Culture and Class

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 18, No 3 (Fall 2007)

John Rockwell
As we were recruiting writers for this issue of the Reader, we learned that John Rockwell was retiring from his position as arts critic for The New York Times. It was all too tempting to ask Rockwell to reflect on the arts as he has chronicled them through his career. His response was to address the relationship between culture and class—both in history and in the present—raising questions about patronage and access, and the differences across classes in the kinds of art that are supported and accepted. His piece raises questions for grantmakers about the arts they are promoting and how their support may determine what will endure.

Back in those distant days when urban sophisticates wore tuxedos and drank martinis and smoked cigarettes in swanky bars, they might have described an admired cultural artifact as “classy” or “high class.” No more. Today, as we parcel out our adjectives of approbation, we are simultaneously more refined and more demotic. We welcome arts into our pantheon that were born of popular or even commercial imperatives. And we honor their creators with honorifics that transcend any lingering association with social class. Like, for example, “the artist” Mariah Carey, who may be many things to many people, but classy she's not.

Addressing in a short essay the tangled connections of culture and class is impossible, even absurd. Still, just as natural leaders and followers and loners and rebels emerge on grade-school playgrounds, so too, we might assume, did class differentiations arise in ancient societies. The strongest or the cleverest or the wisest or the most likable set themselves apart from the rest, rose to the top, and assumed positions of leadership. If they were able to pass their places of priority down to their descendants, they formed an aristocracy. If there were a lot of them, they formed a social class.

Each class had an art or arts that they practiced and fostered. In cultures with rigid class distinctions, the arts of the upper classes claimed priority, and were preserved. The tarantella may have swept medieval Europe, but we don't know really what it sounded like (or looked like, as a dance); we do know pretty much how composers of that time sounded since they left us their notated scores.

Upper-class arts were preserved especially if the patrons lived in castles and had the resources to commission painters and composers to decorate their lives. Or to praise God, since the oldest surviving Western tablature is of church chants. The lower classes had their art, and sometimes it was taken up by artists employed by the wealthy and hence preserved, as in aspic, within the canons of high art. Frolicking peasants in Renaissance paintings. Or “L'homme armé,” a French folk song, as immortalized in more than forty masses by the likes of Dufay and Josquin. But the tunes of itinerant musicians, traveling from town to medieval town like circus performers, have been largely lost. There are exceptions, if we count academically codified folk art like Korean pansori or German fairy tales preserved by upper-middle-class scholars. But one fears their original spontaneity has been long since curdled by upper-class convention.

I will spare you a potted history of Western civilization and the evident impact of class consciousness, or unconscious class assumptions, in the patronage of art up to the French Revolution. That upheaval succeeded because the old class boundaries had long since become ossified, and the privileges of the aristocracy no longer corresponded with the military strength of the peasantry (crossbows, muskets) or with the economic strength of the bourgeoisie. Molière owed as much or more to the commercial theater of Paris than to royal dispensations from isolated Versailles.

By the nineteenth century, even with Metternichian repression from 1815 until well past the failed uprisings of 1848, artistic patronage and artistic creation were firmly in the hands of the upper middle classes. When royal patronage still made a mark in a big, flamboyant way, as with Ludwig II's rescue of the impecunious Wagner, it was regarded as an anachronistic folly, if not actual insanity curable only by drowning. The Hohenzollerns “owned” the Court Opera in Berlin up to 1919—the direct antecedent of today's German State Opera on Unter den Linden—but it was about the stodgiest major opera theater in Europe.

The real action was in the commercial realm, or at least the realm of secular, publicly supported European art—the bustling theaters of Paris, the salons and counter-salons. Even Wagner, who railed against commerce (which is what Shaw, and Wagner himself at one point, thought The Ring was all about), wrote operas that clanked and groaned like big industrial machines and wowed the emergent bourgeois audiences with triumphalist spectacle.

The nineteenth century also saw the rise of artistic self-entitlement. Romantic artists, inspired by the godlike enshrinement of Beethoven, claimed for themselves the privileges of the aristocracy—even the droit du seigneur, if the philanderings of some of them offer any parallel. Aristocracy still existed, but now it was to be merit-based, and no one's sons—not Bach's, not Mozart's, not Wagner's, though maybe Renoir's—were expected to reach the genius or the acclaim of their fathers.

