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August 14, 2007

Hinterland Diary

John Stoehr

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.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 14, 2007 1:26 AM


Funny, but I don't think about the history of capitalism when I'm listening to the young Eric Clapton's electrifying take on Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues."

I'm feeling Clapton's love for Johnson's music, and loving that Johnson's seminal creativity begat another great artist in a way Johnson probably never imagined possible.

Maybe I should be thinking about cross-racial appropriation and exploitation by producer Don Law, who had the sense to record Johnson and make a buck on the poor fellow, or about John Hammond, who convinced a mega-corporation, CBS, to reissue those obscure recordings more than 20 years later, with the profit imperative in mind and Johnson conveniently long dead and unable to renegotiate his royalties.

But just listening to that glorious riff, which in both versions speaks to what it means to live vitally and defiantly despite an awareness of likely ruin and damnation, is much more compelling. Yes, the cultural and economic circumstances in which art is made need to be explicated and argued, but in the end a rose is a rose is a rose, and what truly matters is whether its fragrance is lasting and pleasing, not how it was fertilized.

Maybe what High Culture needs are more of its own Don Laws and John Hammonds, non-artists immersed in an art, confident that they recognize great new talent when they find it, and committed to the notion that great talent will somehow, sooner or later, find an audience.

The cultural deans of the 1930s knew nothing of Robert Johnson. And commentators on today's culture would have a lot less to talk about without him. Who could have predicted at the start of this decade that a musical like "Spring Awakening" would exist, let alone top the Tony Awards by splicing together a German play that was too hot to handle in the 1890s, and alterna-rock that previoulsy would have been deemed foreign and perhaps inappropriate for Broadway?

Who would have imagined the L.A. Philharmonic accompanying rock bands in concert? Creativity, while it's happening, and its influence after the fact, are great mysteries that no theory can unravel, and hooray for that.

Cultural history is happening all the time, in ways that theorists can only hope to chart in hindsight. Whatever happens, alert critics and fans, and, yes, arts/entertainment impresarios, will be on to it long before the academicians.

Let us journalists remember that history's first draft is ours to write ... and that history moves so fast nowadays that what's purported to be its final draft probably won't be ironclad for long.

I guess what I'm saying is -- less about theory, more about art; less trying to develop an all-inclusive intellectual framework for what's happening, and more getting out there and finding out what is.

Our cultural knowledge would be much the richer had some savvy reporter been aware of the blues and asked Don Law if he or she might tag along to observe his recording sessions with Robert Johnson.

Posted by: Anonymous at August 14, 2007 11:18 AM