Stripping Art of Elitism

WE live at a time when there is persistent revision of public attitudes about the most basic issues. In the process of meeting the challenge of such shifts in ideology, many people are discovering that they are often better at changing their minds than changing their standards and perceptions. What results from this contradiction is a constant repetition of the French Revolution - the furious desire to destroy the best along with the worst of the past. This trend is nothing new. Throughout history, outsiders have celebrated victory over repression by imitating the attitudes and methods of those who subjugated them, instead of inventing standards and social forms of their own.

Today, an effort is under way to change social attitudes in regard to elite art and culture. This Populist impulse began in the 1890s as a political movement, but it didn't really take hold in America until after the second World War. Believing that the grand colonial traditions of the past had no relevance after the war, artists searched for a populist mentality that might serve as a foundation for a new, less segregated and more communal society. This cultural process gradually assumed an American emphasis built on the belief that common people possess wisdom and merit - virtues no longer limited to a racial, financial, and educational elite.

The emergence of the civil rights movement and the struggle of minorities for social justice provided Populism with new momentum in the 1960s, a time when many people were trying to discover the means by which art and society could better reflect the long struggle against imperialism, sexism, and bigotry.

There is general agreement today that the cultural elitism of the past is destructive because it encourages exclusivity. People have come to believe that it is the design of the wealthy and privileged elite to keep other groups on the outside, condemning them to live within the bounds of a neglected and depreciated ``ethnic'' culture. And yet the more ``outsiders'' insist that the doors of society open to alternative voices, the more resistant, and sometimes fearful, the elite culture becomes.

Some of this fear is understandable. The outsiders' quest for pluralism can easily change from an egalitarian ideal into a battle for dominance. The ascendent power often disposes of the old power in a terrible and needless confrontation. This is the French Revolution all over again. When any group demands that populist culture entirely replace an elite culture of the past, it is actually forsaking pluralism and embracing the terrible exclusivity it originally repudiated.

In the case of populist art, if the movement is to achieve a valid status in mainstream society, it cannot simply reject traditional standards in art. Populist art will have to do something besides demolishing the classics. It will have to affirm its own standards, its own model of cultural integration and inclusivity.

If populist artists - who disdain ``high culture'' - nonetheless want to present their work in galleries, concert halls, theaters, and marketplaces where ``high art'' is dominant, then it seems clear that they must adhere to some kind of standard based on its own measure of artistic merit.

If anyone believes that artists outside the mainstream do not need standards in the belief that any form of artistic standard is elitist, then they don't know very much about the culture of outsiders.

Jazz is such an outsider's culture, yet it has evolved a unique set of standards by which jazz artists are judged - as distinct from the standards for judging classical or folk musicians, for instance. In the American Indian pueblo settlements, few people may know about Rodin or Picasso, but they are in touch with their own traditions and those unique cultural standards that allow them to recognize the beauty and skillful construction of native pottery.

Among Japanese people of every class there is an instantaneous acknowledgment of a Kabuki actor of great merit. On the other hand, Japanese people who are westernized have little or no comprehension of this traditional form of acting, for they have not kept that part of their ancient culture. To them, Kabuki is elitist.

Implicit in the word ``culture'' is the idea of a standard of merit. There is nothing elitist or exclusive about the idea of artistic standards. On the contrary, what pluralism really demands is not the abolition of ``high culture,'' but the acceptance of the idea that there are many kinds of cultures that possess standards of equal significance and merit.

The old imperialist mentality saw itself as superior to outsiders, and it turned its arbitrary code of standards into a wall to keep the ``barbarians'' out. Today, the challenge for each of us is to evolve a sensibility capable of living in a multicultural world in which there are many different and equally valid standards of merit and in which there are no walls and no barbarians.

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