Essay: What’s wrong with cultural elitism? – A case against high culture by Jahnabi Mitra
For the longest time I took pride in the fact that I would listen to only Begum Akhtar and the like. I took pride in naming several world movies and having remembered their directors. But what is not on record is that I started reading fairly late into my teenage years and started out with a railway copy of Bhagat’s Two States during my high school years, which I discreetly disposed of on my bookshelf in my later years.
My journey to develop a ‘refined taste’ was a rather self-imposed one; the one where I decided not to listen to certain genres of music, or avoid watching certain films. This intent to culturally ‘polish myself up’ was my regular homework, which was led by an unconscious need to fit into certain sects of society and a need to appease an imaginary audience.
Distinctions between ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture’ strangely does exist and such stratification has always existed in every society and will continue to exist; only with more awareness of not speaking the politically incorrect. Beyond sociological terminology, we have all faced it; when that friend introduces you to someone new at the party and they casually ask, “So what kind of music do you like?” Out of sheer lack of finding common thread for furthering the conversation and fortunately (or unfortunately) you hit the social relationship jackpot by saying the exact kind of music they prefer and there you are, two weeks ahead in time, sharing a post dinner conversation on a musical event. Fair, or not, we determine whether someone could belong to our cultural in-group or even be a part of our lives based on their preferences in clothing, food, music, art and literature.
Fair, or not, we determine whether someone could belong to our cultural in-group or even be a part of our lives based on their preferences in clothing, food, music, art and literature.
Certain films too are reproached on face value with silent declarations of “Oh, that’s nice! But we don’t watch those films.” But what needs to be taken into consideration while classifying certain forms of art as high art or low art from the lens of class hierarchy is the purpose it serves for different social classes it’s associated with. Slapstick comedy or sexual humour is relatable to a much larger crowd and serves the purpose of hearty entertainment for most. However, political-satire or topical comedy requires more cognitive effort, more social awareness and despite it all doesn’t guarantee a hearty laugh. A similar understanding can be stretched to the film and daily soap diaspora.
When I doubt my observations, I go back to the book Reshaping Art by T.M Krishna. He speaks in one of his interviews on how once he asked his friend, an ethnomusicologist what is the difference between folk music and classical music and his friend responded by saying,
‘It’s quite simple! As folk music goes up the social ladder it becomes classical music.’
For a better understanding we can cite the example of how the Bhatiali songs are used in films for context setting, in indie music remixes and also when the sponsors say “this year we need something folk”; the same boatman’s song is reinterpreted every time with different meaning depending on its circumstantiality.
A few pointers that could come in handy for someone navigating the cultural world- Rejections are silent. It’s the hushes and glances. And the definitions of high culture are set in a top-down structure. Brands are important and I learned it quite reluctantly. Brands as business, brands as sponsors and funds and artists as brands. And lastly, cultural superiority drags in your ancestry to assess how far our careers might further or the assumed upper limit of our intellect.
The ones at the lowest rung are but naturally given very little cultural area. Even if they flourish within that small space, we are either unaware of their existence or trivialize their culture.T.M. Krishna (Reshaping Art)
T. M. Krishna writes with great impact on class, caste, society, identity and its relationship with art in his book “Reshaping Art” – “Many of these mechanisms that keep the weaker cultural sections of society in check work invariably below the radar, in the subterranean world.” He continues “They do not operate-in-your-face and hence we let them slip by. But in the most sly and unsuspecting manner, they control our lives. Each one is total of his or her place in society’s spread and by default we operate within those limits. The dominant design, designate and curate culture. The ones at the lowest rung are but naturally given very little cultural area. Even if they flourish within that small space, we are either unaware of their existence or trivialize their culture. This also means that their cultural practices are of no consequence to the mainstream narrative. This very same social control structure also works within every smaller cultural circle.”
We forget that for a majority of the population culture resonates with entertainment for the most part. The amount of cognitive resources left after a day job is barely enough to have a non-provocative conversation with their spouse. I have rarely encountered people in my life who would gladly watch a documentary on socio-political issues for entertainment after a day’s work at a draining job; unless of course it is part of their job profile. If the purpose of “high art” is to intrigue radical thinking, which it does oh-so-well, the question remains how many of us can afford the luxury of consuming such a form of refinement of thought by choice. It is a luxury to be able to think radical thoughts for a living without worrying about the bread. Same goes for clothing and food. What we call having a “refined taste” in either is an absolute privilege.
I firmly believe that alternative culture or counterculture is erected on the debasement of mainstream culture. There is no alternative culture without the mainstream culture. There is no auteur film without the blockbuster film. The cultural tastemakers establish the norms of “good taste” by intentionally opposing the mass culture. It is roughly based on the assumptions that mass culture appeases the lower intellectual creeds and an internal statement repeated thoroughly in their minds “But of course! We’re different.” The normativity of a society is set by the normality curve. The normality of a society is weighted on wherever the current society chooses to lean in. And what starts as alternative culture, a question, a myth- fifty years down the line is to become mainstream or maybe sooner given the interconnectedness of ideas. The same is quite provable by the current change in narratives on the online entertainment platforms.
Seven years after I started my quest for “refining my taste in culture”, I am still lost at what refined taste is, after all?
Jahnabi Mitra is a psychologist and researcher. She is currently working as a faculty member of the Department of Psychology, Royal Global University.
Instagram handle- jahnabi_m