This is a long piece describing the term “Elitism” in culture. It’s of a lower quality of polish compared to other pieces, and its stream-of-consciousness between topics may be off-putting. Do not feel as though you have to read this if you are not interested. This is a disclaimer to save you.
The Term and Its Shortcomings
Suffice it to say I believe that we like things and we do not like others. But for those of us who claim to take personally the matters of exposure, of the penetration into a consuming public of a profound work of art, and suddenly the concept of elitism becomes important.
I have been spending some time with Harold Bloom’s work. I had not known that he died so recently (in 2019), and his assistance with Shakespeare has been a godsend as I try and make my way through the Bard’s major works. But that is only one way that Bloom is known. The other reason people might know Harold Bloom is for his development on a thesis he had called “The School of Resentment”. This was a rejection of cultural studies arising in a post-Marxist understanding of literature. To him, these schools used books as another form of cultural capital, of power, and what remained of humanities departments was to wield literature like hammers over institutions, to demand that they be read. Paradoxically, Bloom was also interested in maintaining a canon, with books on various authors he felt to be the most influential, and therefore the most required in post-secondary education. Books written later in his career like “How to Read and Why” contributed to the notion that Harold Bloom might have been a blowhard, a washed-up Yale professor who read six to eight hours each day and demanded that the general public did as well.
Elitism and the canon have always been difficult subjects. Though many academic Deans would rather not address the issue of canon and be grateful for the fact that their students read at all, public schools continue to press upon the young books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” in ninth grade in the hope that it will end systemic racism. Private schools are far worse, where my wife had to read “Crime and Punishment”, “The Iliad”, and “Dante’s Inferno” and likely understood little. That is not a knock against my wife. Proponents of this idea of the canon, placed on students who simply do not read as much or as deeply, is the term “exposure”. They want the students to experience the language, unaware that exposure is a poor tool for education. In any public building with a fire code, there are fire extinguishers. If you routinely work in such a building, I want you to tell me where the fire extinguishers are as you pass from your car or mass transit to your office, classroom, or general work area. It may be difficult to tell, for the reason that habits may increase performance, but they do not increase learning. People become very good at ignoring details when habits are created. Ask any commuter who drove to remember certain details on their drive, and they suffer the same problem. Students may have read the words and been perfectly fluent in pronouncing the words from “Crime and Punishment,” but a lack of comprehension keeps the knowledge from interacting in the brain and forming concepts and understanding. Much of this has been discovered in the science of learning, and from recent books such as Peter C. Brown’s “Make it Stick”. Another example he uses of exposure is placing five pictures of a penny, each one with removed or changed surface features, and the reader is asked to pick the “right” penny. I have seen pennies all my life, and I could not for the life of me pick the right one.
Forcing these students to read these books in order to build a particular culture may be even harder to swallow. It has gotten to the point where several school districts in Massachusetts have forbidden books like “The Iliad” from being taught for their violence or misogyny. It is doubtful whether these censors have considered that books from our time period may be ordered off some list for stylistic or content reasons that we as yet do not know about. The reason is that the present is invisibly obvious to us, while our future generations will view us with disgust. The reasons to NOT read “The Iliad” may be as fruitless and as big a waste of time as the reasons TO ONLY read “The Iliad”.
We therefore have an impasse in the actualizing of reading books alone. Far more worrisome is their significance upon our elite as a whole. Many of those students from Yale and Harvard swear by the classics, and take pains to read them as they were meant to, but has reading those classics done anything for the moral and ethical state of our politics? Our economics? Perhaps there is a case to be made that these students should have paid more attention to the classics they swore they read. Captain Ahab offers a doubloon for the first person who cries sighting of the white whale, and on the first chase, the men fight for the right of the doubloon, suggesting that they called out first, hardly aware that it is a moot point: those who cried out signaled the crew’s doom. Clearly a narrow-minded economic view did not save the Pequod just as much as the promise of economic prosperity routinely disenfranchises our lower classes, while the last vestiges of our middle class cling to inherited wealth and property.
