Tuesday, September 15, 2009

an ongoing conversation...

      The future of classical music is such a crucial and relevant question for society today, and especially for us as musicians. However, while it feels like an extremely current issue, the fascinating topics discussed in the prologue and chapter 2 of Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow, revealed that the question of classical music's role in society has been significant far longer than I anticipated. I had previously assumed that classical music fit into a niche of appealing to a "high-brow" audience from the very beginning, and thus, today it still holds that role and the struggle to appeal to a wider audience is one that every classical music organization deals with. This topic is on-going and philosophical - indeed, trying to approach or answering the question of the future of classical music can be an ongoing conversation. For now, I find it most effective in my post to respond to the study question for the prologue, because the topic of defining categories within the hierarchy of culture is a challenge, and somewhat never-ending. 

      Our current hierarchical system of cultural categories (highbrow, mid, low) seems fixed and immutable. What cultural work is done by a historian who maintains these categories?  What error might ensue?

      A historian who maintains these categories has been transfixed, by our society’s imposition of cultural categories. As Lawrence Levine argues in his Prologue, the labels of high, mid and low-brow have been assigned by vertical comparisons. As he argues, the question is, what is the point of comparing aspects of life in a scalar mode rather than horizontally, thus with clearer relationships from one aspect to another? The author’s main argument holds that in the 19th century, Shakespeare was considered a popular form of entertainment. He has found references of Shakespeare playing a role with all kinds of people in the 19th c., not just for the category of today’s high-brow audience.

 A historian who maintains these arguments today has to reach, perhaps not completely factually, to justify the cultural categories. For instance, Levine includes the quote from a scholar of American popular culture: “Shakespeare was tremendously popular but his plays were either produced as vehicles for a popular star or treated as blood-and-thunder spectacles…” (Levine 5).  As Levine discusses, this scholar’s need to justify why Shakespeare was popular for a wide audience in the 19th century, seems like a reach. Why can’t the scholar simply accept that Shakespeare was popular in the 19th century? Historians, such as this scholar, who maintain these categories, have to find ways to defend the categories in their work in this case, to uphold the modern concept of Shakespeare as high-brow. However, Levine is arguing that defending these categories can be inaccurate, based on historical evidence.

 Thus, the errors with maintaining these categories, is their subjective nature of comparison. One historian may consider a particular writer to be high-brow, while another may consider it to be mid-brow. What do these levels of “brow” even measure and what do these labels mean on a larger scale? What role does the work/artist play in our culture/society? These categories can limit the potential benefit/genius of a work of art or artist by shoving it aside to a low brow category; something revolutionary could be overlooked, because it is not considered worthy of a high-brow review.

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