Monday, April 19, 2010
Culture, High, Low and Other
Pascal Boyer recently had a post, Cognition under the high brow, in which he posed the issue:
True, high culture does not occur in all human societies, it is a minority pursuit wherever it does, and there may be more important problems for cognitive anthropology to solve. But it is interesting nonetheless. Wherein lies the difference between the high and low registers? Is there any cultural variation in that difference? How does it translate in terms of cognitive processes?
He goes on to mention Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which he was unable to read, but nonetheless proceeds with caution, suggesting there might be more to the high/low distinction that the need of one group to hold themselves above another.
More interesting, and more germane to our interests, is the notion that appreciation of high culture artifacts somehow requires more “mental work” than that of lesser genres. For instance, a lot of popular music (in which we may include a lot of Vivaldi but not all Mozart, all Glenn Miller but certainly not Duke Ellington) strives for harmonic simplicity, for the repetition of identical harmonic progressions, for fewer modulations or departures from the tonal centre. By contrast high-culture Western music, e.g. Beethoven’ quartets or Chopin’s Etudes or all of Ravel, strives for more complex, unpredictable resolutions, fewer cadences, surprising harmonic progressions, variation rather than repetition, etc. I only mention Western works because they are more familiar to most of our readers. But the difference may well be more general.
A long and lively discussion ensued, with particular attention to flamenco: high or low?
Interesting argument. I think Boyer should avoid discussing classical music, though. I’m not an expert, but there is an incredibly complex evolution within classical music from the variability he attributes to Beethoven and Chopin and the recognizable melodic progressions and repetitions he gives to Vivaldi and some of Mozart. There was a purpose to it, and it was absolutely a formation due to adjustments in class structures.
You’d have to wonder, too, if he would look at Japanese theater (traditional theater such as Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku) and make the same argument. One of those (and I forget which...Kabuki, maybe?) was absolutely a class product, and yet did not necessarily reduce the mental work needed to enjoy (in fact, the more “low brow” of the Japanese theatrical forms was rooted deep within Japanese mythology).
While I’m sympathetic to whatever it is Boyer’s getting at, I’m not sure about the mental work aspect. If you’re not familiar with the conventions of, say, Kabuki, then you can expend considerable mental effort and get nothing for your efforts. But if you’ve got those conventions down cold, then watching Kabuki might be effortless, and rewarding too.
See also The Forger’s Spell for the issues of projection in art appreciation (wine appreciation appears to be even more set-and-self image bound). Tastes of people with more time on their hands (more likely to be upper class or academics) may be more complex (I suspect they frequently are), but complexity doesn’t guarantee quality anymore than simplicity does.
I like some classic ballads, but they were generally the product of people who were described as masterless men and getting caught being a bard more than a couple of times could get one hanged in Scotland (a check of “bard” in the OED explains very succinctly why the ballads were anonymous).
In the Clockwork Muse (1990), Colin Martindale claimed he could use statistical methods to show trends of increasing formal complexity in a vast range of artistic traditions. His explanation for this phenomenon was simple: to be recognized by your peers as a creative artist, you have to do something new. That imperative often has the effect of making art objects more complex, though the requisite novelty can also be achieved by violating taboos.
If there’s something to this admittedly very simple theory, the increasing mental efforts required by the audience of elaborate art is largely an automatic side effect of the accumulation of cultural capital, something that is frequently associated with privileged groups but can also take place among despised minorities such as black jazz musicians or Talmudic scholars.
I think the arts piggybacked on the science model in some ways. Jazz is particularly peculiar since it’s wandered from being low-brow and popular in a minority community (in the place that rap and hiphop are today) to being esoteric (an average jazz audience in Philadelphia is black bourgeois, white hipsters, in at least equal numbers, if not with a white majority, and with plenty of white jazz musicians with college degrees). I haven’t seen the same thing completely take off with white working class musical genres like old timey, bluegrass, and country, but those are becoming more aware of their roots (a pop banjo tour included an Ethopian playing an African banjo), which could lead interesting places.
Mr. Benzon: Exactly. And I would think that the level of mental work needed for different cultural products would vary based on too numerous of factors to list here with any authority. At the very least, things like race, class, and so on would play in the field.
High versus low is a sociological distinction, not an aesthetic one. It is a minority pursuit because if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be classified as “high.”
It’s a minority pursuit classified as high because it’s done by people of higher socioeconomic status or prestige. There are plenty of minority pursuits (and written science fiction is far less of a mass medium than movie or television SF). Certain kinds of rural music are definitely a minority taste, but they’re never considered high culture.
Yes, Jonathan, it is a sociological distinction. But is it indifferent to aesthetic issues?
The implication was that works of greater complexity would be “higher.” That might obtain in certain situations, but really that’s a question of whether a given society wants to code that particular kind of complexity as “high” or not. The fact that certain cultural expressions can change their “brow” from one period to another implies that sociology trumps aesthetics. The gentrification of jazz, flamenco, or Shakespeare come to mind. Once something is gentrified, then its complexity comes into play--but that complexity could have been there all the time. Or alternatively, something can descend in level, no longer seem so complex or rarefied, like Picasso maybe. Over the course of the years Cubism becomes more like Vivaldi rather than like a late Beethoven quartet.