Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Levine - Highbrow/Lowbrow

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Levine demonstrates the emergence of a schism in American culture towards the end of the 19th century as conductors, directors, curators, and critics began to elevate certain art. They did this by suppressing audience "participation" in performances (teaching theater audiences to quietly, politely watch a performance) and by selectively separating certain art (through both presentation and description) into a hierarchy. The result of this was to create an upper level of art that became less accessible to the majority of Americans.

Prior to these developments soon-to-be-"highbrow" art including Shakespeare, opera, and fine art in museums had been presented as part of a hodge podge of culture. Shakespeare performances were mixed with shorter musical numbers, farcical pieces, etc. Museums were less sharply organized, and might alternate between a show of ancient artifacts one week and a spectacle of twin dwarves the next. The audience at live performances was democratic; all classes were represented and the audience participated as they would at a sporting event, hissing or cheering, stomping their feet or clapping their hands depending on their mood. Indeed, Shakespeare came to be seen in the early 1800s as a quintessentially American cultural product; most Americans were familiar enough with his work for their to be an endless variety of parodies. At the same time, it was expected that his plays be delivered in a way that minimized the aristocratic and English values inherent in some of the stories. Otherwise, the crowd could turn ugly.

Levine sees these trends mirroring the social stratification of American society at the end of the 19th century. He also argues that they peaked in the early 20th century, and finds evidence of people such as Harvard President Charles W. Eliot saying in 1903 that the "cultivated man" should not be exclusive. One of the main projects of modern art, as Levine notes, was to undermine cultural hierarchy. Warhol took this to an extreme. Other 20th century artists and critics have attempted to do the same, as Levine discusses in the Epilogue.

Key Concepts
The sacralization of culture - (ch. 2) The trend in the nineteenth century of certain kinds of culture becoming revered. These changes were caused by symphony conductors, museum directors, theater directors, and critics calling for greater reverence of art by the audience. For example, it became much less acceptable to alter the art from the original writer or composer's text.

Key Figures
Theodore Thomas - Conductor/director of the New York Philharmonic and, eventually, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Early in his career (beginning in 1864), in his summer concerts with the NY Phil, Thomas attempted to introduce what he felt were the greatest symphonic pieces to the masses by mixing them with more popularly appealing music (and, indeed, performance gimicks, such as planting flutes in the trees). This was similar to the way Shakespeare had been blended with "lighter" fare throughout the century. By the time he moved to Chicago at the end of his career, he had grown disillusioned with this approach. Like other symphony directors, he began to insist on only playing only the best music. This meant that his orchestras relied on sponsorship from societies elites, rather than mass ticket sales.

John Philip Sousa - A massive figure in late 19th century music who achieved broad popularity and was somewhat criticized for his brand of music, but nonetheless carried the "sacralization" torch, even becoming increasingly apologetic for his broadly appealing style.

Matthew Arnold - p.223 An English writer who wrote Culture and Anarchy in 1867-68 and later visited the U.S. in the 1880s. He defined culture as, "the best that has been thought and known in the world...the study and pursuit of perfection." According to Levine, "Arnold was perhaps the single most significant disseminator of such attitudes [of high culture] and had an enormous influence on the United States."

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Lears - No Place of Grace: Like Lears, Levine sees the turn of the century as a time of splintering social order in the U.S. Levine discusses Henry Adams (a huge figure for Lears), and Adams's nostalgia for old (read: "high") culture. While Lears sees Adams' nostalgia as a typical anti-modernist stance, Levine fits this into the trend of cultural stratification. More similar to Lears, Levine in turn describes this cultural stratification as related (and this is vaguely described) to the larger trends of societal stratification in the period.

McGerr - A Fierce Discontent: McGerr's thesis is that the Progressive Movement was a movement of middle class control - an attempt to shape the lower classes in their image. Levine sees the sacralization of culture as an expression by the upper class/education of their superiority over the lower classes, particularly immigrants.

Christopher Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism: p.211 "Christopher Lasch has argued that the new professions, which another historian has called the 'consensus of the competent,' came into being 'by reducing the layman to incompetence.' A similar development occurred in the realm of high culture, which paralleled the formation of the professions in the late nineteenth century and which, like the new professions, was involved in a quest for cultural authority."

Really nicely written. Easy and enjoyable to read, although at merely three long chapters its a bit...chunky. (Chapter 1, dealing entirely with Shakespeare as a case study, was adapted from a paper, and sort of feels like it.) Levine's ideas are convincing. However, he mainly deals with "highbrow" art, referring to "lowbrow" art only as a foil for his examples. As noted above, he observes a peak of "sacralization" around the turn of the century, and notes countless attempts to question cultural hierarchy. What this book fails to explain (in fairness, because it is not its project, though the title and even intro suggest it is) is why hierarchies continue to frame American culture, despite the trends of the 20th century.

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