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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

THE ELITISM DISCUSSION

So there’s been this discussion among classical music bloggers about whether classical partisans should present themselves as explicitly elitist.  Pretty much the only blogger taking the explicitly pro-elitism position is a hepcat named A. C. Douglas, who blows his cool by suggesting that there’s a clear hard line between works of art that aim for transcendence and works that aim to be merely boffo contemporary megahits, and that the transcendence game is what high culture’s all about.

As evidence that such a line is subjectively drawn at best and most likely illusory, I offer the obvious name of Shakespeare.  Big boffo megahit maker who didn’t even see to it that his manuscripts were preserved, just made his pile of cash and retired to the country like some prior-day J. D. Salinger.  Despite his obvious commercial bent, his penchant for stupid jokes, his weakness for weak puns, his often ridiculous plots, his unhesitancy in offering buckets of blood if he thinks that’s what the audience wants, he’s at the center of the canon of English poetry, some say Western poetry, some say world poetry.  Dude could write him some hella transcendent iambics.  Word.

Amazingly, a THEATER blogger named George Hunka backs Mr. Douglas up and gets in some nice arguments about how transcendence’s where it’s at!  Transcendent artworks allow spectators to perceive, “through the artist, escape from will in the act of contemplating the will.”  In an unfortunate display of ill-informed elitist snobbery, he then remarks as to how if you ain’t gone to college you probably won’t understand him.

One needn’t even resort to Shakespeare to realize, good golly, probably most artists, popular or otherwise, aspire to timelessness, universality, and grace; those who've achieved it are legion. Speaking for my own demotic songs, heavens yes. Grounded in the daily grind and hoping to reveal the foot of god pumping the treadle of existence.

The elitist position as essayed by Messrs. Hunka and Douglas is a butt-centric view. They assume that the audience of transcendent art is in repose, sitting down, in a contemplative mood. I submit that the foot of god pumping the treadle may be revealed equally gloriously in more participatory modes, such as dancing, and that indeed Mr. Hunka’s Schopenhaurean will-lessness might be readily found at a rave.

Fortunately for classical music, Alex Ross, Helen Radice, and Greg Sandow argue for classical and against elitism.  Except that Sandow, in his populism, like many self-described rock-populists, posits a new elitism, an elitism within pop.  He asks rhetorically of a different classical elitist (not Mr. Douglas), “Can't he tell the difference between Celine Dion and Max Roach?”  From a sonic standpoint, that’s like asking, “Can’t you tell the difference between Scarlatti and Schoenberg?”  Sandow knows this; his point is, Roach is great (I agree), and Dion is the musical equivalent of an airport novel (an elitist designation that Sandow adopts from the polemic of his adversary).  Later Sandow lists his top pop musicians of the last 50 years:  “Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane. Bob Dylan. Duke Ellington (even if he might have done even more memorable work earlier). Prince. Bruce Springsteen. Sondheim, for sure. Public Enemy. Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys. Or add your own names.”  He adds:  “You don't think Springsteen is a serious musical artist? Fine, but tell me why.”  But Sandow hasn’t told us why Celine Dion’s music is disposable. He assumes it’s self-evident.

Now, the little I’ve heard of Celine Dion, I don’t much like her.  Her stuff has struck me as monochromatic.  But she has pipes, and I have no doubt that she’s trying to make something beautiful when she sings. Just as airport novelists are trying to write as well as they can. Robert Walser has said it well -- I can only paraphrase -- music that lots of people like, there’s something musically interesting going on there whether you like it or not. It’s soul-limiting to dismiss it, and it’s stereotyped thinking to assume base motives in its creator.

I can applaud Mr. Sandow for trying to escape from his elitism. I know I got mine, which I struggle to transcend. Struggle, fail, and fall, and then, as Fred Astaire sang in that Kern-Fields song, "I pick myself up, Dust myself off, Start All over again."

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