Periodically I shall adjudicate blog disputes. There is no appeal.
First on the docket we have Gawain, of Heaven Tree, vs. Conrad Roth, of Varieties of Unreligious Experience. Gawain, upset with the Uffizi museum for neither allowing photographs nor selling reproductions of its collection, is driven to guerrilla tactics. He photographs, presumably illicitly, a bust of Scipio Africanus, and posts it for the world to see.
Conrad defends the Uffizi policy on the paradoxical grounds that it makes the enjoyment of its treasures all the greater for those who can travel there and look at them in person. For they can also delight in thinking of all the poor slobs who can’t make the trip:
For me, elitism is simply the general notion that things are better when fewer people have them, and that the few (whether groups of one member or 500) should be (and are) hostile — snobbish — to the many. There are, of course, an infinity of fews. Everyone belongs to several. And the pleasure of belonging to a few — especially if that few is just oneself — is derived from the fact that it is not a many. Such a pleasure is concurrent with the pain felt by those outside the few who want in; nevertheless, our pleasure outweighs their pain, and I see no reason to deny ourselves the satisfaction. Everyone benefits in the long view.
Conrad means that the pleasure of being in derives from the imagined pain of those who are out, and no amount of shuck and jive about “concurrent with pain” and “not a many” can disguise the fact. It is not enough, for Conrad, to see the treasures of the Uffizi. Others must be prevented from doing so. Or as Gore Vidal once wrote, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
There are indeed an infinity of elites, or at least a great many, but Conrad has multiplied them beyond necessity. There are two elites in his argument where there ought to be only one.
One elite is the people who visit the Uffizi. This elite imposes no duties of connoisseurship or discrimination: only the time, the money, and the inclination to visit are required. What really interests, or ought to interest, Conrad is the other elite, whose members, instead of filing dully past the Scipio bust, look it over carefully and see some of what Gawain sees. One can belong to the first and not the second — and now, thanks to Gawain and despite the Uffizi’s policy, to the second and not to the first. Virtually all of Emily Dickinson’s best poems can be found on the web. Anyone can join who is willing to invest the time and effort to grasp the poems. This elite will be tiny to begin with. Would Conrad propose to narrow it further by requiring anyone who wants to read Dickinson to travel to Amherst to study the original manuscripts?
The court finds for Gawain. He is, however, directed to pay damages to the Uffizi, for infringing its reproduction rights, in the amount of $0.10 for each blogger who links to his article. That’s 20 cents and counting. Conrad is directed to stop whinging that Gawain doesn’t leave enough comments on his blog.
Next up are A.C. Douglas, of Sounds and Fury, and Campbell Vertesi, of, um, Campbell Vertesi’s blog. A.C. issued one of his clarion calls for “hierarchical sobriety,” by which he means that pop culture is pop and high culture is high, and not only shall the twain never meet, they shall not even be profitably compared:
Metaphorically speaking (and once one gets past technical considerations of craft, one can speak of the core matters of aesthetics in no other way), the singular principal hallmark of all artifacts of the realm of high culture is their perceived aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture within which they were produced, and even of their very selves as works of art. And that singular hallmark is what’s singularly lacking in all the artifacts of the realm of popular culture, their singular principal hallmark being a perceived aspiration to the widely accessible here-and-now entertaining.
Campbell replies that what we call “pop” and “high” is largely an accident of time and place, and that many “high culture” artifacts were written to entertain, or even, God forbid, to make money. As a musician, he adduces Rossini and Gilbert and Sullivan; as a literatteur, I would add Homer and Shakespeare. Some of today’s “pop” artifacts will surely belong to the high culture of the next century, although it is precipitous to speculate which. Campbell goes on to argue that “if no aesthetic judgements are permitted between the two musical traditions, it follows that any two representatives of the fields take on equal status.”
Here he puts his case badly, as A.C., who is nothing if not tireless, points out in his inevitable reply. The conclusion does not follow; but it need not either. What Campbell should have said is that a purported defender of high culture ought to be prepared with a convincing answer to a high school student who asks why he must study The Scarlet Letter instead of the latest X-Men comic. I would want to be armed with a little more than “perception of aspiration to transcendence” myself.
These converted verbs disavow their subjects. “Perception” occurs, without a perceptor; “aspiration” without an aspirant. Campbell reasonably asks who or what is doing the aspiring; A.C. does not deign to answer. It’s a metaphor, you see, and there the matter ends. The “aspiration” (by the artist? the work?) to “transcendence” (of quotidian experience? of the culture? of itself?) is cloaked in the “perception” (of the audience? of Campbell Vertesi? of A.C. Douglas?) and the whole business is wrapped in a metaphor. This is, as Woody Allen once remarked, a travesty of a mockery of a sham. Nothing is at the center except the usual because I say so.
Accordingly, the court finds for Campbell Vertesi, who is nonetheless directed to learn how to spell “transcendence.” A.C. Douglas, for his part, is enjoined from using the word for a period of six months. He is also enjoined, permanently, from employing “bourgeois” as a term of abuse. (“Bourgeois” does not appear in the current case, but this court is acquainted with his past torts.) Come to think of it, this injunction is general. Dismissed.