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Monday, July 28, 2008

The term "Elitism"

Mark Swed, music reviewer for the LA Times, writes a great piece on the word "elitism" and its use in other fields (athletics, for example) as opposed to the arts.

He opens the article with, "Every now and then, writers at The Times lose a word. Mainly these are adjectives subject to misuse. Some years ago we were advised to let go of legendary. Similarly, don't expect to see iconic, which has become equally cheapened, in the paper much anymore.

The adjectival criminal I'd like to see handed over to the word police is elitist, especially in its relationship to the arts and popular culture. In the "elitist" Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of "elite" is the "choice part, the best (of society, a group of people, etc.)," none of which sounds so terrible. But that is not what is meant when, say, classical music, my field, is scorned as elitist, as it regularly is."

This has bothered me for a long time. "Elitism" in the arts usually implies "stuck up," "snobbish," or worse. Yet we speak of "elite athletes" with no problem.

The arts are often considered expensive, only available to the "elite," not the ordinary Joe. Yet if you look at the cost of attending professional sporting events, pop/rock concerts, or other parts of pop culture, prices are certainly as high or higher.

Salaries for professional athletes or artists in the entertainment world are far more "elite" than those in the arts.

So why is elite a bad word in the arts, yet not so in other areas?

I say it's time to reclaim the words "elite" and "elitism" for their proper place in popular culture for the arts.

5 comments:

John Brough said...

Well said.

Celeste Winant said...

Hey, Richard- Thanks for these posts. May I link this post and your follow-up on Choralista? Thanks for considering this! Celeste

Richard said...

Of course, Celeste! Happy to have you link/cross post, whatever.

Jake said...

Following the blog-chain from Choralista!

I think the issue about elitism in classical and choral music is less about the exceptionalism of the performers than about the expectations for the audience. The rituals of classical music, after all, are pretty darn rigid when it comes to audience behavior, and ignorant interlopers are often treated with considerable scorn. Our role as performers certainly contributes (how many times have you heard a musician spit bile at the poor sap who dares to clap between movements?), but Joe Sixpack feels it most from the regular concert-goers. And these rituals all tell a story of elitism, from knowing how to dress and when to clap to knowing what to appreciate in the music.

I go around in circles with my uncle (who is Juilliard trained) on this topic, and he is a textbook classical music elitist snob. What it comes down to is not the ticket price or the talent of the performers but the expectation of a very particular and rather specialized knowledge that one must have if one is going to be a consumer of this art. If you go to a classical concert, you're expected, at some level, to know whether it was good or not, and if you can't defend your contrary position articulately, you will be dismissed by the vast array of self-appointed experts around you. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's not tolerated in this little world.

We have to remember, too, that when classical music began to ossify in the late 19th Century, it became very strongly an aspirational art, as opposed to a folk art. It represented the upper echelons of society even as more and more people could go to concerts held in larger and larger halls. And it was sold this way very deliberately as the effects of the ongoing industrial revolution spread across society. This legacy, more than any contemporary reality, has a lot to do with the elitist label. That elitism in general has become a pejorative in our culture (see McCain vs. Obama) is a much bigger issue.

I know there are many efforts to break down these attitudes, and I've participated in a few. But it's an uphill battle, particularly given the degree to which many classical musicians and fans place enormous emotional weight in these traditional behaviors, all the while vigorously denying that they could possibly be elitist. I recommend to anyone interested this excellent book, which gave me a lot to think about as a classical musician.

Richard said...

Jake, thanks for following over from Choralista!

Yes, I've tried some things to break down those barriers, too, but I agree, it's not easy. Another time perhaps I'll write about this.

Thanks also for the book recommendation. I'll look for it.