We seem to be coming up on a difficult question in the next decade. Wealth inequality is as high as it has been since, well, the previous century. Granted, the technological and medical achievements have lifted all boats, and dire poverty does not sound itself like it used to. But make no mistake, dire poverty does exist, and to see it in 1080p documentaries simultaneously with such extravagant elitism as The French Laundry is asking for outrage. We want to be able to offer as objective a criticism as possible on artistic endeavors, but we do not want to create an elite cadre, ordering the proletariat what to read, what to play, and what to talk about and why. Many of our political and social problems right now, that of racial and cultural issues, most likely stem from class relations and a lack of money. Outrage is easy when you cannot eat. Culture is something else. And the linguistic turn and implosion of cultural mainstays in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when the richest nation in the 20th century had its richest generation, is only more concerning. It WAS called the countercultural revolution, and the backlash against it by American leadership was so bad as to elect Ronald Reagan president and tear it all down. Solving one problem, the problem of money, does not solve others. Artists take stands in an attempt to influence the conversation outside of class.
Artists take stands in an attempt to influence the conversation outside of class. Occasionally, like Harold Bloom, creators in mediums take stands in their content field for a form of elitism which they consider to be “culture”. Martin Scorsese famously raked superhero films across the keel of cinema by suggesting that they were not movies. Instead, they were minstrel acts, circus performances, nothing more than a slideshow of loud bangs and whistles. I assumed after this post that a great many people found themselves not too surprised. Scorsese, who has skin in the game, wanted to make the claim that films about people, about reality, should be the modus operandi of cinema. And when most of cinema around the world is doing just that, Scorsese’s view may be too focused on American “entertainments” rather than the art form of film as it is practiced in France, South Korea, or India. Good work is still being done, regardless if Scorsese can see it or not. Still, for American cinema, he is right at the same time: normally films that addressed reality and issues of the human condition have been relegated to television, and suffer the bloat of multiple episodes and their requisite pacing. But if Scorsese does have a point, how do we best let if affect us? What is the significance?
Elitism implies that there is an established point-of-view: a person just born does not often provide an elite status in art. One of the interesting components of this is that most of the American rich do not seem like “elites”. In fact, quite a lot of what we tolerate about the rich happens to be their lack of taste. Donald Trump, voted in by an American public who supposedly could not tolerate the “elitism” of experts, institutions, and old money, seemed perfectly willing to go with a crotch-grabbing man in his seventies whose interior design is tackiest of all. Gold plated and gaudy, with a leaning towards fascism when given the opportunity. Elitism requires a style or substance that is lorded over someone else. Readers of Paradise Lost might not know that John Milton blamed his gastronomical problems for his blindness, but the higher status that reading his poem promotes has little to do with his idiosyncrasies. Donald Trump’s idiosyncrasies while alive are exactly what hides the idea that he is the elite carrier of anything.
Part of me wonders if elitism is incestual and off-putting for its circular nature. Some industries and mediums may look to an outsider like a closed and opaque system, and finding a way in seems difficult. And when the art reaches the public sphere, it is most often ridiculed, for the language used to construct the experience is not necessarily meant for them. Two easy examples concern fashion and postmodern art. To some, both features are a waste of time.
The clothing, which seems to lack balance, has heavier fabric or design features that splay out asymmetrically, or that limit the freedom of the appendages of the person who wears them. The antagonist of elite is utility. Clearly the middle class in America sees little point in wearing such clothes because they cannot imagine themselves wearing what they see on the catwalk. From what I have seen in museums in Texas, people seem magnetized to the impressionists, even French ones, as well as portraiture. This astounded me at first, due to the fact that we all have a phone capable of taking photographs just like these paintings. But then I began to see that these two were related for the laymen in art taste. That a high fidelity painting was largely the point, because it replicated the photograph. The 1:1 utility of the painting as readily understood is something I am sure David Hockney abhors.
The camera chose our eyes for the masses, and not the other way around. To have these patrons endure postmodern art for an afternoon would be truly delicious, but would drive the laymen insane. To some extent, there is a community for all art already established, and the niche categories of art and fashion seem silly and seem to speak to no one, but in reality they are not speaking to you.
I have found this to be particularly difficult for older patrons, when viewing art and fashion, to get their head around. They are so interested in art that is legible. Perhaps this is a holdover from the industrial revolution, or from the Enlightenment, a combination of the universal and the readily understood. They despise postmodern art as well as any fashion they deem “silly”. They assume they are the target audience.
