I’ll start this post about pretentiousness with a pretentious statement; I was at the opera the other night… Well, I was, only it wasn’t really the opera. Every year the Dallas Opera simulcasts one of their live performances into the colossal Dallas Cowboy’s Stadium (which is now called AT&T Stadium apparently). In my opinion that’s a pretty good use of an absurdly big building; to bring free opera to literally thousands of people. I’m not sure the numbers for this year’s event, but last year’s, which I also attended, drew in 14,000 people.
That is crazy to me. Make high culture accessible and see people pour in to take part.
Just as an aside, I feel like I should say how much I loved this performance. I’ve been to the previous two (The Magic Flute and Turandot) and though they were both beautiful, I enjoyed my experience this time like I never had before. It could have been that I just liked The Barber of Seville (that’s what it was by the way) better than I liked the previous two. Or it could be that this one was a comedy rather than a tragedy and therefor obviously more fun to watch. But I think what made me love this performance was how much the cast themselves seemed to love doing it. At least from where I sat, they all seemed to be having a good time. They were playful and endearing and that was the perfect attitude to have when performing to so large an audience, many of whom were likely to be opera virgins.
So here’s where I get to have something to complain about;
The dude behind me was not having it. In the intermission after a very long and very silly song about confusion during which the cast played around on stage and were generally very silly. He told his companion that he was enjoying the music but that all that fooling about on stage was too much for him. In his opinion, they should simply preformed the song without any pandering to the audience. And then he sipped his glass of port and drew a deep drag off his mahogany pipe.
Okay, that last bit was made up. But for real dude? You’re in a gigantic, ridiculous, football stadium watching a free opera. An opera that was written nearly 200 years ago is being broadcast on the world’s second largest jumbotron. Someone two feet away from you is eating nachos. I hate to be the one to break this too but worlds are colliding, bro. High and Low Culture are mixing together and I think it’s fabulous.
So that dude can suck it. But he got me thinking about how people who like things that are generally considered highbrow or intellectual tend to be overly skeptical when versions of these things become prominent in, or of interest to, mass culture. I know that this is my pet topic and I write about it a lot, but we have a tendency to sneer. We sneer at the trash books that people love when these people have not yet loved Proust (I’ve never read Proust, he’s just the name my mind turns to when I want an example of someone respected who nobody has actually read).
In my insular nerd world, which spoiled for choice on the internet has probably only become more insular, I can easily surround myself with the likeminded. And I do. Most of the news I read is liberally slanted and many of the pop culture sites I frequent are bookish or sci-fi-fantasy orientated. In this environment it is easy to convince myself that I am not alone, which is a good thing. But the state of belonging can have unfortunate underside of which we’re not always aware.
Identity construct is a very complicated process so this is incredibly over simplified explanation; but basically societies form their group identities around shared values, however there are always going to be variables is these values, nobody is going to interact with them in the same way as everyone else. So it cannot be shared values alone that give a group its identity.
If we use nationalism as an example; what are the times when nations have the greatest amount of cohesion and national pride? It’s when they are at war with someone else. (e.g. Putin’s attempt current attempt to distract from internal scandal by drumming up an international situation)
As a more abstract example; think about black circle on a white page. Then answer the question what is black on this page? Though it is correct to point to the circle and say “that’s black” it is also correct to point to the white and say “not that”. Part of understanding what black is, is understanding what not-black is.
So, yeah, it’s like that with the opera and the book thing.
It seems to me, that when readers gather together they spend about 20% of the time talking about the books they love and about 80% of time tutting over how it’s such a shame that no one reads any more. I too think it’s sad that more people don’t enjoy the things that I enjoy, but that’s not what’s really going on here.
You’ve heard of the backhanded compliment? This is backhanded pity.
“Oh isn’t it such a shame that the majority of the world is dumber than I am?” “Isn’t it a shame that unlike me the rest of the people in this football stadium have to be entertained by this form of entertainment?”
What did he want? It was a comedy, it was meant to be funny. Just because they made the thing funny for 21st century audiences is that really such a crime? If this dude was a monk I bet he’d be one of those ones who gave himself thirty lashes every night before bed. Enjoyment and intellectual pursuits are not mutually exclusive, pomposity and appreciation are. To quote Gertrude Stein “If you enjoy it, you understand it.”
This is what art is for, to make a connection to society and to use this connection to lift that society up to higher plain of thought. If that art is so high above society that nobody likes is, nobody reads it, nobody listens to it… Well than that art is totally fucking useless.
Things don’t have meaning separate of their context; things don’t have context separate to society. This preoccupation of the few who love high culture with their fewness is what is killing art. Making the love of books and opera a super-secret club where you have to have read Proust and get Rossini’s 19th century jokes in order to join may make you feel like you’re one cool dude, but it also makes a world full of people who could love what you love but don’t because they don’t get the jokes.
I’m not saying that the art of subcultures needs to garner mass appeal in order to have value. Like everything else ever, this is a negotiation not a black and white issue. It doesn’t have to be Le Mis or Twilight, but it also can’t be so up its own ass that it forgets that it is there to be enjoyed.
Somewhere along the line we have begun to equate intellectual pursuits to pain and discomfort. But I propose we let them be a little silly every now and then.
And if ever you find yourself feeling left out in the cold by things you want to love but think you can’t because you don’t get all the jokes; simply repeat to yourself “If you enjoy it, you understand it.”