Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who Is the Cultural Elite?

I jokingly referred to "the cultural elite" in the last post. But is there really a cultural elite? And who are they? Vice President Dan Quayle (or one of his speechwriters) is said to have originated the term in 1992. The current use of the term seems to have two aspects--the first, people in Hollywood and New York and in academe who control the mass media and foist morally objectionable material on "real Americans". You know, they are the ones who force people to watch Jersey Shore and force them to study womens studies in college. (No one ever said the cultural elite was internally consistent.) The second use of the term is more simply those who espouse high-brow (or even middle-brow) culture when the people (those "real Americans" again) and the market have determined what is good--namely popular entertainment.

The latter version of the cultural elite were the object of Neal Gabler's scorn in this editorial. Gabler wrote
AS ANYONE who has ever wiggled in his seat at a classical concert or stared in disbelief at a work of conceptual art can attest, culture in America has usually been imposed from the top down. Media executives, academics, elite tastemakers, and of course critics determined what was good and what wasn’t, what would have cultural purchase and what wouldn’t, what would get rewarded and what wouldn’t. ("The End of Culural Elitism," Neal Gabler, The Boston Globe, January 6, 2010)
His thesis is that the internet had become a great leveler, meaning that those elites who used to be able to make you go listen to classical music no longer have that power.

This argument rest on an obviously faulty premise. As Alex Ross wrote in response, "What media executives have lately been foisting classical music on the masses? Please tell me — I'd like to send them a fruit basket." Ross is pointing to A.O. Scott's longer response in The New York Times. Scott pooh-poohs the notion that people like himself ever were particularly powerful tastemakers (from whom the masses had to be liberated by the internet). And he further adds something that should go without saying, yet almost never does.
There is a cultural elite, in America, which tries its utmost to manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers. It consists of the corporations who sell nearly everything with the possible exception of classical music and conceptual arts, and while its methods include some of the publicity-driven hype that finds its way into newspapers, magazines and other traditional media, its main tool is not criticism but marketing. And an especially effective marketing ploy has always been the direct appeal, over the heads of supposed experts and fuddy-duds, to the consumer.
Make-believe elites — which is to say independent voices in the public sphere, whatever the terms of their employment or the shape of their sensibilities— disrupt the perfect union of buyer and seller. No pesky commissars prodding and scolding, just a bunch of people doing what they want, which coincidentally happens to be what the companies with the biggest advertising budgets want them to do. ("Defy the Elite! Wait, Which Elite?", A.O. Scott, The New York Times, January 13, 2011)
I mean seriously. When was the last time you saw a television commercial for conceptual art? Never? Same here. In fact, it is so difficult to see conceptual art, I think we can safely assert that the only people who see conceptual art are people really want to.


  1. Thanks for bringing this up... I had missed the Scott essay. This story reminds me of my favorite art essay, "Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public" by Leo Steinberg: (and now I just discovered Why didn't someone TELL me about this web site?).

    The fine arts don't have any powerful cultural elite defending them. They only have educated people investing in them. It's their 'public' and it's really hysterical when social climbers aspire to join that public without the education (which is just really looking and thinking, not reading or going to class). Artists and dealers are glad to take the money, but laugh at them behind their backs. That's the real elitism.

  2. "The fine arts don't have any powerful cultural elite defending them." I don't agree with this--look at the names etched on the wall at the Museum of Fine Arts, or the trustees at almost any fine arts non-profit. These usually include some of the richest and most powerful people in town. Sure they may be social climbers, but at a certain point, writing a check for more than $10,000 or so forgives a lot, and among them are people who have taken time to sit with curators, museum directors, concert masters, etc., to learn what it is they have invested in.

    The thing is, as rich and powerful as they are, they don't have to power to really push elite culture the way the big media conglomerates have the power to push pop culture. As wealthy as art patrons John and Becca Thrash are (for example), their wealth and power pales next to Time-Warner.

  3. I think 'cultural elite' is a crude shorthand term for trying to describe a special interest group which supports art that would never survive on its own.

    You're right that Time-Warner pushes its product aggressively, but average people buy it. It's like saying ExxonMobil pushes its product hard. People are most probably going to buy it anyway, whether from one supplier or another.

    But ethanol is a different story. There is a serious argument to be made that ethanol would die an instant death as soon as government funding dried up, because there is zero demand for it.

    So, to complete the metaphor, there is a perception that there is this special interest -- this 'cultural elite' -- which supports art which would otherwise die on the vine, by unduly and unfairly channeling money and attention to it, perhaps even fooling the multi-millionaires of the world (like John and Becca Thrash) into supporting what they would never have done without the social pressure of being associated with -- and therefore buying with their money into -- the culturally elite.

    Does that make sense? If you think of the term 'cultural elite' as a way for someone to speak with disdain about a special interest group which props up otherwise-undesirable art, it might help explain things. Does that work for you...?

  4. No, I think that explanation is bullshit.

    1) If Time-Warner didn't push its product, would there still be a demand for it? Maybe yes, maybe no. But the fact is that they do push it. They push it hard. They spend a fortune pushing it. They are not willing to depend on the desires of the people to make their money. They work very hard to guide those desires toward their product. Unlike Exxon, they are not selling a commodity. Their products are not interchangeable. Time Warner has to convince you that its movie is a better movie than Sony's.

