The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America

Anthropology 113: Ethnograpies of Popular Culture
K. Harper, Instructor
Copyright © 1997, 2000 B. Collie Collier
A quickie review of a rather good book, with some contrast/comparison of other class readings thrown in for good measure.


The greatest quantity of reading for class currently has been Lawrence W. Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow. In sections I and II, the author discusses the sacralization of art in the United States as it was used to illustrate the growing separations of class and the paradigm of increasing elitism in defining formerly publicly accessible art as "culture," meant for and appreciated by only those of refinement and "sensibility." He demonstrates this theme throughout a national timespan, using the primary examples of Shakespearean theater and symphonic music. One of his main points is the increasing societal paradigm of art as accessible only to individuals: the gifted or highly educated creator of real art, whose divine inspiration can be truly appreciated only by individual contemplation. His strongest example of this is the frequent use of the metaphor of art as a religion with artist/critic as solitary and divinely inspired acolyte. This forced societal individuality in the presence of 'true' art of necessity excludes public, "mass" enjoyment of or participation with any particular creation, and consequentially a perception of class and elitism is both constructed and maintained.

Levine's ideas are interesting when compared to the readings in Raymond William's Keywords, specifically "sensibility," "elite," "masses," "common," "popular," and "educated." Repeatedly through history and through differing cultures, the concept of many people being somehow less worthwhile than selected individuals (who become "elite," instead of merely the elected) is demonstrated by formerly neutral words (e.g., "popular," "masses," "common") gaining a hegemonically negative meaning. The sole counter to this trend is relatively recent, and exists mostly as a counter-hegemonic to these ideas, e.g., the use of "masses" in a positive fashion by socialists. The clearest example of this societal desire to hierarchialize is demonstrated in the etymology of the word "educated," in which, as an increasing number of people become educated, increasingly refined or exclusive definitions of the word are created in order to maintain the sense of separation from the "masses" and the "elitism" of the few. Indeed, the word "sensibility" was apparently appropriated to indicate the specialness required so that one may properly appreciate art -- and it was specifically a word used to describe individuals.

Sensibility seems to me, however, to be both a victim of its own individualistic use, and an example of the increasing solitariness of 'true Aaht.' Its close associations to "sentimental" rendered it suspect, for with the decline of art as a publicly appreciated and participative forum came the decline of strongly emotional acting and reactions. Instead, proper appreciation and creation of the arts now seems to involve -- practically demand, in fact -- more and more an increasingly introverted attitude. To act too broadly is melodrama, not art; to paint or compose with an excess of passion is to pander to emotionalism. Thus as the creation and appreciation of art becomes increasingly individualized and elitist, so too apparently does the society itself. Whether art is imitating life or life imitating art is not yet clear to me, and in an effort to avoid essentialism I'd have to currently tentatively say the answer was "both."

I want this book! ;-)


Last Updated: Mon, Mar 27, 2000