A few weeks ago, a college professor by the name of Neal Gabler (not Hedda) published an op-ed in the Boston Globe claiming that the internet and social networking were heroically sending the cultural elite to the guillotine. These elites, which he called “commissars” and “cultural imperialists” (critics, academics, etc.), formerly tried to forcefeed people such bitter medicine as classical music and conceptual art. A.O. Scott wrote a powerful rebuttal, and Alex Ross added that classical music is in some ways the new underground, not the elite. Now Gabler’s at it again, this time in the Guardian. He’s a bit chastened now; instead of using “classical music” like a dirty word, he invokes the image of Mickey Mouse shaking Leopold Stokowski’s hand in Fantasia to show that classical music once aspired to be more like popular music. He does have a point that the idea of a pop culture elite is inherently contradictory. But there’s still the idea that popular taste and popular judgment have finally triumphed over the old commissar-aristocracy.
There are so many things to criticize here—not least the vastly oversimplified cultural history Gabler propounds—but I’ll restrict myself to just one.
The thing that troubles me most about this argument, even in version 2.0, isn’t the impoverished notion of culture; it’s the impoverished notion of democracy. Gabler seems to envision democracy as nothing more than anti-elitism, and so his idea of a democratic cultural marketplace is one that gets rid of any gatekeepers or institutions—like critics or educators—that have blocked the masses from getting what they’ve always wanted. This is a rational-actor, economic version of democracy: one dollar = one vote. We know what we want, and the market should be designed to let us purchase and consume it, instead of telling us that we should want something else. (And the culture industry never tells what we should want. Right?)
I prefer the idea that democracy is a deliberative dialogue between individuals and groups with different interests. Most of the great thinkers on democracy thought that the popular will, by itself, was insufficient. Institutions were vitally important for teaching people a common language, so that individuals with different interests and perspectives could deliberate with each other, learn from each other, and compromise. So in culture, institutions and those who run them—like arts educators and cultural critics—help a truly democratic cultural marketplace thrive. They incubate ideas, help creative people learn from each other, maintain cultural diversity, and—most of all—help expose people to ideas they may not have encountered otherwise. I think this is a much healthier, richer, and more open definition of democracy than Gabler’s empty, sterile antagonism between the popular and the elite. Why should we assume that democracy—cultural or political—is only about getting what you want, and nothing more?
One last thought: when somebody claims that a certain way of thinking is quintessentially “American”—as Gabler does in his last line of the Guardian piece—red flags should be going up everywhere.
[* A mulligan is when a golfer gets to re-do a shot. For some reason lawyers and judges have become fond of this term, using it to describe a losing litigant who wants—but usually shouldn’t get—another try.]