Monday, March 29, 2021

The Valkyrie rides on Michigan Road

To many theologians, the root of sin lies in the notion of rank. This notion generates social structures that lead to stratification and stigma, as Isabel Wilkerson has shown—primarily in race, but applicable to most of our social institutions.

The arts are not immune to this, as noted by Rae Linda Brown in her biography of Florence Price. So it is hardly a surprise that Indianapolis gained notice for an ill-worded job advertisement that fueled suspicions of racial bias. Suspicions of such bias have lurked around the city for some time, especially since the museum began to levy admission fees for entrance.

Since history is there for us to learn from whether we like it or not, let’s look at some parts of this claim that proponents of the statement may not like. Yesterday marked an anniversary: on March 28, 1871, Richard Wagner lodged a complaint with his publisher over the publication of the Walk├╝renritt in a stand-alone version (you can see a short comment about this at my Facebook page). The idea of popular settings of just a few minutes extracted from a four-hour long opera that was the second of a series of four, and the same not being performed in the specially-built Bayreuth theater, was appalling to him.

It was not the first cultural fit thrown by culture snobs. In 1797, as deafness was creeping upon him, Beethoven scandalized the musical world of Vienna with his opus 11 trio, whose last movement is based on a popular song, “Before I go to work.” We don’t need to stop there: for one of many examples, think of the Renaissance composers who foreshadowed Sister Act by using the tunes of popular love songs as a setting for liturgical texts. Or King David, dancing in the streets, which also upset people (2 Samuel 6.14-22).

The old adage from Qoheleth, rendered in the Vulgate as nihil novum sub sole is, it would seem, a universal value (Ecclesiastes 1.9). So should we be surprised to see cultural snobbery rearing its head again? As Lawrence Levine details in his book Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy In America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), the forces that seek to create an artistic hierarchy and enforce rules about it have long been with us. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn reminds us that Shakespeare was well-known in early America and widely performed. And after The Bard, or between the acts, came the farces.

cover of Highbrow Lowbrow

Post-civil war America was rapidly undergoing industrialization and social stratification. Income inequality soared as the wealthy channeled tax relief to themselves. However imperfect, the Founder’s ideals of egalitarianism found in the preamble to the Constitution seemed to fall by the side. In theological terms, the (sinful) human tendency to categorize and rank took hold. So it’s hardly surprising that some people decreed that the culture of immigrants and others of lower social standing was less pure than that of the winners of social Darwinism.

As this happened, “the arts” became sacralized: something to be protected from the masses, who were provided with their own entertainment. And protest happened! Since its 1880 opening, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had been closed on Sunday, the only day which the average worker had off. After years of debate, the museum opened for the first time on Sunday on May 31, 1891. It was a small victory, although, like many, not full: in 1897, the director of the museum defended ejecting a plumber who tried to enter wearing overalls. More recently, in 2002, when a radio station frequency swap in Dallas would have restricted coverage of the city’s classical music station, some members of the council warned about making presumptions of who the listeners were. And now, the cycle is playing out again here in Indy. The museum has promised changes. Quo vadis?

Disclaimer: I bought Highbrow, Lowbrow while in graduate school and later apparently shared it with someone, and it never came back. So I used my notes and a library copy (which I returned on time) here. I have never been a member of the Indianapolis Museum of Art but did attend a few faculty development programs there, and often visited when it was free. 


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