Similarly, the role of hipsters and artists in the gentrification of NYC is constantly highlighted, while the central role of the private universities (NYU and Columbia) is typically obscured (who is able to deflect criticism through cultural prestige in that case?). But it should be noted that usually what is mocked are trendy, vaguely ironic patterns of consumerism, rather than the cultural products created, or the role of hipsters as artists. This whole conception is stronger in NYC than elsewhere in the U.S., where ‘hip neighborhood’ usually refers to a site for consumption for the upper middle class in general, whether they are professors or hotel managers. Indeed, as anyone who has ever seen Williamsburg on a Friday night knows, it is not so different there. Many hipsters regard themselves as superior to the everyday run of people (‘the bridge and tunnel crowd’) so it isn’t terribly surprising this snobbery is returned in kind. This is not a central dynamic of the US polity.
There are frequent controversies over ‘culture’, even in the narrow sense of producers of products. Recall Robert Mapplethorpe, for example. But these controversies were not over the status of ‘culture’ in general. Rather they were over the role of sexuality, gender, religion, etc. The background for this is fairly simple. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, American society was becoming more secular and liberal on issues of gender and sexuality. The secular liberals were loosely allied with an expanding federal government. This development alarmed the more religious portion of the population. It took an actively political cast when, in the seventies, business leaders, no longer happy with the status quo, cast about for allies for a right wing coalition and made peace with the religious. Throw in White Americans angry at minorities over a number of ‘hot-button’ issues (‘crime’, ‘welfare’, ‘busing’, etc) and you have the coalition that catapulted Reagan to power in 1980. Anger at ‘liberal elites’ who supported ‘social engineering’ is a way to obscure the racial element in this anger, and thus highly useful in the post-civil rights era. As Tom Frank and others have noted, in power, the right has delivered much more to the business part of the coalition than to those angry about ‘cultural’ issues like gay rights and abortion. Anger at the seeming intractability of legalized abortion and increased acceptance of gays reinforces theories that ‘elites’ enforcing a cultural status quo don’t care about ‘the people’ (i.e. the religious voters). In general, the art world and even corporate media are fairly tightly allied to the cause of supporting gender and sexuality liberalization, so they are mixed up in this battle. Nor does it help that many liberals are in fact sanctimonious, and far more interested in displaying their virtue than ending inequalities. Lately the right wing coalition has begun to break down, as some religious leaders have concluded that Walmart capitalism is not good for America. Others have expressed reservations about the environment. And as interest has shifted from abortion to gay rights, the religious have been faced with the galling prospect of being on the losing end of an argument (younger generations are much, much more accepting of gays and lesbians), rather than stuck in a stalemate (as was the case with abortion). This is partly why religion fueled ‘culture wars’ have faded, and an ‘arugula eater’ was in fact elected president in 2008.
Oh, and also, the economy crashed in 2008. That refocused a lot of peoples attention. The first salvo (unless one counts the election of Obama) has been from the right. The Tea Party famously was initiated by a rant on CNBC about how the ‘losers’ at the bottom of society were responsible for ruining the banks by taking out loans they couldn’t pay back. But even among the tea-partiers, it doesn’t end there. There is also inchoate rage at the alliance between the federal government and the top corporate and financial executives. The right can, and just did, use this anger when out of power to propel its candidates to office. But in office, it is a more complicated question, since Republicans pursue the exact same finance/corporate friendly policies as Democrats. In any case, anger isn’t only on the right. Although the Democrats haven’t harnessed that anger, because, as the party in power, they are going to continue with the usual pro-corporate policies, they occasionally let it vent. Recall the attacks on the auto executives who flew to their bailout hearings in Washington. Or the confrontations in the hearing rooms with the heads of Goldman Sachs. The extravagantly wealthy and powerful at the top are not exactly invisible these days; even as polite and responsible a centrist as Nickolas Kristoff has denounced the growing wealth gap. And Michael Moore has moved from the margins of American society to a much more central figure (from his first movie–in which he hounded GM chief Roger Smith–Moore has been obsessed with business elites). Frankly, anti-business elitism looks to me like the future, although who knows whether the right will manage to capture it better than the left (a key feature of the U.S. right now–something for the N+1 writers to ponder someday–is the absence of any sort of critical perspective on the military and particularly the elites at the top of that institution).
There is one form of cultural anti-elitism that I think is flourishing in the U.S., although the editors at N+1 missed it completely. This is anti-elitism among the producers of culture. Basically, ever more Americans want to produce culture. They become artists and fashion designers, video makers, musicians, writers of all sorts, etc. The ‘push’ to do so is not difficult to see. Large numbers dread the tedium of the cubicle, the mall, the cul-de-sac, and long for a more interesting life. Opportunities for artists (in the loose sense) have somewhat expanded, as advertising and chain stores mine the ‘cutting edge’ to revitalize their products (furthermore, even if every official door is slammed in one’s face, there is always the internet). But most people will not get very far. Their frustration, as their lives are overtaken by their day jobs, can turn into hostility to the few who are valorized by the current markets and can earn a living doing what they do. At present, that hostility mostly takes the form of often hilarious snarkiness on the internet (repeatedly denounced by voices in the mainstream media. But like the underground press of ancien regime France, the anger is well focused. Mainstream institutions are much too deferential to the upper classes and the status quo to speak truth at this point). This sort of anti-cultural elitism is well-deserved, when one considers the offerings on hand at the newstand, the multiplex, the major TV networks, and even the art galleries and highbrow bookstores. It’s not inconceivable it will turn into something more if this cohort starts looking around society and seeing if there are others who, for other reasons (maybe not getting paid enough?) also find their opportunities blocked. In fact, such an alliance between the most alienated and the most deprived is what has paved the way for revolutions in the past.
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