Sports for the most part does not seem to trend in the direction of utility. Most sports feature balls and sticks, hitting balls with sticks, and preventing others from doing so. Paradoxically, compared to art and fashion, the more complex the rule sets go, and the slower and more methodical its guidance, the more “elite” it turns out to be. This is not always the case. Tennis seems to hold its place as an aristocratic sport and past time because of the perfect geometrical underpinnings espoused by its practitioners. Tennis is far away from perfect, but its linear movements, arcs, and rhythmic ball swapping sounds has a methodology to it that can be hallucinatory to player and audience. There is nothing hallucinatory about football beyond mob violence, a kind of Viking destruction and conquering of territory that cannot be elite. It seems some types of content matters too.
Video games, one of the newest industries, is also the most predatory. Many of the concepts for game’s development are made specifically to build higher revenues, whether they be loot boxes, cosmetic items, or season passes unlocking more content. Video games suffer for their systems, and rather than plot, character, or themes take center stage, tentpole concepts which hardly make themselves available for monetization, the ephemera of gameplay like clothing, weapons, enemies, and geography happen to be the things most developers spend time on, because that is where the money lies. When we find the concept of “elite” in video games, we are usually discussing terms of “difficulty”, an idea journalists have had to grapple with recently with such titles as “Sekiro” that promise unforgiving gameplay to their combat systems. Another form of elitism may be in titles that have such a high graphical fidelity that few people can play the game at all. More than many other mediums, video games are hierarchical rather than democratic, and the speed of your internet connection you have could determine your skill as a player. Inherited wealth indeed.
Few consider games to be something that should not be fun, not even Jane McGonigal. In her book, Reality is Broken in the practical advice guide to gamers located in the back of the paperback edition, she mentions several key points to keep gamers from falling off the wagon. In particular, there are references to violence in video games as a turnoff, as well as the toxic parts of chatting anonymously during competitive games. “Games are meant to be fun,” is what she says, but I think clearly the concept of fun is based here on enjoyment, and enjoyment seems skin deep.
Granted this book came out in 2011, well before the Minecraft revolution, so it would be interesting to wonder what her thoughts are on Minecraft, a game whose enjoyment requires the player’s input.
I have been playing Pathologic 2 recently and the parts of that game that are enjoyable were hard to come by for mainstream journalists. At Rock Paper Shotgun, emphasis was placed on the survival mechanics as a negative element of the game. Unbeknownst to the reviewer, starving of hunger in the game is a main component. As you, a surgeon, navigate the strange Eastern European town, you must struggle between altruism and survival along a continuum. For killing yourself to save others means that you die before you see the game play out, but also before you are able to help yet more people. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs rears its ugly head here. Even when we are able to achieve some kind of sublimity in the game by experiencing the strange atmosphere and interacting with the various dialogue options in the game, amounting to hundreds of thousands of words, still we are stymied by the needs, wants, and desires of the characters themselves. Pathologic 2 is an excellent reminder of what games could be. Maybe not what all games should be, as that runs the risk of breaking the psychologically strained of our population. But still. To have a game view with some degree of indifference, in a game that presses ever forward with a time mechanic. These in my career of video gaming are profound ideas that need to be explored further.
We have learned a valuable lesson: that elitism arrives when a layman approaches a difficult work. To reject the piece is to dismiss the piece as a problem with the piece, but it is the subject who appears to be the problem. They have not been catered to the experience with years of work. They have not been cultivated into an art form. This conclusion is itself a very elitist one. I am blaming the consumer rather than the creator. But is there not something to be said for open-minded appreciation of art for its own sake? Isn’t there something entirely unfashionable about a man who dabbles in every hobby at the shallow end of the form, barely going further? The kind of person I am speaking about is easy to make fun of, because it has happened before. They listen only to the songs on the top 200 billboard. This is a person who reads only bestsellers. This is a person who, when thinking of art, has no favorites, but knows OF Starry Night. Who knows OF The Mona Lisa. We must admit that these focal points of each medium, of each art form, are themselves worthy of admiration and critique. They too at a technical level perform the function of art to this basic bitch. And yet, exploring more requires cognitive effort, a space that must be crossed in order for it to be “understood” and appreciated for the layman to be pushed further along into an expert.
The Timing of Elitist Arrival
I cannot seem to stop reading what we have deemed “the classics.” At 31 years old, I have finally read enough to build linguistic calluses. I am ready to read something so outside the realm of ordinary writing that I WANT to be estranged. I want to squint harder at the page. What is it in me, fully a decade after I was supposed to engage in these texts, that compels me to do so? Only their reputation, which was something built either explicitly or implicitly by generations of readers. When William Faulkner has one book that he wished he could have written, and it turns out to be Melville’s forgotten work, people paid attention. Perhaps we will find that Dawkins’s work on Memes is right, and there are cultural genes as much as there are biological ones. But for now the question of elitism in art and literature remains.
