Sunday, February 20, 2011

Too Elite, or Not Too Elite?

With the latest budget squabbles, we've been hearing a bit about government arts funding.  And again, we hear complaints of arts funding as somehow elitist - presumably because of art's history as a fancy of the upper classes.  I think that's less true than it has been at many times in the past.  More on that in a bit.  But first, let's take on the allegation of "elitism" being deployed with such fervor by the contemporary right.

Let me start with socioeconomics.  I've been lower-middle class all my life, as measured by income.  But both my parents were college educated, and I grew up in a very "rich" cultural environment (arts, philosophy, history, world religions, politics, etc. all discussed regularly).  That puts me in an upper class percentile.  My wife and I now both have graduate degrees, and our daughters are being raised in a similarly culturally rich environment.  Yet we have generally lower-middle class incomes. 

So when my daughter goes to school, she'll no doubt encounter other children whose parents were not college educated, and do not have highly intellectual discussions at home, yet are upper-middle class income-wise.  Thus they are in a lower cultural percentile, yet higher income percentile.  They'll tell her that abstract art is stupid, "as any kid could do that".  They'll tell her that her challenging of dominant social norms is "weird".  She'll tell them their unquestioning embrace of popular art is predictable.  She'll accuse them of being provincial.

Of course, they can all be quite civil about it.  While the town can certainly be snobbish, the gown - at least in my experience - can be just as cruel, expressing an "elitism" of their own.  Just go to any gay ghetto and ask how many people had fled the persecution of small-town norms.  I'm always struck by the tone-deafness of those who would accuse liberals, or the educated, of snobbery, while failing to see how oppressive conservatives, or the uneducated can be.

While the arts have sometimes been used as a cudgel with which to clobber the townies, they have also been used as a sort of cultural escape-hatch, through which those who don't fit in, or just see things a tad differently, might find transcendence.  Furthermore, art appreciation has looked quite differently through the ages.  I'm no art historian, but it seems to me that "the arts" today is wide-ranging and diverse.  There is an irony in those who would disdain the arts as elitist, in many ways actually making the arts more elitist, by dismantling the very supports that have allowed the arts to thrive in ways that a purely privatized field would not have. 

I'm very uncomfortable with the increasingly tired conservative anti-elitist rhetoric.  Especially when coming from millionaires.  Just because George W. Bush, a trust fund baby, legacy education at Yale, talks with a twang, rides horses and likes Toby Keith, he's somehow not an elitist, while the vegan kid behind the coffee counter who goes to a state college, listens to indie rock, and likely has socialist sympathies is an elitist.

Are we not just really talking about the power of knowledge?  I mean, this isn't really about liberal elitists "looking down" on the townies.  It is about the dismissal of their special knowledge, in the sense that they know something about comparative religion, world music, the history of cinema, philosophical discourse, and the subtleties of cuisine. 

And yet, is it even about their knowledge of these things?  Most so-called "elitists" I know are actually quite uniformed in many areas.  Imagine!  So are we then really talking about the knowledge itself - the mere idea that someone, somewhere, thinks your mustache is stupid?  That you can't enjoy a good cheap beer anymore without the idea that there was a "fancy" one on the shelf above it?  Or that you went to see Transformers instead of some foreign documentary about foreign films?  Isn't this why Professor Glenn Beck gave a rave review of Spiderman?

Honestly, it feels like "The Republican War on Science" should more accurately be described as "The Republican war on Knowledge".  You there, with your fancy glasses! 

How much of this sort of cultural self-pity is being hyped up for political if not financial gain?  Everyday.  Millions of listeners tune in to Rush Limbaugh and others who tell them that the "elites" are looking down their noses at them.  Yet are they?  Or is this trumped up paranoia, digging in to people's deep-seated fears about themselves, much in the way hypnotists plant false memories?  The classic demogogic  ploy.

Because yeah - you don't have the most fashionable clothes.  You didn't go to university.  You enjoy cheesy television.  You really like Applebees.  You feel comfortable with traditional cultural roles. You don't "get" modern art.

But so what?  Your clothes are really boring and you didn't put much thought into their meaning.  People are going to sing the praises of university because it is a temple of the human mind.  People are going to rag on television because it is overly commercial and filled with cynicism and clich√©.  Traditional cultural roles are often really terrible and we all need to think critically, taking nothing for granted.  Modern art is, well, it's complicated, and it's OK to admit you don't understand it. 

These are objective realities.  It is just as true that "elites" are just as lacking in numerous areas of their lives.  Yet those areas tend to not have the same sort of "status" associations (although ask a redneck if knowing how to change a tire is as important as the difference between modernism and post-modernism and he'll laugh in your face).

In the end, the two forms of knowledge have different uses.  As we move further into an information based world, abstract thought will likely become more important than mechanical thought.  And what is ultimately important is not whether one has a mustache or eats arugulla, but how much human, social and political capital one possesses.  It is in all of our interests to set aside petty bickering and focus on the project of equality and empowerment of humanity as a whole.

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