Crudely or subtly, though, artists were still expected to serve and celebrate their masters, also known as their patrons. This was as true with the Rockefellers and the Mexican muralists as it was with the Soviets and Shostakovich.

Case closed? The ruling class rules, and everyone including the artists are their servants? Annoying common sense, undermining simple certainties like termites, suggests a more nuanced picture. Not one that might presume to deny utterly the obvious equation of money and power over the ephemeralities of art, but one that subjects those truisms to closer scrutiny.

Our notions of class, and of the rule of the material over the spiritual, stem from Marx. Despite the collapse of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire, Marxism offers a seductive image of the striations of human society and of the primary power of economic factors in determining human achievement, including artistic achievement. Marxist lingo has entered our common culture like Freudian lingo; it may not be exactly true, but it's the default mechanism for how we think. Those who dare to offer a contrary view—that spiritual forces might determine the material or the social—are easily dismissed as naïve at best and class-bound impediments to social justice at worst.

It is from Marx, then, that we have internalized our assumptions about culture and class. The ruling classes (monarch, aristocrats, rich businessmen, cultural commissars) seek art that glorifies or beguiles them. Art that challenges is literally insupportable, as a threat to their status quo. Tastes may change, as stylistic eras evolve (a process itself arguable as correlated to class), but the underlying principle of the fostering of art sympathetic to and supportive of class mores remains the same. If a Marxian underclass (e.g, the intellectual bourgeoisie) senses weakness in the ruling class, its art would presage a forthcoming change, as with Beaumarchais and the operas he inspired Lorenzo da Ponte to write for Mozart.

An irony of such protesting art from the late eighteenth century on, however, and one that Marx cherished, was that if bourgeois intellectuals encouraged Beaumarchais or Frank Wedekind (Spring Awakening), they did so in the expectation that any upheaval would redound to their own class status. In that they were grievously disappointed. Marx's proletarians didn't want to exchange aristocratic rule for bourgeois rule. They wanted to rule for themselves. All that was brilliantly delineated by Tom Stoppard in his nine-hour play about mid-nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries in exile, The Coast of Utopia, to which the Lincoln Center Theater devoted itself this entire past season (2006–2007). Alexander Herzen and his post-Decembrist revolutionaries of the 1840s were horrified by the “new men,” the hard-line Marxists of the 1860s who scorned the constitutional democracy that Herzen supposed would put men like himself into power.

The workers and their representatives (themselves bourgeois intellectuals) were less interested in the off-putting vanguard art that the artistic intellectuals championed, and that truly did presage their revolution, than in gaining access to the old aristocratic and bourgeois art, which they naïvely regarded as classless, universal. They didn't want to hear vanguard or faux-populist art so much as the best of the past. Old art was not destroyed; it was protected in old palaces transformed into public museums, like the Louvre, or in glittering theaters like the Bolshoi, where the Soviets fostered Czarist ballet. Working-class audiences for opera in Berlin during the Weimar Republic didn't want Hindemith and Stravinsky at the experimental Kroll Opera; they wanted La Bohème with stars at the State Opera on Unter den Linden.

Although an entire school of Marxian aesthetical theoreticians (Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno) grew up after 1919, Marx's own position on art was never fully developed. But even with his ever-growing eagerness to achieve his revolution and then worry about the consequences, Marx gave hints early in his career of a place for art in his new society, and even of its possible independence from the mechanics of materialism. Influenced by Schiller, Marx hinted of a classless society in which, Balinese style, nobody was an artist per se and hence everyone was an artist. Herbert Marcuse, ingeniously marrying Marx and Freud, extended that vision to a kind of artistic polymorphous perversity in which the free play of artistic inspiration and the free play of pansexuality would gambol in the fields of the paradisical classless society.

Maybe in pre-touristic Bali, though not yet in any overtly Marxist country. Perhaps one reason Marx chose not to develop his ideas in that direction was that in so doing he would have undermined his very materialistic premise. Culture can be shaped by class patronage, but culture can also subvert class dominance, disrupt it, contradict it, transform it.

It is this paradox, I think, that offers a perspective on the bonds between culture and class, one that is a more realistic reflection of reality than the cruder reductionism of Marxist cliché. And one that offers representatives of our grander, higher-class American foundations interested in contributing to this country's artistic life a guilt-free, or less guilt-ridden, self-image. They (you) aren't mere tools of the ruling classes, pumping money into art that either celebrates economic power or masks the brutal exploitation of the class system. They (you) are benign facilitators of art, and art through its very spiritual power as foreshadowed by the young Marx can itself transform society, and the class relations within society.