Had I not been so interested in reading and writing with a nudge or a glance, I might not have read Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. At some point we become interested in the work for its own sake, and not for some functional utility it can provide as a side effect. That fascination takes pressure and time. It is when these highly articulate (and a bit masturbatory) works are lorded over a person without the history with it that it becomes “elite”.
Once, when I had visited my mother in the fall of my freshmen year of college, she chastised me for using big words that “nobody” could understand. Later I learned in my graduate career that freshmen and sophomores have a habit of “overwriting” using a larger vocabulary, but also creating a whole lot of grammar mistakes. Is this “worse” writing? On a large scale no: it is simply people attempting something new. These esoteric words, difficult to some, are required in order for infantilized high school students to encounter college and become what we label “educated”. Is this elitism? No, it is only learning. And learning is messy. On the one hand, my mother was addressing a common trend among young people growing up. On the other, my parents have done little to prepare themselves by cultivating difficulty in thinking. My mother only invested in what intuitively made sense to her.
One thing is for sure: human beings have to come upon difficult works in their own way. The Harold Blooms of the world would do well to remember the stubbornness of human beings, which is that we do not like being told what to do. “Access” may be a better concept here than just another syllabus, just another canon. The reason I began buying as many books as I could for my classroom library is that I found the selection of books in the school’s library to be so pitiful that I could not leave it alone. Soon, other students from other English classes, students I had never seen before, were asking to borrow books. I had become the school’s actual library, collecting my own gnostic gospels for students to read in secret, outside of the purview of general study. Most of the books I leant to these students I never saw again, but to me it did not matter: any student with a particular desire and any kind of ambition to read at all should not be ignored. This to me was the basic tenet of education. To have that denied in each school was too painful to contemplate. When I went to school I read books, biographies about Einstein I had no business reading, but I wanted to try because I “found” it. I “chose” it. In an era where public libraries too are resorting to digital systems and perusal of ever-dwindling shelves means less foot traffic, and we seem to be in a vicious cycle. Rather than elitism, or hierarchy, or a canon, perhaps the question we should be asking is: how can people find the books they would like to read at all? Where will they go to find art house cinema? Netflix? Will citizens migrate towards more demanding streaming services like Mubi and the Criterion Collection because they want to work harder for their art? Or do they make the choice of Netflix or HBO because they promise a wide variety of works for multiple ages? Content is still king, but we need a place for him.
One of the scariest realizations for me during the pandemic is trying to answer why I read the classics. Why now? And the fact of the matter is that I have not set foot in a bookstore in so long that I have effectively given up the chance to be surprised by a book I have not read before. Likely I read classics because I know of their existence. Randomly walking through a used book store often had me look at a book with a questioning eye. This is how I learned about William H. Gass. This is how I learned about “S.” by Doug Dorst. If it were not for periodicals like Harper’s, I would be truly lost.
Likely for all these reasons, elitism will continue to rear its ugly head in the art we hold dear. Ballet, one of my favorites, began as an elitist art, a way to remind the general public of what perfectionism in human form looked like among the aristocracy.
How on Earth do teachers and instructors encourage laymen to become experts? To become elites? Is it something that requires deliberate practice? Most assuredly. Does it require a mentor? Not necessarily, but every little bit helps.
Luckily, I have been prepared to not turn away. But this negative connotation of powerful works from all sources as being a sort of “elitism” ruins the argument. It says nothing about the object; it speaks only about the one gazing.
Could we ferry young people to develop their own tastes? Could we help them to take their own minds seriously, rather than the requests of older generations who only want to be admired? The mind is an incredibly beautiful thing. It is a shame we ask less of it.
Elitism is a state of being that can fluctuate depending on the task or treasure. The act of being elite occurs when the opaque art is thrust upon the uninitiated, and they are forced to offer an opinion. On the other hand, elite practice is a skill which can mold the mind into recognizing technique regardless of utility. And to cultivate elite status in a form is to constantly push in difficulty, to do something new for the sake of practice, and not for enjoyment. Long story short, the term “elite” does not function very well when anyone wishes to get good work done.