Beyond pretension: On the afterlife of culture

In my recent halting quest to delve more deeply into classical music, it occurs to me that I’ve been pretty trusting of people’s advice. For instance, everyone who has an opinion seems to think that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is uniquely worthy of attention among his works, and so I got a recording of a performance from Netflix and watched it yesterday afternoon — turns out it’s pretty impressive. Similarly, I’ve eagerly acted on recommendations of books and recordings.

Why am I so trusting? Because basically no one is going to bother even claiming to have an opinion about classical music unless they know what they’re talking about to some degree. It’s totally “voluntary” to know about it — the culture has moved on, so there’s no payoff for pretension. Someone might tell you that The Wire is great just because they feel like they “should” think that; no one’s going to pull a similar move on Missa Solemnis.

In a way, this is a basic Adorno-esque point: previously elite artforms that have lost their accustomed role have a unique potential for “disinterested” uses. I wonder, though, how many other things are like this? One might say the same of all the visual fine arts. In a way, one of the most anachronistic aspects of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is that the pretentious professor is pretentious about painting, which is surely the least fashionable thing possible in elite academic circles. Jazz has likely succumbed to the same fate. Experimental fiction is likely headed down the same path, though it appears to be in a transitional phase where it is somehow regarded as a resented “duty” even though no one is really taking it seriously — the salient fact about David Foster Wallace for most educated people seems to be that he wrote really long books that they aren’t remotely going to read.

What seems a little too convenient, though, is that much of this is traditionally “white dude” stuff. (One could also say that jazz started to enter this category once it became the province of white “scholars.”) I’m not sure where I’m going with this — any thoughts?

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5 Responses to “Beyond pretension: On the afterlife of culture”

  1. Michael Jimenez Says:

    Great thoughts. I used to have the “uh oh”, “white dude” moment when it came to my appreciation of classical music (which is due to my dad’s records when I was a kid where a certain enjoyment was fostered), but it is not there anymore primarily because my recent experience is that the “white dudes” I know generally will be the biggest critics of the music (this reminds me of a recent episode of HIMYM where Ted is ridiculed by the gang for his pretentiousness-quoting Dante in the original). That being said, when I do run into someone who likes classical it is like running into someone from a secret cult we belong to.
    When I teach World Civ, I will generally play a few “important” pieces of music to associate with the historical times; the reaction from some (judging by their looks) is “why the hell is this guy keep playing the boring music?” I say that because when I play a section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring almost everyone is engaged. I can’t help to think that it is due to Stravinsky sounding like “movie” music…

  2. Evgeni V. Pavlov (@evgenivpavlov) Says:

    What about all the intolerable classical music snobbery? There has to be some cultural dividend in knowing the difference between Karajan’s Missa Solemnis and Harnoncourt’s Missa Solemnis (and constantly pointing it out)?

  3. dominicfox Says:

    I’ve maintained for years that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring basically invented Metallica.

    Djun-djun-djun-djun-djun-djun-djun-DA-djun-DA-djun-djun-djun-djun-djun-djun, etc.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, but that cultural dividend only comes within very small circles. No lay person is going to feel bad that they don’t know about this difference.

  5. robotsdancingalone Says:

    ‘It’s totally “voluntary” to know about it — the culture has moved on, so there’s no payoff for pretension.’

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. ‘Art’/notated music still exists in the culture; knowledge about it is still prized (in the sense that knowledge about anything is prized – and its cultural prestige is still such that a great deal of social capital can be gained from knowing about it); and thus exhibiting such knowledge – pretend or not – is likely to lead to some social reward – shallow, cheap, rich, worthwhile, petty, or otherwise.

    I may be missing an obvious point here, so if I am, apologies, but I don’t see why such a culturally extensive field as art music, even if it is infra-zeitgeist, could be exempt from the knowledge/pretense-at-knowledge–response relation! That relation may only hold with certain people, but that’s true of all cultural knowledge. I’d guess that the amount of people impressed by knowledge of The Wire on the one hand and knowledge of art music on the other does not actually diverge all that much, even if the nature of that impression probably would diverge in intensity…

    (I’m surprised about the Missa recommends btw – it’s usually seen as a problematic work, not least by Adorno, but perhaps that’s the reason for its attention-worthiness?)


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