Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On the Extinction of the Lowbrow in Musical Taste

The Transcontinental was intended to be primarily an arts and culture blog, but truth be told, dear readers, I have always been too lazy too keep up with the latest goings-on in the music/arts blogosphere.

Although this has likely cursed me to never make any of those top 50 classical music blog lists, it does offer me one advantage - the benefit of hindsight. I can read stuff, stew about it, forget it, remember again, forget again, and then, when I feel like it, trot it out to fill up some time during a slow afternoon.

So it is with the whole recent classical blogosophere dust-up about What got me thinking about this again was this post by Daniel Stephen Johnston, which linked to this post by Matthew Guerrieri.

Now back in July, when this came up initially, I had read the pieces by prominent critics and bloggers about, which denounced's "mandate" and explaining why is so problematic and perhaps threatens classical music itself. For reasons that will become clearer later, this rhetorical strategy is a clear representation of the classical blogosphere middlebrow consensus.

This is the same "consensus" that CBC used to market their changes over at CBC Radio 2, which was to stereotype classical music lovers as a small cabal of ignorant fools who have been denying others the opportunity to listen to Leonard Cohen at 8 in the morning. Moreover, in denying others, they have denied themselves of the wonderful richness that is music outside of the Pachelbel-to-Elliott Carter classical stranglehold.

When you think about this, the reaction to is rather curious - the very people whose professional lives are devoted to writing about classical music are those who are also first to denounce musoc's mandate. To them I ask - why are you so scared of Is it that it plays to some kind to horrible stereotype of the classical music snob, the straw men and women used all these years by the music industry as a trope to help define popular music as mass entertainment?

I admit there is some truth to this fear. I am often frustrated by the fact that, often, when I have a conversation with someone about music, and it invariably comes up that I listen/play to classical music, the immediate reaction is to look at me suspiciously and get somewhat defensive. Maybe this is really just a Canadian thing, but I suspect that this happens quite a lot to other classical music musicians/lovers, and as such, we have all taken on a kind of defense mechanism to reduce the inherent social conflict that comes with being someone who enjoys the music of Brahms.

But you scratch this surface just a little and you start to see that the issue for classical music critics and bloggers isn't merely one of taste, but also one of class. Someone who enjoys caviar simply must also enjoy a ham and cheese on white bread. Someone who enjoys Schubert Lieder simply must also enjoy Def Leppard, not because these things are any good (on either side of the equation) but because it's very impolite to portray mass culture as something less than high culture.

And what is even more remarkable about all of this is that there is now a website that it actually devoted to the analysis of this very strong pull towards the middle: Joshua Glenn's hilobrow. This website, which is part of the reason I have returned to blogging, helps to provide the kind of critique the classical music blogosphere needs right now, perhaps more than ever.

To be clear - I am not saying high culture is better than mass culture. What I am saying is that people on the high culture side of things feel a very great tendency to say out loud, and often, that they think mass culture is just as good as high culture. Indeed, Greg Sandow has pretty much sewn up a corner of the blogosphere by constantly proclaiming that the problem with classical music isn't just that it's the aesthetic equivalent of popular music, but that classical music must learn from popular music in order to survive.

I have wanted to critique Sandow's entire approach without the sneering condescension that most attacks on him constitute, in part because I believe his work is more representative of a theme as much as the sneering attacks how. Moreover, Sandow makes certain aesthetic assumptions in his work where he equates aesthetic value with economic value, but what has been lacking is a way of unpacking some of that in a way that avoids a purely economic reduction.

Hilobrow has given me the vocabulary to begin that critique (thank you again, Joshua Glenn!). So taking a page from Glenn's site, I would argue that Greg Sandow is the biggest representative of middlebrow attitudes in the classical blogosphere. Indeed, his telos is to assert the middlebrow consensus. And if the classical blogosphere is any kind of indication, he is winning.

What makes musoc.ord so unsettling to everyone is that musoc doesn't give a crap about popular music or mass taste. This desire to drag the highbrow people down into the middlebrow is, as Glenn makes manifest on his site, a defining characteristic of middlebrow culture.

There are two interesting observations from this. Firstly, this pull is a one-way street: I can't recall the last time I saw a classical music critic or blogger denounce a popular musician for saying that they thought classical music sucked. Secondly, given where these kinds of criticisms of classical music are coming from, is it safe to say that classical music itself, culturally speaking, is far more middlebrow than it ever was, or than Sandow and allied critics argue it to be?

Indeed, if Alex Ross' central thesis in The Rest is Noise is that classical music has somehow lost its central place in the cultural life of the West, isn't that in part because the economic and social elites no longer consider most classical music to be a highbrow activity, and not because the highbrow musicians lost the public, a public they likely never really had to begin with?

This kind of analysis, and I know I am using Joshua Glenn's terminology rather roughly here, seems, at least to me, to make a lot of sense. So let's take a look at some examples.

Take John Lennon. I think he wrote some great songs, but I think he was completely off base and ignorant about classical music. In fact, his disliking of classical music seems the obverse of the straw-man classical music snob. However, culturally speaking, Lennon gets a free pass from everyone because Lennon is on the right side of that one-way street.

What's even more interesting about this is that the classical music middlebrow consensus is constantly wanting to reassure the (putative) lowbrow music listener that they too have taste, even though the vast majority of people don't listen to classical music. What they are really doing is making it clear that the middlebrows are still the arbiters of taste, even though most people's complete indifference to classical music, and the classical music community's intense, nearly overwhelming desire to proselytize, to convert, the lowbrows over to the fold suggests the complete opposite. (Perhaps it is the middlebrow's guilt towards not listening to enough classical music that also contributes to this kind of attack - but maybe that's psychologizing a bit too much!)

It seems that, culturally speaking, the goalposts with respect to music have shifted completely, and that who has been lost in all this is the lowbrow. (I think Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion is perhaps the clearest argument for this fact).

With the lowbrow effectively extinct as a cultural force in this triad of brows, what we have here is a hegemonic middlebrow community enforcing norms, on the few remaining holdouts (and let's be honest, there are very few) of all that's left, namely highbrow music. is fighting a rear-guard action to bring classical music back into the cultural highbrow, which is likely a hopeless task. In part this is because its status there has long been open to question (think of many of Beethoven's piano sonatas, who did he write them for?). At the same time, the classical music writers and bloggers who loathe are trying to keep the classical music-as-elitist-strawman alive because it keeps them in business, it is an enemy that allows them to continue to fight.

At best, my hope is that is something like The Chap, utopian and more related to the tenets of Surrealism than anything else. What it certainly isn't is a threat to classical music or its role in the cultural life of the world.

This also explains why figures like Boulez and Adorno figure so largely as villains in Ross' book, because they are both committed to finding a way to preserve highbrow music after the war. What I am beginning to suspect is that the flaw I felt in Ross' book, as much as I enjoyed it, was that the highbrow/middlebrow disctinction he sets up so well in the book is a false dichotomy, because classical music to nearly everyone means "Bach and Beethoven" and not "Boulez and Stockhausen", and that this is what classical music meant to people long before Schoenberg came along. (Nikil Saval actually argues this much better than I do around Ross' book at the n+1 site)

So where do we go from here? I am not sure, except that I am feeling more confident than ever that the answer to that question is nowhere.


Osbert Parsley said...

This is a wonderful post. Following Robertson Davies, I suggest an alternative to the currently available brow types: the concertina brow.

John Blackburn said...

So enjoyable! The middlebrow community reminds of Jose Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, in which he inveighs against the bourgeoisie who would pull all things fine down to their level, who are in fact blind to what even makes them fine.

A.C. Douglas said...

I don't at all mean to be snarky about this, but there's so much that's ill-informed and badly skewed in your post (badly skewed because grounded in the premises of your ill-informed ideas) that I don't know quite where to begin tearing it to shreds (and, BTW, I've no aversion at all to well-placed snarkiness as anyone who reads my blog is aware; it's just that I don't intend it here). Perhaps when I get a perfectly free afternoon or evening, I'll write a response to your post on S&F and provide you the link, but for the nonce, I just wanted to lodge my objection to most of what you had to say.


Andrew W. said...

Have at it, A.C. Given this is a blog post and not a journal article, I'm not the least bit averse to revising my ideas in light of argument, or defnding them in light of someone's own arguments.

If it got you feeling snarky though, I don't think that's a bad thing, although you weren't in the least a target in this post.

Now that being said, I'm interested to hear what you think is so ill-informed about my post.

A.C. Douglas said...

I was at some pains to make it clear that it was NOT my intent to be snarky here. Your post in no way pushed my snark button, and it never occurred to me that I or my blog was the post's "target" even marginally. I simply wished to lodge my objection to most of what you wrote if only to balance the kudos your post received from other commenters.

As I said, if I get a perfectly free afternoon or evening, I'll post a response to your post on S&F and provide you the link when it goes up.


A.C. Douglas said...

Turns out, I had a perfectly free morning rather than a perfectly free afternoon or evening, and so you can read my promised response here.


Osbert Parsley said...

I had intended to refrain from comment on this until you posted a response, but since you've asked for comments:

I don't really think there is, in fact, a huge disagreement here. ACD, if I read him correctly, is concerned that your discussion of highbrow and lowbrow attitudes seems to place undue emphasis on class conflicts. He would prefer to place the issue within the context of "individual psychology and the culturally conditioned psychological dynamics of the group," and most especially the lingering influence of "postmodern dogma." But you both agree that the result is a lamentable form of groupthink, which insists on the equivalence of "high" and "low" culture, to the detriment of both.

The conflict, then, seems to me to be purely methodological. As you noted recently on my blog, you tend to use a sociological framework to explain our current cultural woes, where I would use philosophical language to explain the same problem. ACD wants to cast the issue in terms of psychology and evolutionary biology, which is perfectly natural given his admiration for Steven Pinker. It's quite natural, given our varying background commitments, for us to disagree on method, but I don't think this should be an irreconcilable difficulty.

A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.C. Douglas said...

Osbert Parsley wrote: ACD wants to cast the issue in terms of psychology and evolutionary biology, which is perfectly natural given his admiration for Steven Pinker.

Just to keep things in their proper perspective here, it's perfectly natural for me given my even greater admiration for Sigmund Freud who, pace Dr. Pinker, on all fundamental matters psychological, got it right first time out of the box, and more than a century ahead of his time.


Andrew W. said...

I was going to write a longer response to ACD's post, but Osbert has stolen my thunder!

A.C., I don't really see much difference between your position and mine. I think, if anything, some of what I'm describing reflects some of the frustration you yourself have registered on your blog over the years, namely that there is this tendency to treat classical music as something aking to any other consumer product.

Maybe where I wasn't entirely clear was whether or not I believe there are highbrow classical musicians and listeners. I do, however, I think the bulk of what constitutes classical music and its discourse is resolutely middlebrow in its reflection of tastes and attitudes. I think this is problematic, but what I don't think is that it's an issue for highbrows.

As for the disciplenary differences we have (philosophical/sociological/phychological), I'm actually happy that we are unpacking yet another way to broach the subject of culture and comparing tastes and attitudes that reflects the poverty of so much discourse these days. The more the merrier I say!