    2) You say the "cultural elite" "supports art which would otherwise die on the vine, by unduly and unfairly channeling money and attention to it, perhaps even fooling the multi-millionaires of the world (like John and Becca Thrash) into supporting." So let me see if I get this right. Time-Warner by doing heavy marketing, advertising, etc., is simply providing people what they want, but the cultural elite are so clever that they can fool extremely rich people--the actual elite--into supporting shit they hate. That strikes me as unlikely on the face of it. Time-Warner hires the most brilliant marketing professionals and MBAs every year out of elite schools to come up with new ways to sell their product. The "cultural elite" you describe--the ones who are able to convince rich people to write big checks--consists of people who studied music or got art history PhDs. Yet they are so diabolocally clever that they can fool the ultra-rich--who tend to be no fools--into supporting their unpopular, elitist, difficult art.

    I would say that any non-profit art space that survives does so because it reaches a dedicated audience that is willing to open its wallets. How much money do you think these spaces get from the government? I'll tell you how much--for most of them, it is between slim and none. But Time-Warner gets all kinds of subsidies and tax breaks. Come film your movie in our state and you won't have to pay a dime in taxes! (So does Exxon for that matter.)

    No, I'm sorry, your explanation is sort of typical of the populist right, but simply not true. But it does very well describe the myth that many believe.

  5. It's not my explanation. I don't say anything. You should not be able to discern my personal opinions by what I wrote above, because I did not state them. (Nor will I, because they are irrelevant to this discussion, unless you are just that curious about them).

    I'm only saying that if I am confronted by someone who complains about 'the cultural elite,' and if I decide to give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as having some measure of sincerity, then the only way their view makes sense to me -- the only way I can engage with it -- is for me to assume they are referring to the cultural elite as a special interest group which props up otherwise-unsustainable art.

    If you thought about it, you might decide that I have handed you a way to counter the 'cultural elite' argument more effectively. Specifically, if you take the cultural elite argument as one against a special interest group which props up otherwise-unsupportable art, then you might counter it by saying that you, for example, do not feel forced or coerced into appreciating the tastes 'pushed' by the cultural elite, and you do not think that the multi-millionaires do either; furthermore you might say that the tastes 'pushed' by the cultural elite are enjoyed by people like you and the Thrashes because there is an enjoyment of art that is uncommon and 'cutting-edge.'

    Which I think is more or less where you were trying to come from anyway. So, just some food for thought.

    P.S. As to Time-Warner, your entire analogy is inapt from the start. Time-Warner is a specific supplier within a given genre, whereas the 'cultural elite' is the defender of its entire genre. People buy crap anyway. Time-Warner is not forcing people to buy crap. You would have to convince me that Time-Warner is ripping Handel Oratorios out of the hands of the populace. Is that your argument?

    No, people buy crap all by themselves, but Time-Warner -- and Sony, and so on -- simply want you to buy *their* crap. If there were some industry group trying to market pop music in general -- the same way that the beef farmers or dairy farmers do, with their cooperative 'it's what's for dinner' or 'got milk?' campaigns -- then you might have a better analogy.

    P.P.S. I'm not sure why you're hostile to the 'fooling rich people' argument. Social pressure is not something to be taken lightly, nor is the idea that a person with money is trying to purchase intellectual respect, nor is the idea that rich people are just transacting in art and buying it because it's an expensive bauble, without understanding the importance of the art itself. I'm not sure if you've had your coffee yet this morning or not, so I'm just saying these are some arguments that can be toyed with. Black-and-white discussions don't turn me on. Some rich people are art geniuses, and sincere collectors, but you know what? I'll bet some aren't.

  6. J.V.

    I apologize. I thought you were taking the position and lashed back somewhat angrily.

    "Time-Warner is a specific supplier within a given genre, whereas the 'cultural elite' is the defender of its entire genre."

    I was using Time-Warner as a synecdoche for the whole culture industry. But obviously the culture industry is not a monolith. T-W is in competition with Sony. But the same could be said of cultural elite institutions.

    "I'm not sure why you're hostile to the 'fooling rich people' argument."

    I know there are foolish rich folk--the prep schools are full of them. But generally, I think people who made a fortune and have held onto it are pretty canny. That doesn't mean they care all that much about opera or art museums, though. Some do, obviously. The De Menils collected all that stuff because they were deeply into it. But I am sure that many write those big checks for social position.

    But I don't think that is foolish at all. Your name on the wall of a museum is asset you have just purchased. Felix Salmon calls them "Veblen goods." They are signalling devices that tell other people that you have good taste, you are civic minded, etc. They distinguish you from the lottery winner who spends $1,000,000 on a gold-plated bass boat. You might call it social pressure, but to me, it seems like a rational exchange. I give the museum $1 million and in exchange, people know I am a tasteful, classy person. When you have a fortune worth $400 million, the marginal cost of that $1 million is small and well worth what you get for it.

    But that means, as you said, that writing that check might have nothing to do with your love of art or whatever. It just proves you are a better person than your neighbor who spent $1 million on a very rare baseball card collection.

    Anyway--interesting conversation. Thanks for commenting and sorry about misinterpreting you before.