Monday, July 26, 2010

On a Symptom of Deteriorating Artistic Sense and Taste

We tend to think of Shakespeare as high-brow art. What we have difficulty remembering is that this is an accident of how most people are exposed to Shakespeare, and the company lovers of Shakespeare keep. In reality, all the Shakespearean plays have as much claim to being low-brow as they have to being high-brow. It is impossible to imagine the plays being written in a flurry of deliberately cultivated creativity, in an attempt to create art for art's sake; the purpose of the plays was to entertain a wide audience. Theaters were built near brothels; the groundlings were from the lowest walks of life. There were, it is true, seats for the higher classes, and no doubt some plays were for special performances at the Court; but the wealthy have their low-brow tastes, too. And the plays appeal to what we think of as low-brow tastes: battles and murders, processions and madness, spectacle on every page. But it was also a time when even low-brow tastes included sonorous declamation, elaborate punning, and absurdly complicated stories. And it is the sheer artistic ingenuity and talent devoted to such common tastes that make Shakespeare's works rise above the ordinary.

And, indeed, if you look at the history of their performance, you find that Shakespeare's plays were enjoyed by everyone; indeed, lower classes were arguably even better acquainted with them than wealthier classes. They were the people's culture, the people's entertainment, and Shakespeare could have had nothing like the influence he had on the English language if this had not been the case. That Shakespeare has increasingly become a high-brow taste, an enjoyment for those who like period pieces and paying for expensive sets and costumes, is a relatively new thing, and is, I would suggest, a sign of just how far Shakespeare has fallen from his original cultural place. It is a sign of decadence and degeneration that he is presented for high-brow tastes.

One finds this pattern repeated in many other cases, although not, of course, all. Homer's poetry was originally just the oral poetry everyone turned out to listen to; Dante's poetry was written in the vernacular, in the common speech for the common man, although he was extremely selective about what he did with it. Where the truly great artist dwells there is no distinction between high-brow and low-brow; there is only human. Eventually, however, people lose their capacity to participate in the work itself, often due to how the work is presented to them; and then there arises the distinction between the low-brow, which cannot rise to the occasion, and the high-brow, which thinks itself elite and above the common taste because it enjoys what any common peasant would have enjoyed more completely a few generations back.

Both of these are serious problems, I think. High-brow tastes are entirely manufactured; they come about solely because people try to use art as an excuse to consider themselves better than others. And equally, the establishing of the distinction between low-brow and high-brow is constantly hoisting culture that rightly belongs to everyone out of the reach of the masses. Full operas were rarely if ever available to the poor, but there was a time -- and it ended not so very long ago -- when the poor were the enthusiastic devotees of operatic arias. If you went to a state fair, there would often be a stage somewhere at which large numbers of people would gather to listen with rapture to fully operatic singing of short passages. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why country music, so very different in other ways, has physiological similarities to opera: the opera singer uses the mouth, the sinus cavity, the chest cavity, and the diaphragm to sing, and old-time country singers did the same. There was less focus on virtuouso note-hitting and volume, so it stayed more in the sinus cavity than opera singing did, thus giving it a twang, but the two are related; country was created by people who listened to operatic arias (among other things) and learned how to sing from them. Names like 'Grand Ole Opry' are not so far off.* But no longer; opera is high-brow, and it is dying because of it. This happens to all high-brow art; that an art has become confined to high-brow tastes is a sign that it is dying.

It is possible to turn back this trend. One art that seems to have slowly made gains in this direction is ballet, as ballet companies have moved out of the confines of expensive venues to give samples of their art in schools and at festivals. And what they've found is that ordinary people love it: people who would never have the time or patience or money to sit through a full performance will nonetheless become enthusiastic over shorter performances in more accessible venues. You don't have to have a rich taste to appreciate the athletic virtuosity or grace of ballet; you just have to be human.

How far the trend can be reversed, however, is hard to say. We live in an age where the high-brow / low-brow distinction is fixed from the beginning. It is purely artificial, but it is found everywhere. Some arts get tagged as low-brow. It does not matter how much artistic talent goes into them, how much ingenuity; since it is seen as merely for the masses, the sort of thing anyone can enjoy, it is never regarded as high art. Some arts are tagged as high-brow. It does not matter how much they express the real human condition, real human sorrows, real human joys; since it is high-brow, you have to acquire an affectation to like it, and it is beyond the reach of the common masses. Both expectations are self-fulfilling, and the result is that we are all impoverished; we have arts of wide appeal and we have great artistic talents, but our arts of wide appeal (on both sides of the divide) never reach their potential and great artistic talents (on both sides of the divide) are attenuated into weak and anemic forms or chopped down to a misplaced common level.

Still, the Muses still breathe and inspire, and here and there one finds things that buck the trend. I'm inclined to think that Hitchcock in movies and Tolkien in literature are examples; and I would say there are many more examples of the kind. But the real salvation of art will lie in bucking this whole distinction between what is enjoyable for the masses and what is enjoyable for an elite; art under such a distinction inevitably deteriorates, as does everyone's ability to appreciate art. Art, like Shakespeare in a sane society, is neither high-brow nor low-brow; it is human.

* I thought I would say a little bit more about this. The 'Grand Ole Opry' gets its name not from any direct operatic connection but from the fact that it used to air on NBC radio after a program that consisted of classical music and selections from Grand Opera (the Musical Appreciation Hour); the name 'Grand Ole Opry' grew up as a joke one day when the host, Judge Hay, called it by that name to contrast it with the previous program. But notice what still comes out in the joke: people listening to the radio that evening would first hear classical and operatic music, then hear the more barn-dance style music of the Grand Ole Opry, and the joke when originally made assumed that the audience had also listened to the more educational classical-and-opera program.

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