THE belief that some art is not only better than others, but has an elevated character, is almost blasphemous when ‘popular’ is what’s important, writes Tiffany Jenkins
At the Edinburgh fringe festival this year a group of ambitious young opera singers left the concert hall and performed in the Meadows where people were relaxing in the sun, to sell tickets for their next show. The box office wasn’t doing all that well and they needed a big push to fill the empty seats.
I watched as the usually nonchalant, and over-sold-to, public started to listen. At first it was with a studied detachment, which was then followed by polite smiles. But, after two or three very good tunes, the singers turned the audience into their fans. People in the park started to buy tickets from the sellers, and the next show was sold out.
The festivals, with the thousands of shows on all at the same time, are a hard sell, but what was striking was that, when touting their act, the musicians were embarrassed that they were performing opera. “It’s not street dance, nor comedy, but it is good,” one practically apologised. They felt their art form was on its way out, that it was marginalised in favour of the more popular arts – the drumming, the dancing and the cabaret.
It’s a remark that has stayed with me the rest of the year because, while artists will always complain, I think they have a point.
After 200 years of prominence, high culture has been knocked off its perch. Every politician, every teacher, every cultural leader bends over backwards to show us that they like what is current and apparently popular, not what may be less familiar and more difficult. The very idea of high culture: that some art works are not only significantly better than others, but have an elevated and transforming character, is unsayable today.
Over the past year, I have clocked countless incidents that have participated in the dethroning of high culture. The most important was the closing ceremony of the Olympics – “A Symphony of British Music”. It was dominated by pop music: the Spice Girls, Emeli Sandé, Elbow, Jessie J, and Kate Bush. Most of it was good stuff that captured the zeitgeist from the last ten years.
But where was the classical work? They used the Welsh Rugby Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra but only to play the Olympic Anthem. There was no Vaughan Williams, or Elgar, or Britten. There were no modern classical composers. No James MacMillan or James Dillon. It was avowedly entertaining.
Now, there is no reason not to have a pop soundtrack, but to have no classical work was a poor show. Elsewhere, most people know that the Brit Awards were won by Adele and Ed Sheerin, but what about the Classical Brit Awards? Few even know there is such a prize because it is barely promoted.
Today, even when you praise Shakespeare, you quickly have to qualify it. You have to praise the low-brow more. One common follow-up is the claim that The Simpsons sitcom is also funny and insightful, especially good at parody and irony. But the two are not the same. One involves complex reflections on the human condition. The other, at best, laughs at it, but no more. Another popular point made all too often is that video games are the new great art. But thus far, even the most complicated, like “Minecraft” or “Dear Esther” – the experimental and interactive story of a shipwreck in the Hebrides – are well designed, well-written and engrossing, but they fail to explore profound questions about human life.
It is continually said that your culture or cultures are just as good as anyone else’s, and that there is no difference between high and low. But this is wrong. Yes, the line that divides the two is not clear, and it is constantly crossed.
Bob Dylan’s music was popular pop music, and yet it transcends the period in which it was made to touch on high culture, but in a way One Direction will never do.
And there is usually a dialogue between the two. Many composers classed as high culture – such as Dvoák and Janáek – drew on folk traditions.
The difference between high and low is not an easy one to call. But essentially, it comes down to the distinction between reflective art and the more immediate work. Simply put: popular culture appeals to our instant emotions and tastes. It’s great, in its place. We like it because it is relevant to our lives, whether that means finding in it solace about love, or a recognition of the pleasures of partying. Entertainment satisfies our need to turn off, to relax and to escape. But it doesn’t stretch us or tell us anything new.
High culture, on the other hand, tends to move us away from the everyday and the mundane. It stretches and pushes an art form. And it often requires a bit of work on our part in reflecting on serious questions about the human condition.
High culture benefits greatly from education and a knowledge of the art form’s history. We engage with entertainment more passively, and the more challenging high culture, actively. And while there is nothing wrong with entertainment, it is wrong to lump it in with work that builds on a tradition that encompasses intellectual and emotional demands that not only go into creating it but also into appreciating it.
Of course, the remnants of the high-brow remain. Orchestras and operas continue to be well funded and somewhat supported. But high art receives less and less cultural recognition and validation. The few times it is trumpeted is usually for non-aesthetic reasons. Sistema Scotland and Gareth Malone’s television choirs are cases in point. Both are applauded because they make people feel better, and raise self-esteem, rather than the actual music they perform.
The most influential critique made of high culture is that it is exclusive and elitist, that it’s just the stuff of dead white European males, which is partly because it was created in a particular time by a particular kind. But this is a big mistake.
I don’t think high culture inevitably bars everyone by its traditional association with social distinction. There have been times when millions people have demanded it and educated themselves about it in difficult circumstances. And just because it may have been created, at first, by old white blokes, that doesn’t mean that we cannot all cannot enjoy and appreciate it.
Cultural forms do not always mean the same thing across history. They can be dislodged from their original location and purpose, so they can be taken from the hands of an elite. Look at jazz: originating in black America, post-civil war, inspired by spirituals, moving on to dance music, it is now the preserve of old white men who sit around in bars.
The erosion of the distinction between high and low is often done in the name of democratisation, in the name of not telling people what is good for them. But this fails to alert people to its worth.
And we are back in the Meadows again, with the young opera singers. If you want an audience, you have to win them over, you have to fight for them, and that means saying high culture is better than the rest.
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