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Elitism?


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#1 dirac

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Posted 07 September 2001 - 02:05 PM

The item at bottom was originally posted by Cliff on the Links board. It's a full throated defense of artistic elitism by Christopher Knight, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times. I'm curious to hear what opinions, if any, you may have about what Knight has to say and the concept of "artistic elitism" in general.

A couple of talking points to start off with. Knight says," In democratic culture, elitist status does not derive from ancestral bloodline, inherited wealth, genetic authority or established power." My first response to this was, "I wonder what country he's talking about." It seems pretty clear to me that we do have an elite based on precisely those four elements.

Knight also makes an extended comparison of arts to sports, to make the point that sports fans demand only the best, so why shouldn't museumgoers? It seems to me that it's apples-and-oranges. In sports, you have stats to go by, a more or less objective standard. (Which doesn't mean there are no debates about status, obviously. A bean counter not conversant with baseball could look at the numbers, of, say, Joe DiMaggio, and might well wonder if this fellow wasn't a little overrated. I can also recall a family dinner at a friend's house that was seriously disrupted by an argument between two family members as to whether Phil Rizzuto really belonged in the Hall of Fame. It got ugly.) The arts are a little different. Many people think of ballet as highbrow; a number of highbrows didn't and don't.

Last, I think Knight falls into the common trap of Blaming the Victim. He accuses museums of whoring after popular appeal without really addressing the problem of often straitened financial situations that the pandering -- if it is pandering -- is supposed to alleviate. This last seems especially relevant to the state of ballet today.


Thoughts?


[url="http://"http://www.calendarlive.com/top/1,1419,L-LATimes-Print-X!ArticleDetail-41736,00.html"]http://www.calendarlive.com/top/1,1419,L-L...-41736,00.html[/url]?

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 September 2001 - 08:16 PM

I think Knight has misinterpreted the "elitism" that museums want to avoid. It's all well to say that we're all for the best in things and rigorous standards, but the "elitism" that museums are worried about is who sets those standards, and if that standard means that by coincidence, all the art comes from the same people and disenfranchises others by implication. I think the infamous "Dead White European Male" problem is what museums are trying to avoid, especially with an ever more ethnically diverse country, and I wonder if Knight misses that point intentionally.

Having said that, I'm quite happy to admit that the majority of the art in all disciplines I hold most dear was by Dead White European Males.

#3 kfw

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Posted 08 September 2001 - 02:32 AM

dirac, I think Knight confuses things when he writes of elitist *status* and then gives the high standards of Dodger's fans as an example. But I do agree, if I understand him correctly, that the artistic elite and the possession of elite artistic standards in democracies don't always stem from "ancestral bloodline, inherited wealth, genetic authority or established power."

Certainly that's true when we talk about high quality music made from popular or once popular forms, or about American literature. And I get the impression, say from reading NYCB bios, that it's more and more true in the "high" arts too. To go back just a bit, Suzanne Farrell is from what, middleclass -- probably lower middle class -- Cincinnati? (Although perhaps she possesses "genetic authority," whatever that is. It just sounds like natural talent). And many of us balletomanes here, myself included, can't claim any of those privileges or advantages.

Also, though I don't know too much about the current art world, I'd think museums could extend their exhibitions beyond the work of DWMs without displaying the Saatchi collection, Armani "couture," or Harley-Davidsons. So I do think there is a real tendency to dumb down and go for the sensational at the expense of quality. I remember some executive at the Royal Opera House (in the PBS series on the same) talking about how everyone wished that place was less exclusive price-wise, but that at the same time, the exclusivity was a selling point! So, I dunno, can we draw a parallel in the arts world -- is there a point at which those who sniff for quality will turn their noses up at one more expedition to the shopping mall-art museum, Now Showing that hot artist that scandalized the NY Post?

For an interesting piece on a related subject, see Edward Rothstein's "Reading (Gasp) for Enlightenment, Without Snobbery or Shame" --

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/08/arts/08CONN.html[url]
[url=http://"http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/08/arts/08CONN.html]http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/08/arts/08CONN.html://http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/08/a...rts/08CONN.html

[ 09-08-2001: Message edited by: kfw ]

#4 Mel Johnson

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Posted 08 September 2001 - 12:20 PM

Lemme get this straight - there's something WRONG with elitism?

"My tastes are very simple; I like only the best." - Sir Winston Churchill

#5 ~A.C~

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Posted 09 September 2001 - 11:25 AM

I don't neccesarily think elitism is a BAD thing. It's just that, in the U.S., at least, we tend to try to make everything 'politicaly correct', and 'democratic' where it cannot or should nt be done. Elitism seems to be an ugly word to many people, but it is just something that occured a while ago, and though it has changed quite a bit these days, it still exhists.

Elitism, by definition, means "the sense of entitlement defined by class or grouping." I think most people can aggree that this type of thing still exhists, and yet most don't want it to.