Some arts more than others need the patronage that only the wealthy can provide. Rich folk seem happy to pay inflated prices and contribute lavishly to opera in order to attend its galas and to be certified as members of the local elite. Whether they actually like opera, especially innovative opera, is almost irrelevant. Yet even the crassest social elite can swing both ways, as it were, between conservatism and innovation. San Francisco, whose Bay Area is arguably the source of most of the most vital cultural transformations in world culture over the last seventy-five years, has an opera-supporting elite that resists change. So did New York and its Metropolitan Opera, and yet now—at least during his current protracted honeymoon—Peter Gelb has convinced Met donors that their future lies in musical and dramatic innovation. In other words, self-glorifying class patronage needn't necessarily simply reify the past.

Yet other arts need patronage less, and can flourish in a culture of nearly abject poverty. Carolyn Brown's recent autobiography of her years as a pioneering Merce Cunningham dancer in New York in the 1950s evokes a world in which nobody—not Merce, not John Cage, not Bob Rauschenberg, not Jasper Johns, certainly not Carolyn or Earle Brown—had any money at all. Of course she romanticizes her youth. But her picture of a thriving artistic scene with no public exposure, hardly any private patronage, certainly no foundation support, and (for her best of all) no unions suggests that an utter lack of patronage, and hence of a dependence on patrons, hardly cripples artistic vision in its infancy.

Even the bohemian arts differ, to be sure. Johns, first, then Rauschenberg, had commodifiable artifacts to sell; Cage and Cunningham did not. However much the minimalists of the 1960s rebelled against the art object (as when they erected gigantic earth art projects in the distant desert that couldn't exactly be squeezed into even the largest Park Avenue living room), their vision, and that of the even more impoverished performing arts, eventually attracted patronage and foundation support. It just took a few years for them and their champions to reach a position of power to make such support a reality.

What seemed to terrify artists was that commodification of their art meant its commercialization. Especially if all commercial transactions after the initial sale did not redound to the financial benefit of the artist. For me, though, a fear of commercialism in art is an outmoded holdover from stale Marxist aesthetic thinking. Brecht chastised Weill for “selling out” to American capitalism in his Broadway musicals, but Brecht tried his darndest to sell himself to Hollywood.

Yet if, as many claim, America's greatest contribution to the world of the arts has been in the realm of the popular—popular films, television, pop music from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley to hip-hop—then a disparagement of commercialization becomes downright silly. In a capitalist society, maybe any society, the willingness of people to pay good money for art is a testament to its ability to reach out and communicate. Of course, the image of art can be manipulated through marketing and advertising, not that the nonprofits don't try as hard as they can to emulate such manipulation. But some art is inherently more popular than other art, without in any way being necessarily inferior. The very idea that Webern would be as popular as the Beatles if he had only been rammed down the throats of radio programmers is ludicrous.

Where nonprofit patronage still plays an invaluable role is in those arts in which raw profit is next to impossible. Opera has always cost more than can be reasonably expected from the box office, and hence it needs someone, from a king to a mogul to a foundation, to support it. Kings and moguls and foundations have their agendas, and hence can be said to impose their class values on the art they choose to patronize.

Yet even in the purest nonprofit enterprise, a healthy box office makes things easier, and hence administrators and impresarios need to cock one eye on sales. The very term “not-for-profit,” more accurate and more clumsy than “nonprofit,” pays homage to that reality. It means that an opera company, say, may hope to make some money, and indeed might welcome sold-out houses and standing ovations. But that making money is not its sole or highest motivation. When you are dealing with arts than can sell out sports stadiums, the profit motive looms larger. But that art can still be profound, touching the masses rather than merely amusing the elite.

Today in the United States we flatter ourselves that class distinctions are melting away. Everyone's just a regular Joe; Bill Gates wears jeans and would get lost in the crowd at a ball game. Yet the gulf between the rich and poor in this country is enormous, and growing; so is the gulf between the very rich and the merely rich, let alone the middle classes. Power to shape the arts, or to start foundations to sustain the arts, seems concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, at least in proportion to the population as a whole.

