Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Sinister Side of Elitism

or, On Democratic Elitism

Bunthorne, from
Gilbert & Sullivan's
It's not easy being an elitist. Properly filled the pursuit requires a broad education as the basis for a penetrating perspicacity. Now this doesn't sound so bad, the former being a calculated investment and the latter a tutored talent, and indeed if these only were the requirements we all would lay upon the daisies of  cultivated taste. What is required also, and much to the dismay of the elitist, is the consumption and voluntary regurgitation of pop culture poison.  This gastronomic, intellectual, and aesthetic sacrifice goes unknown to the philistines, consumerists, hooligans, fashonistas, who graze on whatever vittles their whims, credit cards, privates, and current wardrobes urge. To foist Lady Gaga upon someone whose daily bread is Mozart is inhumane at best.

If you are not yet sympathetic to the cause of the elitist think of his sad case this way: he has no allegiance to the contemporary, to the fresh and new, but to an idea. He is bound to some sense of proportion, meaning, or symmetry. . . to beauty if you will. So when he waxes nostalgic about the good ol' days of 1780s Vienna or sheds a tear for Cicero, shed a tear for him, for part of his soul rest there, and only there.

Yet the elitist infuriates his critics. How can you criticize someone who thinks what he likes is the best, or for liking the best? You don't criticize someone for liking the US Marines or the Yankees, do you? Then why for liking Mozart or the Berlin Philharmonic? Do these tormentors perhaps bear some shame that their favorite music is written by a semi-literate, or played by a band named after an insect, or rocks? How do you fault someone for rejecting the vulgar, or standing up for the minority, acts which are elsewhere always laudable and just? How to fault one who chooses, who elects, as elite in essence means, especially in the democratic West? Of course the internal contradictions and tensions ensuing from hating this man and praising his virtues whenever they occur in some other individual. . . well one pities the hamster.

Yet like most beliefs elitism can take a pernicious turn, a turn away from its inherently conservative roots. You see elitism in principle simply wishes to preserve the good, not to hold it capture. It does not want Cicero and Mozart to be held in an ivory tower only for elitists but rather wants to make sure he is not lost. It wishes the best to be known as the best far and wide. In some sense it does want an "aristocracy" that is, it does want the best to rule, but an idea can only rule when it is in the hearts and minds of many. True elitism then cannot be a passive hoarding but an active cultivation.

Fred Siegel's recent Commentary article is a good summary of elitism gone awry, of elitism which hopes to put a basket over high culture's sacred flame and to keep the masses in the dark, of elitism which hopes not to spread the best to the many but to keep the many without culture, since no culture is to be preferred to bad culture. Mr. Siegel has done the dirty work of cataloguing the anti-democratic, even dictatorial impulses of these would-be cultural guardians so I will spare myself the same agony. 

I would, however, like to amplify and explicate the criticism, especially as it stems from the issue of education. You see if one really believe what one likes is the best then it's hard to concede that it would turn out the loser in any aesthetic, that is to say, academic or intellectual, argument. So when you say that people don't like what is best you are really suggesting they lack the education to come to understand what is best. So teach. Write. Perform. Promote. Fund. Praise the good and criticize bad. Don't sit atop Parnassus wagging your finger. Don't mandate intellectual and cultural squalor, that is, spiritual impoverishment, whilst advocating for the material improvements of the very same people. 

Earlier we said that elitism in principle simply wishes to preserve the good, not to hold it capture. This today is easier than ever when with digital technology we can reproduce and share material without any loss of the original. How can this but help spread the good? It  can only fail to do so if you maintain that in a contest for the human soul Mozart would lose out to Lady Gaga. To the untutored and in the short run, he might. ( I would ask, though: how do you know Mozart is losing? Surely not by sales or profits when you can purchase the complete works of Mozart for less than the cost of one ticket to a modern pop concert.) Then again the untutored driver goes awry, the untutored architect errs, and so forth for all jobs. Man is born with previous few skills. Why not educate your brother? Are we to regard man as the noble savage as regards politics but otherwise simply a savage, and an irredeemable one at that?

It is not necessary to hold such a view to maintain one's aesthetic bona fides. In fact, refusing to spread what one professes to be the best or suggesting that there are people inherently unable to love the same is the surest way to discredit both.


  1. Interesting article .

    In comparing and contrasting instances of the sublime with the crass / prosaic , Mozart or Beethoven would be better compared and contrasted with far worse examples of kitsch then Lady Gaga (i.e. the cretinous and middlebrow vulgarities of such far worse singers such as Katy Perry, or Adam Lambert, or Alanis Morisette ) .

  2. Perhaps so; I'll have to familiarize (though not better) myself with these examples for future reference!

    Thank you for reading and also for your comment!