OGIC pointed the other day to a fascinating post by Colby Cosh on class differences among journalists, correctly (and testily) noting that there aren’t many:
I bring this up because becoming a political writer has had the perverse effect of radicalizing me, emotionally, about class matters. I followed what now seems like a pretty singular path into this job; the enormous majority of my colleagues, on all points of the political spectrum, seem to have backgrounds that can safely be described as affluent. There are exceptions, but very few….
I’ve noticed the same thing, at least among political journalists, though not quite so much when it comes to people who write about the arts, which are by their nature more purely meritocratic. I’ve also noticed a tendency on the part of some of my readers (not you–you know me better than that–but those who encounter me only in print), as well as more than a few of my colleagues, to take for granted that I must have come from a fancy home and had an expensive education, being a ballet-quaffing art collector and all. Not surprisingly, then, Colby’s post set me to thinking about the circuitous, illogical road I took to the world of art, and how it shaped the way I think about artistic and cultural matters.
The family into which I was born could best be described as small-town middle class. We didn’t belong to the country club, didn’t go to one of the upper-crust churches, didn’t travel very much or very far. Except for a few summer trips to Gatlinburg, a sort-of-resort town in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and a single midwinter vacation in Florida, we mostly stuck to southeast Missouri and its immediate environs. I never made it to Disneyland (and still haven’t), much less Europe, New York, or even Washington. I flew for the first time as a senior in high school, and I’ve never ridden (or wanted to ride) a horse.
My father was in hardware. He ran a store in my home town, went briefly and unsuccessfully into business on his own, then hit the road as a salesman for a couple of medium-sized wholesale distributors who kept him on the move. He spent his last years running the hardware department of a rural lumber yard. He loved big-band jazz, especially Stan Kenton, but had no other aesthetic interests, and if he ever read a book (other than the half-dozen James Bond novels he kept tucked away in a drawer of his bathroom), I don’t know about it.
My mother came from a town far smaller than Smalltown, U.S.A. She was baptized in a river, grew up on a Depression-era farm, and looked upon Smalltown as the closest available equivalent of a big city, moving there as soon as she graduated from high school and landing the first in a long string of quasi-secretarial jobs that continues to this day. She loved books and music but had to find out about them pretty much on her own, and her other cultural opportunities were severely limited. I took her to see her first ballet, her first museum, and her first professionally produced play, in all cases long after I’d grown up and left home.
How, then, did I catch the fire? I was lucky in three ways, the first of which was the high quality of the Smalltown public school system. We had a surprisingly good music program, and I took full advantage of it. (I must have been the only boy in my elementary school who liked music appreciation class.) We also had a number of townspeople who were sufficiently interested in art to launch and sustain an amateur theater group and a Community Concerts series. Finally, I grew up at a time when the powers-that-be at CBS, NBC, and ABC were obliged by the FCC to air a certain amount of cultural programming, not just in what used to be called the “Sunday-afternoon cultural ghetto” (God, does that phrase date me) but in prime time as well.
All these things were manifestations of what I refer to in the introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader as the culture of “middlebrow aspiration”:
Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows–but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular culture.
Though middlebrow cultural aspiration was already on its last legs when I came along, small towns tend to be a bit behind the curve. Not only did I get a stiff dose of it, but it took: I studied music, tried out for plays, read books by the carload, and spent virtually every nickel of my modest allowance on records of every imaginable kind. What’s more, my parents, puzzled though they were by my burgeoning strangeness, backed me to the hilt. They took me to the public library as often as I cared to go, and later on they bought me an encyclopedia, a violin, a piano, a guitar, and an electric bass, spending money they couldn’t easily spare in order to give me opportunities they’d never had to explore a world of whose existence they were largely unaware.
These opportunities, as I’ve said, didn’t include travel, and so it wasn’t until I went to college that I went to my first museum and saw my first operas and ballets. I didn’t go very far from home: I received my undergraduate degree, the only one I have, from a small Southern Baptist college near Kansas City. Still, I made the most of what it had to offer, and by the time I was twenty years old I knew I wanted to pursue the life of art. Wishing alone wasn’t enough–I spent much of my late twenties fumbling at random–but I moved to New York in 1985 to take an entry-level job at Harper’s Magazine, and from then on the path was fairly straight and unexpectedly smooth, a few scary potholes notwithstanding.
Make of my story what you will, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find in it any evidence of privilege, though I don’t claim to have been particularly disadvantaged, either. Louis Armstrong was born in a one-room shack on an unpaved alley in the poorest and roughest part of New Orleans, the scion of a part-time whore and a factory worker who abandoned him and his mother when he was a baby. That’s a hard row to hoe. Mine was easy by comparison, but it didn’t offer me any cultural shortcuts, either, least of all the ones available to any middle-class child who happens to grow up in a reasonably large city. Nor did I have the advantage of going to what is popularly known as a “good school.” I suppose we might have been able to swing it, my parents’ limited financial resources notwithstanding, but the truth is that it simply never occurred to me, not for a moment, that I could have gone to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia, much less that I might have wanted to do so.
The world has changed greatly since I was young. The diversification of the media and the emergence of the Internet have made it much smaller, in the process widening our collective sense of possibility. At the same time, the middlebrow culture of aspiration is long gone: Americans as a group are no longer encouraged to believe in the intrinsic moral value of high culture, and many of the institutions that arose from that belief are as a result either dead or in terminal decline. I can’t tell you to what extent the Web compensates for our loss of cultural faith. My guess is that it’s a wash at best, but I don’t have any children and don’t know any teenagers, so I’m not in a position to report from the field. And while the cultural opportunities I had were far from exceptional, even in small towns, it’s also true that I was an unusual child.
All this notwithstanding, I still think my early experience is not without continuing relevance. I have any number of friends, some my age and some much younger, who grew up in approximately similar circumstances and went on to lead the life of art, and I believe that many (if not most) other people, given sufficient aptitude and application, can do as we did. And while I occasionally wish I’d had certain kinds of opportunities that never came my way, I’m mostly glad that everything in my life happened just as it did. Instead of spending my whole life as a dedicated practitioner of a single art form, I’ve become a professional appreciator of all the arts, and I can’t think of a better way to make a living. Yet it might not have come to pass had I lived down the street from a museum, or taken my first piano lesson at the age of three, or gone to a school whose professors might well have pressured me to canalize my energies toward a single goal.
As for my class loyalties, such as they are, they haven’t changed a bit. I love New York, but I couldn’t even begin to pass for a native, even when I don my All-Black Outfit and venture south of Theatre Row, or put on a suit for an opening night. People with backgrounds like mine have been known to retreat into snobbery in order to conceal their origins, but I’m homemade and proud to be. Oscar Wilde said that a cynic was someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, which suggests that a snob might be someone who appreciates the prestige of everything and the beauty of nothing. That’s not me. I cry at the theater and buy prints because I like to look at them. I’m too enthusiastic to be cool and too shy to be clubbable. I am, in short, a small-town boy at large in the biggest of all big cities, having myself a time.