It would be absurd to think that people give money without an agenda. Sometimes that agenda is more social than artistic. But most people who patronize the arts, or just attend art events, do so because they care about them. Is it logical to assume, in opera let us say, that the rich want traditional productions of standard repertory where the performers just stand and sing, and that it is only the impecunious intelligentsia that seeks radical repertory in radical productions? You might think so, sometimes, contemplating the recent history of the San Francisco Opera. And yet there are always those, even rich those, who are thrilled by the new. Or guardians of older money who feel a debt to the arts or to the place of the arts in the fabric of municipal society. That is one reason why the rush of mergers in recent years is dangerous to the arts; if headquarters moves from Kansas City to Atlanta, the arts in Atlanta are more likely to benefit than the arts in Kansas City. (Not that there will be any arts critics in Atlanta left to report the news, but that's another story.)

Through the accidents of parentage, I went to Town School in San Francisco and Andover and Harvard (and Berkeley in the sixties for grad school, but that's yet another story!). I count among my friends all kinds of people with inher-ited money; I have some myself. Sometimes my friends were the children of ruddy entrepreneurs who made their money from scratch. Sometimes their family wealth stretched back for generations. Yet a pattern emerged—again, I epitomize it—whereby the children of parents with money drifted beyond the acquisition of still greater wealth and into the enjoyment of what money can bring. That could mean wine, women, or worse. But it could also mean they became artists, or they came to enjoy the spiritual consumption of art. Where once the children of the rich, in this country and abroad, might drift into the church or diplomatic service, now they become curators or board chairmen or, my new favorite word, sleek young “gallerinas” in trendy Chelsea.

Were I to do more than try to observe and comment upon this shifting ballet of artists and patrons, I would hope for a steady if gradual rise in artistic sophistication among our ruling classes. One reason I accepted the invitation to participate in this weekend in Taos was to observe en masse and at close quarters just how wealthy American arts foundations do their job. I have known wealthy patrons and foundation executives over the years, but my grasp of the field has been scatter-shot. For me, the prospect of the Taos conference seemed at first to offer a whole aviary of such creatures, though of course there are many kinds of foundations and many different agendas among their staffs. I look forward to learning a lot more about them than I know now. I'm curious what the relation is between individuals with powerful if perhaps eccentric tastes (like Lincoln Kirstein, whose centenary we celebrate this year) and a blander, safer form of patronage in which sharp-edged extremism is sanded down to smoothness by consensual committee.

For the society at large, what is needed is a general augmentation of passion for and knowledge of the arts. Easier said than done. We don't need more studies of the economic benefits the arts provide a community—that's distorting art's essence into the language of politicians and businessmen—but the cultivation of a general respect and love for the arts among ever wider swaths of the public. That will take a commitment by politicians not to axe arts education at the first sign of a budgetary crisis and, for that matter, by newspaper publishers not to fire their arts staff as their circulation and advertising tumble. It is no accident that my former employer, The New York Times, chose to reaffirm its emphasis on its foreign and cultural coverage, actually increasing its commitment of space, staff, and resources for the arts. The arts count, and the “ruling class”—the Times's ideal demographic—knows it.

As a post-Marxist, or a pre-late-Marx Schillerian German idealist, I remain confident that it is the artists who shape the agendas for their art, more than their patrons, however much those patrons may be trapped by class assumptions. The larger the institution required to present an art form (an opera company, an art museum), the more prone it must be to conforming to class assumptions. Even then, a bold and charismatically effective administrator or artistic leader can work wonders—always in dialogue with patrons and public, but providing inspirational leadership, as well.

But in the end it is the creative artists—our composers and visual artists and Internet wizards and authors and choreographers and rock musicians-—who set the real agenda, for the arts and perhaps even for the society at large. They warn us—or at least we can discern their warnings in retrospect—of impending crises, and they anticipate our joy at our creative surges. They make art that stakes its own claims, separate from, beyond, and above those of materialism, Marxist or capitalist. The arts mean something all by themselves, and you don't have to be rich or poor to appreciate their primacy.



John Rockwell is a recently retired editor, cultural correspondent, and arts critic (classical music, pop music, dance, and the arts in general), for The New York Times. Rockwell is also a former arts administrator and founding director of the Lincoln Center Festival, as well as the author of numerous publications (All American Music, Sinatra, The Idiots, and Outsider: John Rockwell on the Arts, 1967-2006). He studied at Phillips Academy, Harvard, the University of Munich, and the University of California, Berkeley, earning a Ph.D. in German culture.