High and low culture: an off the cuff rant

One of the themes that bounces around any discussion of literature or the arts these days is the high versus low, literature versus genre, pop versus art issue. Is there a clear line? What delineates that line? Does it matter?

In a link everybody and their brother have probably posted, The Literary Divide, Anne Applebaum hits the theme in the Washington Post:

I’m not quite sure how it got to be this way — writers of heavy books on one side, mass media on the other — because it wasn’t always so. The great American cultural blender once produced whole art forms, such as Broadway musicals and jazz, that might well be described as a blend of the two. But nowadays, that gap is so wide that I’m not even sure the old descriptions of the various forms of “culture” — highbrow, middlebrow, popular — even make sense any more. Does Edward P. Jones, the Washingtonian whose eloquent novel, “The Known World,” won a Pulitzer Prize this week, even inhabit the same universe as MTV? Does anybody who reads one watch the other?

It should come as no surprise that I have a conservative answer to this issue. It seems to me that a big part of this problem is our culture’s rabid egalitarianism with a dash of relativism thrown in.

Without falling into a blind nostalgia about the past, it is safe to say that middle and even lower class citizens looked to high society and art for inspiration. Those with the means and the leisure time attempted to set a standard for taste and class. Sure this didn’t always reflect a true meritocracy and it had its share of problems, but there was a sense of responsibility and a sense of standards. The iconoclasm and egalitarianism of the counter-culture sought to destroy this system. Its inspiration was relativistic and anti-hierarchy. Rules and standards; culture and custom; traditions and mores; these were all oppressive tools the powerful used against the weak. They must be thrown off to achieve freedom.

Soon those at the top embraced this counter culture and sought their inspiration in the low culture. Instead of class and taste, they sought hipness and trendiness. Old money bought libraries and museums, new money bought drugs and sex, avante-garde art galleries, and more recently, dot-coms.

The hierarchies, the natural aristocracy, the standard bearers have been thrown down. We are all pop culture consumers now. Many on the left love to blame the right for the consumerism and lowest common denominator culture but in fact it is the relativism, “multicuturalism” and rabid egalitarianism of the left that has undermined culture. That is not to say that many on the right, I am looking at you libertarians, haven’t ignored the importance of culture. The ideologies of the left, however, have had a much greater impact. Utilitarianism, utopian romanticism, Marxist-Leninist revolution, Freudian gobbledy gook, and cultural relativism (to name a few bogeymen) have all contributed mightily to the unraveling of culture and community. A society where these ideas are pervasive and fully digested will not appreciate art, nor understand it because it runs counter to the squishy safe egalitarian relativism it has been weaned on.

I am sure many in the cultural region of the blogosphere disagree with this rant. If so, I would welcome a debate on what went wrong and why.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).