In many people's eyes, it's a form of prejudice. We should have gotten over it years ago, at least in the U.S. It's obviosly 'undemocratic' and makes people feel uncomfortable. It makes some feel insuperior, while others feel they lose integrety.

In most countries, especialy in Europe, elitism exhists, and is looked upon as something that is just "there." We can't change it. We really shouldn't. It shouldn't make you feel inferior because you are who you are, and we go only to enjoy the arts. As long as we remember that, most people can live with elitism.

#6 kfw

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Posted 09 September 2001 - 12:16 PM

A.C. writes:
Elitism, by definition, means "the sense of entitlement defined by class or grouping." I think most people can agree that this type of thing still exists, ...

I think the problem is that this word is applied to attitudes and behavior that are actually judgments of taste. Everyone makes value judgments, whether they're connoisseurs of high culture or fans (alright, "connoiseurs" :) ) of the low. It's just that the former come right out say high art is or often is superior, while many of the latter only suspect it's true but can't be bothered to take the time to discover why.

It's ridiculous that we're so on guard against anyone being prejudiced in any way
(classist, popophobist?) that we try to bully them into lowering their standards. Some people are smarter, wiser, more sensitive, better educated, etc. than others. (Than me!)It's a fact of life.

I wish people would recognize that high culture institutions are there to enrich everyone. Even the poor can watch Great Performances or Live From Lincoln Center, or attend free opera and orchestra performances in Central Park, say, or free dance concerts in Damsroch Park. The Kennedy Center has free performances every day.

[ 09-09-2001: Message edited by: kfw ]

#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 09 September 2001 - 12:56 PM

I don't disagree at all with high standards. But I think we should all be on guard for our assumptions about what's "high" and what's "low". I'm not making a case for TV or Giorgio Armani (though I would happily make one for Charles James) but not all art that's "of the people" is low or schlock, nor is all that glitters high art. I want cultural institutions to preserve the traditions I was raised on, I don't want to hear the Iliad dismissed as being patriarchal or what have you. But I think we are wise to accept that there are more and more representatives of other cultures in our country and they have art traditions too. It doesn't mean you stop loving the art that nourished you. It means that you accept that they have theirs and that in publicly funded institutions, there's going to have to be some sense of inclusion.

#8 ~A.C~

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Posted 09 September 2001 - 03:47 PM

It is just a matter of preference, after all.

#9 Cliff

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Posted 10 September 2001 - 01:35 AM

There is confusion because the word elite gets applied to two different groups: the athletes/artists and the audience.

Knight uses the sports analogy to argue that the public naturally prefers to see the best (the elite). What is the best? In the sports world, the elite is determined by quantified performance. In the artistic world, performance rankings are based on the subjective interpretation of critics who may disagree.

I think that the main point of the original article is that art museums are increasingly focused on attracting the people who do not attend art museums in preference to the (elite) people who do. And that this results in questionable exhibits.

Cliff

#10 dirac

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Posted 10 September 2001 - 01:51 AM

Your clarifications are well taken, and while I see the main point, are things always that clear-cut, i.e., pop to pull in the hoi polloi and "elite" stuff for the elite? (I suppose Knight's tone bothers me just a little bit, too. After all, many who regard themselves as part of a social or aesthetic elite are considered by others to be quite mistaken.) :)

#11 Cliff

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Posted 11 September 2001 - 01:33 AM

I was struck that Knight included everyone who attended a sporting or artistic event as a member of an elite group. Attemps to bring in non-attendees are understandable given the financial situations. However, there is the danger of losing focus. Perhaps the answer is moderation.

To pursue the sports analogy, a famous celebrity could be added to a team in order to attract more people. But this would degrade the team's performamce and enrage the current fans. Shouldn't this also apply to art museums and other artistic endeavors?

Cliff

#12 bijoux

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Posted 11 September 2001 - 05:01 PM

i agree with the idea of moderation of terms.After all,I think many artforms,especially Ballet suffer financially because those who don't know,still consider it somewhat of an "elitist"artform.There may have been a time when only the wealthy attended the ballet and the theatre because they could afford culture.i think alot of young people suffer the misconception that you have to be well of to be able to attend the ballet.I know that in New york,the problem might not exist because there are "rush"tickets etc,but here in boston they don't really have it.You can get a student discount,but you have to have an id.So,your average Jackor Jill,who is no longer in school,might feel as though the ballet is out of their reach.I think it should be an advertising effort on behalf of Ballet companies,to assure the public that dance is something that can be afforded by anyone.

Originally posted by Cliff:
I was struck that Knight included everyone who attended a sporting or artistic event as a member of an elite group.  Attemps to bring in non-attendees are understandable given the financial situations. However, there is the danger of losing focus. Perhaps the answer is moderation.

To pursue the sports analogy, a famous celebrity could be added to a team in order to attract more people.  But this would degrade the team's performamce and enrage the current fans.  Shouldn't this also apply to art museums and other artistic endeavors?

Cliff




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