Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Middle Class Culture

This is made of a facebook conversation. I have taken out the other person's comments, since I don't have his permission to use them. I will add that conversations like this are useful, because I make sweeping statements based on intuition and impression, and then someone calls me on it. This enables me to learn.
I have some real issues with upper middle class culture. I find it thin and uninteresting, though I suspect I undervalue much of it. The art market is deranged and has been since the 1960s or 70s, when contemporary art began to attract serious money. I have no interest in novels about the emotional and existential problems of people who are comfortably well off. Much nonfiction is shallow and dishonest. The glossy surface of a life spent isolated from most of society is just plain irritating.
I was called on this by my facebook colleague, who pointed out the top ten percent included people who were not making a giantic amount of money, were making less than in the past, in fact, and weren't sure they were going to hold onto their jobs. He also pointed out that middle class people could not afford to be in the art market. I replied:
I just checked. The top ten percent appears to start at a household income of $150,000. So you are clearly right about much of the upper 10% worrying.

A couple of comments on the art market. The top prices are gigantic, but there is plenty of affordable art. The art market is not merely the auctions are Sotheby's and Christie's. There are galleries and art fairs... Second, I suspect the prices at the top influence ideas of what art is, what people see in museums. I don't know this for sure. But it seems to me American art became less interesting -- at least to me -- when the art market took off.
And he pointed out that novels about the emotional problems of people with a comfortable income includes the work of Henry James and Edith Wharton and Madame Bovary. I replied:
I have read James and liked him, though not as much as Jane Austen, since Austen writes about money and social mobility and survival... the constant fear of falling out of the middle class... I am rereading Northanger Abbey for the first time in decades. Not nearly as good as the other novels, but still pretty good. In spite of writing a story that is partly about Madame Bovary, I have not read the novel. I must have read some Wharton, but I don't remember it.

I don't know why I could happily read a long novel about the emotional problems of an Japanese prince and have no time for contemporary middle class novels. Maybe because The Tale of Genji is exotic and a gorgeous novel and because psychological problems had not been done to death in the 11th century.
Much of what I have said here is probably BS. But saying it and having someone else react to it does enable me to examine my ideas, which are not all right...


Blogger Gruttlegrake said...

For someone who rarely tests his theories in a public space (for fear of Inter-regret), it's inspiring to read of someone who does so successfully.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Russell Letson said...

I find your take on culchah to be neither B nor S--but then, it echoes mine. And I'm, like, a certified (if mothballed) English Teacher and all. But if I were still in the classroom, I'd find it hard to teach with a straight face much of the post-1800 canon that was presented to me in college. Though I suppose I'm glad, for the sake of my certification (and my creds), that I got through as much of it as I did.

Whenever I come across a whole narrative focused on, say, relationship breakups or the nasty effects of toxic family life or the horrors of addiction or poverty or sex abuse, I think, "This would be just fine if it were part of a crime novel, but all by itself at center stage it's just oppressive." Give me a a weary cop having to sort through this stuff in the course of untangling a nice murder or kidnapping or blackmail and it gains a (yes, melodramatic) context and a reason-for-being beyond the presentation of unhappiness.


6:15 PM  

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