Posted: March 12th, 2022
What I liked about the reading was the importance it placed on culture as a means of communities coming together in America — whether it was the African-Americans doing dances to their music, or the German-Americans gathering together in their beer gardens — culture helped everyone to live and survive and feel better about themselves. However, the reading also focused on order and hierarchy — especially with John Philip Sousa and his role as a cultural figure who embodied hierarchy and order as the head/conductor of the military band. He brought all the players into harmony through the force of his will and intellect: he knew what every instrument should be doing and when it should be doing it — and he commanded them when to play, when to rise and fall, etc. He was the embodiment of order and control and represents for me the symbol of the power and will that is needed in order to keep the cultural ideas, meanings and nuances all working together. Without such dedication and drive it seems to me that there would not be much culture or order or any sense of hierarchy in society.
Yet American culture itself was weirdly situated with regard to the theater — as the incident in Colorado showed, with the sheriff of a certain city catching the troupe of traveling actors fifty miles outside the city and telling them not to stop because there was a group of men with guns waiting for them. Apparently their craft was not well appreciated. Audiences it seemed were rowdy did not appreciate the special allure that the theater held for English audiences, say, back in the day of Shakespeare. Perhaps this explains the popularity of marionette-shows — puppet shows. But what did it all mean? As the reading later suggests, true art has to have order and boundaries so that sense can be made of it. But in a land like America, where pragmatism was valued more than aesthetics, the question of whether art really mattered was one that divided people of various sensibilities. On the one hand, what mattered was law and order, and on the other what mattered was the cathartic effect that art could deliver. The plumber shown out of the art museum because of his clothes and the public outcry that resulted (followed by the museum’s defense) is one example of this conflict.
Because America is so different and so diverse with so many different people and ethnic communities, it is difficult to gauge its actual culture. It often seems, as the reading in Order, Hierarchy and Culture shows, that there are many problems with how America has approached art. Whether music or painting or drama on the stage, audiences, actors, creators and producers have all been at odds in one way or another. Some are fighting because of what is being performed or how it is being performed. Others are fighting because of how an art house is being used by visitors. Others are fighting because of some dissatisfaction with what is produced. In America, creating art is like bringing order out of chaos, and even then there is no guarantee that it will be received kindly by all audiences.
Something that best shows this point is the arrival of the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” to define or characterize works of art. As the reading shows, these terms came into being in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The terms themselves originated from the scientific belief that intelligence could be determined by the shape of one’s skull/brain: high-browed people were deemed more intelligent and superior while low-browed people were deemed as stupid and inferior. Perhaps it is not surprising that this categorization coincided with racial attributes. African-Americans were viewed as inferior, for example. And as Mathew Arnold showed, the way that people actually revealed themselves and their tastes and level of intelligence could be indicated by their artistic preferences. This for me was something to think about too as I feel the same way: what people like and dislike tells a lot about that person’s character — much more, I feel, than the shape of their head tells.
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