Life in the Excluded Middle

“What do you think, you get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your culture?”

This quote from Stephen King, scolding his critics when he accepted the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, struck a nerve with me. (It was from a January 25 Chicago Tribune article by Julia Keller, recently linked by Arts Journal.) I don’t know of anyone more significantly out of touch with their culture than I am – if by culture one means only current mass-disseminated culture. And I’ve been that way since birth. I was raised in a classical-music household, and while I remember as a kid wanting a Beatles haircut, I didn’t buy one of their albums – I swear this is true, and you’ll think less of me – until the 1990s. Curiosity finally got the better of me. Rock music had never entered my consciousness in any lasting way. I was a day-dreamy, isolated kid who spent all his time reading (War and Peace, Paradise Lost), and was lucky enough in high school to find other classical-music geeks to hang out with. (There’s no classical-music geek so militant as a beleaguered Dallas, Texas, classical-music geek.)

Today, I haven’t lived in a place with television reception in 15 years. I see the occasional snippet of Friends or Frasier (sp?) in a hotel lobby, and I’m viscerally repulsed by the facts that 1. I’m expected to find these predictable strings of crap witticisms funny, and, 2. 15 out of every 30 minutes is spent trying to sell me expensive cars and unhealthy food. If getting in touch with my culture required watching entire episodes of Friends, or watching Jurassic Park III for that matter, then it can’t be worth it. I’ve never read any King, but I recently read a couple of Elmore Leonard novels because Robert Ashley recommended their use of language to me; then I sent them to the used-book store. They were entertaining in a one-dimensional way, but I can’t imagine reading them twice. I like to think that I’m in touch with “Western Culture,” since I’ve read all the Shakespeare plays and know all the Beethoven Quartets, but of course that’s not what we mean when we say “our culture” today, and clearly not what King meant.

So by the two, count ’em, two social categories available today, this makes me an elitist. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind must be one of my favorite books. I must fiercely defend the white male canon and weep over the dumbing-down of American culture. I must gnash my teeth over the destruction caused by cultural relativism. I must see Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter as the last representatives of a great musical culture that may now be no more. I must think that Schoenberg is a real intellectual’s music, good thick beef for the mind and ear, and be disgusted that the treacly minimalist doodlings of Philip Glass are taken seriously. I must be upset that Stephen King got that award.

So it’s funny, isn’t it? that I don’t recognize myself in this caricature, and I doubt that you do either. More importantly, I also don’t recognize in it any of the music that I’ve devoted the last 20 years of my life to. That unacknowledged, indefinable genre that we sometimes call “new music” has always been devoted to the proposition that music can avoid being superficial and enslaved to commercial conventions, AND that it can avoid being arid, difficult to comprehend, and elitist, AND that it can avoid both at the same time. There’s a middle way, or not even a middle but a third, unrelated way. Music can be simple, natural, clear, defining its own musical language as it goes along, even if it’s weird and counterintuitive and full of unusual effects and materials. It can be a sincere outpouring of what its composer wants to hear and express, without either pitching itself to some commercial niche that already exists and is easily marketed, and equally without building one more airless, redundant floor on the tottering skyscraper of Euro-classical tradition. Some new music artists, it’s true, incorporate the instruments and beats of pop music in an attempt to build a bridge to pop music fans. This is an unobjectionable personal choice, but the jury is still out on whether it makes any practical difference.

This seems pretty obvious. So why is “our culture” called upon to take up sides? Who outlawed diversity and nuance? If you don’t assume that a disc that sells a million copies is good, why must you assume it’s bad? One of my own professions, musicology, has dutifully split itself in half according to the media paradigm: either you write papers deconstructing pop culture these days, or you bury yourself in Bach manuscripts, looking for the one hitherto-overlooked detail that will make your career. No wonder new music can’t make any cultural impact: it doesn’t pledge its allegiance to either of the straw men who are our only candidates. It tries to say that physical enjoyment, emotional pleasure, and intellectual interest can all fuse in one activity, one piece of art, and in the current neurotic polarization of culture no one wants to hear that right now. I like to think, though, that, if artists are truly “the antennae of the race,” perhaps the very existence of new music forecasts a future within our lifetimes when that polarization will explode and disintegrate, bringing us to a relative golden age of holistic human realism and satisfaction.

I’ve said all this before. What piqued my self-examination this time was that question, “Do you get brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your culture?” Clearly, the answer is no. My refusal to watch Friends need earn me no respect, and is a matter of preference, not pride. (Or maybe luck – I mentioned to a class yesterday that I was completely out of touch with American culture, and a freshman said, “Boy, you’re lucky.”) The question is, does music need to be in touch with its culture? And that splits into two questions: Does music need to be in touch with its culture in order to be great? and, Does music need to be in touch with its culture in order to be commercially successful?

I remember something in Jurassic Park I that impressed me. The tyrannosaurus was chasing the car, and the character saw the damn thing in the rearview mirror, and in the mirror you read the familiar words, “Caution: objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.” I thought that was brilliant, and – this was ’93, when it came out – I remember thinking, “That’s the kind of detail I would never have thought of, because I’m too serious and not in touch with my culture.” Or words to that effect. That kind of in-touchness certainly gives an artist a hook into his audience’s psyche. It establishes sympathy, and tells each audience member, “I’m just like you, I live in your world, I notice the things you notice.” But if ten years from now cars no longer have that caution in their rear-view mirrors, that hook loses its point for the next generation. And if Jurassic Park I had told a really gripping human story that engaged us emotionally, rather than taking us on a kind of tense roller-coaster ride of the imagination, would that visual joke have been necessary? Might it even have been distracting, as irrelevant to the story? Do we always need the author assuring us he’s one of us? How much more is Steven Spielberg “like me” than, say, a Chinese dissident who has an important story to tell, but no contact with my culture at all? And aren’t we most “into” the story when the author just disappears?

There are many, many virtues an artist can have. Being in touch with his or her culture is certainly one of them, and not one to be despised. Someone with my personality has to even look at that virtue with some respect and envy. But it’s not the only virtue, nor does it seem a necessary one. I don’t believe Beethoven was much in touch with his culture in the Grosse Fuge (everyone thought he was crazy), and I don’t believe Morton Feldman was much in touch with his culture in the softly pulsing dissonances of For Samuel Beckett. Certain music comes at us from outside the culture and makes its own argument without the reinforcement of context. People in Kansas can be enchanted, after all, by the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus. Music that does not rely on cultural clues has to define itself more clearly, which is why minimalism was so damn obvious. And as for whether music needs to be in touch with its culture in order to be commercially successful – that depends on who’s controlling the mechanisms of distribution and what their object is. There are thousands of people who turn away from commercial culture in disgust – don’t they deserve to have music made for them? How to get it to them in a profit-maximizing society is the question.

In any case, I do wish that we in the media could portray a more subtle, nuanced picture than this either/or culture war. Stephen King getting the National Book Foundation award doesn’t make me fear that cultural life is accelerating to its final collapse, but it’s not going to make me go read a Stephen King novel, either. It should become more obvious than it is that elitism is not the sole alternative to banality, and vice versa. It’s like the great vending machine of our culture has only two buttons, Madonna and Elliott Carter – and few of us seem to know that there are more nourishing choices around than either.