Why historians, and the rest of us, avoid Big-C Culture . . .
What happened to [historians'] assumption that cultural history was crucial to comprehending America, past and present? Basically, the post-World War II conceptions of what constituted both culture and history crumbled in the 1970s. The civil-rights and women's movements, together with the more-relaxed immigration laws that inspired a new wave of ethnic migration, largely from Latin America and Asia, forced historians to ask: Whose culture? Whose history? The answers led not only to a sharper focus on the social history of those groups previously neglected by scholars and teachers, but also to an anthropological definition of culture [my italics]. What counted now was the culture of daily life -- how people behaved in saloons and department stores, what kinds of clothes and cosmetics they bought, whether they were active or passive when they listened to the radio, and above all how they were manipulated by the ideology of consumerism . . .
. . . Traditional cultural history was clearly under assault by the 1970s and 1980s. But, ironically, no cluster of scholars did more to undermine the field than the cultural historians themselves [mine]. While [Warren] Susman continued to highlight cultural issues in his collection of essays, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (Pantheon, 1984), [Christopher] Lasch became more interested in psychology and social criticism, as in such best-selling books as The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (Norton, 1978).
Then [Lawrence] Levine published his most influential book, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Harvard University Press, 1988). He portrayed the high-cultural venues of the late 19th century -- theaters, opera houses, concert halls, libraries, and art museums -- as sanctuaries for the rich. Having failed to elevate the tastes of the masses, who were seduced by disreputable entertainment like vaudeville and the movies, the wealthy (according to Levine) escaped into their own luxurious asylums, shielding themselves from the chaotic and alien babble in the streets. Behind closed doors, they resolved to serve as the sentinels of high culture [italics mine], guarding the fortress of art, literature, and music. Thus, for Levine, high culture became less a shared possession of the entire society than a refuge for snobs . . .
. . . Levine surely did not intend to turn his colleagues and students away from cultural history. Indeed, he continued to write about American culture throughout his career. But Highbrow/Lowbrow implied that high culture was inherently esoteric, class-bound, and somehow "undemocratic" [my italics]-- in short, antithetical to the values social historians championed.
Yet if high culture seemed elitist in the eyes of many American historians, popular culture was insufferably commercial [italics mine] -- and therefore equally distasteful as a subject of study. In the earliest days of cinema, as some historians noted, movies had been aimed at an immigrant, working-class audience. But soon the moguls took over (though they were immigrants, too) and converted an egalitarian art form into a money-making machine. Similarly jazz and the blues were once the creations of African-American musicians and performers with deep ties to the black communities in Chicago and New Orleans. Then white record producers, promoters, and agents transformed an authentic folk music into just another big business. So to write or teach about popular entertainment meant that you wound up exploring not the history of culture but the history of capitalism [my italics].
From Richard Pells' "History Descending a Staircase: American Historians and American Culture" for the Aug. 3 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog