In Defense of Elitism

As the Carter Administration takes over the reins of culture, the two horses in the cultural team, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, have been rearing up more restive than ever. They are being goaded in contradictory directions: are subsidies from tax money to go toward more popular forms of art and culture, spread around the country more or less evenly, or are we going to uphold standards of high art and individual excellence, wherever they occur?

I shall try to enlist you in the struggle to give elitism a good name. If I believe anything, it is this: there can be neither true culture nor true art without elitism. And yet “elitism” is a word that seems to get dirtier every day in the mouths of Americans, and may already be beyond the ministrations of our most miraculous detergents.

What does this dirty word actually mean? It comes from “elite,” obviously, which means the elect, deriving from the Latin eligere, to elect, wherefrom, through the Old French feminine past participle elite (elected), we get the modern French and English nouns. The elite, then, are the elected or elect, and elitism is belief in the superior wisdom or ability of such a group. On face of it, this sounds quite democratic—elected government and all that— but it is not, and, sensing this, populism, the more maniacal form of democracy, is the bitter enemy of elitism. The point is that in culture and the arts it not, as (at least theoretically) in government, the people who do the electing. Who, then, are the members of cultural-artistic elite, how do we recognize them, what are their aims, and who are their enemies?

There is one part—and one part only—of this process of election that quite democratic: the cultural elite come from all layers of society, wherever talent mysteriously springs up, wherever intellect inexplicably manifests itself, wherever taste and the cogent advocacy of taste occur. The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner,the daughter of an immigrant Brooklyn peddler, the child of ghetto blacks, may become a member of that elite. The trouble is that it is not possible to define them wholly satisfactorily, just as it is impossible to give a foolproof definition of, say, poetry. Recently, Professor Charles Kadushin, in his book The American Intellectual Elite, tried to establish the quiddity of that elite statistical means, but, even though he included me on his list of the seventy top intellectuals of 1970, I had to review unfavorably both the list and the book that grew up around it; they were as tenuous and assailable as a list of the ten best movies of the year, or of all time, as it is periodically and otiosely compiled.

The difficulty is that any systematic method of defining or delimiting an elite is always arbitrary. Whereas one knows in a general way that, for example, Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein are part of the elite in dramatic criticism even as Clive Barnes and Brendan Gill are not, there is always room for discussion in these matters. It is easy enough to demonstrate that Judith Viorst, Erica Jong, and Ntozake Shange do not belong to the poetic elite (though the latter two would claim it), but what does one do with borderline cases? For instance, is Porgy and Bess an opera, and therefore elite, or a musical, and therefore “popular”? There is, I suspect, an honorable middle groundmuch smaller than people think, to be sure—where elite and popular tastes converge.

We must, however, be on guard against that inverse snobbism at work among intellectuals, which (often mixed in with a certain trendiness) prompts an elite critic such as Richard Poirier to hail the Beatles and Bette Midler as comparable to high (i.e., elite) art. Of course, when pressed, Poirier and his kind will go into some extremely fancy footwork about what “comparable to” (or whatever similar phrase they may have used.) actually means: not really “identical,” it seems; more like “analogous”—but what, then, is that? And once you start opening the floodgates even a crack, the next thing, inevitably, is a deluge.

Tentatively, very tentatively, I offer the following description of what constitutes an elitist, eight aspects of elitism on which all members of the elite might well agree. All, that is, who are not afflicted with the Poirier syndrome, which may also be termed nostalgic de la boue, or “yearning for the gutter” (literally, “mud”), as it is usually Englished. Herewith my eight points.

1) Art and culture are not easy. All elitists would concur that the art and culture that matter are not easily sellable to the people at large. They are not nearly so simple to digest as popularizations and vulgarizations, but they should, of course, be made available to all. However, great efforts and expenditures to bribe and cajole the public into culture are a waste. The various National Endowments and foundations that swoon with ecstasy because of the thousands of people they were able to coax into viewing a traveling show of Khmer art are usually felicitating themselves prematurely; what matters is how much the viewers got from the show, and on this there are no figures available.

2) No art is as good as the highest form of it. Arthur Miller is less good than Samuel Beckett; Norman Rockwell is no Andrew Wyeth, and Wyeth is no Paul Klee; Robert Aldrich is less than Robert Altman, who is less than Ingmar Bergman; folk dancing is not up to ballet; and so on. There is a hierarchy in the arts, and thus in culture; a critic a critic such as Edmund Wilson or Susan Sontag is unmatched by a John Ciardi or a Marya Mannes—and first things must be allowed to come first. This is not to say that art or culture must be of the highest order to be of interest and value; nevertheless, priorities exist, and it is the apex of the pyramid that matters most.

Unlike in nature, where the root feeds the plant, in art, the pinnacle makes possible the base. Drama did not begin with a lot of hacks gradually evolving into Aeschylus and Sophocles; the novel did not start with a slew of James Micheners and Leon Urises building up to Dickens and Joyce. Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett started things on a pretty high level; it is they who made the Jacqueline Susanns possible, not the other way round. Public funds for the dissemination of culture are necessary, but unless the most difficult and demanding creations on the individual level are subsidized, no amount of grants to public television to put on The Adams Chronicles will prevent culture and art from withering away or becoming debased, which is the same thing.

3) The elitist is usually hated, ignored, or unrecognized by the vast majority. This has always been so. Shaw put it well in his preface to Saint Joan: “It is not easy for mental giants who neither hate nor intend to injure their fellows to realize that nevertheless their fellows hate mental giants and would like to destroy them, not only enviously because the juxtaposition of a superior wounds their vanity, but quite humbly and honestly because it frightens them.”

4) There is no democracy in culture and the arts. In other words, the vox populi is usually worth nothing. With rare exceptions, the artists and cultural voices that caught the public’s fancy did not survive. For the occasional genius recognized in his lifetime, such as Dickens, there are always scores who are ridiculed if they are noticed at all. This does not mean that critics or cultural gurus have not been able to sell good art to the public on occasion—though not necessarily getting understanding along with the lip service.

Especially in the fine arts, much that is garbage has been sold by so-called pundits to an uncultivated public grown rich enough to afford art patronage. I fully believe that nine tenths of what passes for great painting and sculpture today will be deservedly forgotten in time to come. And when I deplore public taste, I do not mean just Nevada; I mean the supposedly civilized operagoers right here in New York, who will crowd into every performance of Andrea Chenier and La Gioconda but leave a good many empty seats for any performance of Wozzeck. And speaking of Dickens, that perennial example of public good taste, wasn’t he outsold in his day by one Martin Tupper?

5) There is no such thing as “popularart. Long ago, when unnamed artists functioned as dedicated artisans throughout the world, Anonymous, who was a man or a woman of the people, created genuine works of art. Today, the commercialized, mass-produced pop-art industry has so permeated the people as to destroy their individual creativity. Pop music—rock, folk, country-and-western, or whatever — has nothing to do with art. In fact, a person who can tell one rock group from another usually neither knows nor cares about music. In 1960, in his essay “Masscult & Midcult,” Dwight Macdonald wrote: “Today, in the United States, the demands of the audience, which has changed from a small body of connoisseurs into a large body of ignoramuses, have become the chief criteria of success.” Success, it must be stressed, is no sign of belonging to the cultural elite; but neither, necessarily, is failure.

6) A member of the elite is one so recognized by other members. Unfortunately, this criterion is of very limited use, because there is so much cliquishness and trendiness even among the elite—or what passes for them—that discrimination is obfuscated by gamesmanship.

7) The elite are skeptical about the artistic and cultural sensations of the day. “Unless he bites the hand that feeds him, the writer cannot live; and this those who would prefer him dead {so they can erect statues of him) can never understand.” So wrote Leslie Fiedler, perceptively, before he himself defected to pop culture and started perceiving important truths in soap operas. Or, to quote Macdonald again, this time from the collection Discriminations (1974), “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism —literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’ without hating myself in the morning.” The elitist is not unmoved by art of the simplest kind; the trouble is that this is almost rarer than the more complex sort. But he does not find a pearl in every oyster, a chicken in every potboiler, as most writers for the popular press unfailingly do.

8) For the elitist, there is voluptuousness in the processes of discrimination and ratiocination. He reflects on and distinguishes between true and false cultural values as naturally as he breathes, and with much greater delight than in breathing.

These, as nearly as I can pinpoint them, are the hallmarks of the elite and the values for which they stand. You may think elitism and members of the elite odious—and some, like some populists, certainly are—but if you let them die out, it will mean, as surely as starving the brain of oxygen causes death, your participation in the murder of culture and the arts.