Saturday, January 12, 2019

at JSTOR Matthew Wills plays with the idea that literary modernism of the 20th century kind was designed to exclude the working class

In Wills' telling the mania for Shakespeare and Victorian literature stemmed from the books being cheap because none of the literature was under copyright.  The literary boom was a literary boom of public domain literature.

Meanwhile, by the late nineteenth century, inexpensive reprints of classics by authors such as Swift, Pope, Fielding, Byron, and the Greek philosophers were becoming popular. Many of these were cheap because they were out of copyright. This occurrence, combined with the growth of public education, soon had ordinary folks reading more and more books, including seeking out more contemporary writers. Rose has an interesting theory about how this trend helped to create the literary movement of modernism:
The intelligentsia was driven to create literary modernism by a profound loathing of ordinary common readers. The intellectuals feared the masses not because they were illiterate but because, by the early twentieth century, they were becoming more literate, thanks to public education, adult education, scholarships, and cheap editions of the great books.
It wasn’t until 1929, for instance, that the Edwardian giants H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were discovered by one of Rose’s sample readers. Rose writes about a tailor’s son from the rural north of England who couldn’t have known that Wells and Shaw were considered passé by middle class readers like Virginia Woolf. On the contrary, Shaw and Wells were “the last word in subversive literature” for the tailor’s son. In other words, this working class reader, among many others, was what Rose calls a “combination of political radicalism and literary conservatism.”
Class is always about distinctions in what you say, eat, wear, and act compared to others higher or lower on the economic rungs. In this case, it was a question of what you read. As working-class readers got deeper into the canon, Rose argues, the canon’s goalposts were moved farther away from them:
If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.
Rose’s take on a class-based history of reading certainly makes for interesting reading.
The book in question ...

Now Dwight Macdonald's claim was the modernist writers who were known retroactively as the avant garde didn't even see themselves as such. They were trying to combat what they regarded as the nearly universal kitsch to which arts and letters and music had devolved by the end of the 19th century.  There may still be quite a bit in favor of that observation but it might also be true that the elitism of the highbrow and the old left was just as real. 

This may help me get at a point I've struggled to make about what it is I enjoy about Haydn compared to Beethoven.  Beethoven's music is not exactly aristocratic in means or ends but it can be labeled as fit for an aristocracy of spirit, if you will.  It's elite music that demands elite learning and attention.  I love the late string quartets and piano sonatas but as some members of the Emerson string quartet have put it, you can feel Beethoven's ego permeating every page!  You don't get that sense from Haydn.  A way to translate this is that Haydn's music gained elite status while being popular and yet Haydn's approach was not, however learned within his cultural time, what we would call elitist, and this despite the fact that he made music to order for aristocrats.

I can't go even one week without reading something in arts coverage about the dangers of the Trump era that are specific to the arts and, well, I sometimes find it frustrating that it seems to be taken as a given that any kind of populist sympathy, any kind of notion that there doesn't have to be a galaxy-sized distance between high and low art traditions and practices, has to be indicative of anti-intellectualism.  Maybe Adorno was right when he declared that up through the end of the eighteenth century it was possible for something to be genuinely popular and still qualify as working at the highest level of art but what has never been adequately explained to me is why Adorno's assumption that that stopped within the 19th century and since has to be taken as given.

No comments: