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'High' Culture Once Was Pop

By Tanya Dutta

This past week I pored over the course guide searching for a Core class. And I felt irrationally guilty when--for the sixth semester--I bypassed Literature and Arts B. There was nothing lacking in that section--it actually offered more than one course per semester than a certain requirement concerning ethics--I just had always found something else to take every time.

Yet I always felt guilty because I was missing out on "high culture," acquiring a taste for art, music, even opera. There is a certain mystique, an aura, around the arts considered high culture. To understand these arts is to be learned, refined. The mystique hovering around these arts may even be due to their inability to be understood and fully appreciated by the mass audiences who frequent Hollywood blockbusters. After all, we can read about history and literature, but learning to appreciate the arts may require something more than just reading, perhaps a special insight. And because Harvard does give us the opportunity to gain that insight, I felt guilty not taking advantage of it.

And then I felt silly. Who's to say that the arts are more important than the other subjects in the Core? Who's to say that appreciating opera is more important than studying international conflicts in the modern world? But somehow I feel that I am losing more than just a class; I'm losing the chance to acquire "high culture." But is "high culture" really more refined and intellectual than the popular culture of today?

It's odd how we associate "high culture" with antiquity. Take wine, for instance, a symbol associated with the upper classes of old. Good wine is always old wine; new wine, mere fermented grape juice. Even vintage, another word for classic, is derived from the Latin word for wine. However, old items are not always palatable on first try. Hence, true appreciation often needs to be cultivated. Only then has one developed taste and an appreciation of the finer, more delicate and intellectual side of life.

Although Harvard has not been subjecting us to wine-tasting tests, the College is definitely attempting to develop some sort of taste, an appreciation of high culture in all its students. Take Literature And Arts B, for instance. Out of the 18 courses offered, only three focus on the twentieth century. Now, this phenomenon is hardly the fault of the Core. Instead, society has deemed that certain tastes need to be cultivated in the intelligentsia; Jeopardy-like trivia does not suffice. True taste relies on the appreciation of certain arts and literatures which are not in popular demand, for instance Shakespeare, opera and ballet.

Of the three, Shakespeare is the most popular. His popularity is partly because most people are exposed to his writings in high school, and so a larger number of people read his works. But Shakespeare has also leaped across the divide of "high culture" to popular culture. Kenneth Branagh recently had a hand in making Shakespeare a common Hollywood name with Henry V, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing and now Hamlet.

The appreciation of Shakespeare's writing requires a step through time and language. But in Shakespeare's own time, he was not considered "high culture." Rather, his plays' successes were each determined by the tastes of the mass audience in the open-air Globe theater, much as Hollywood wagers on that audience for its movies' successes. And just as politicians today decry the lack of family values in the movies of Hollywood, a Parliamentary edict of 1642 (under the Puritans) considered "stage plays" to be "spectacles of pleasure, too commonly expressing lascivious Mirth and Levities," and so banned performance of plays for close to 20 years. In his time, Shakespeare was popular culture.

However, Shakespeare's ascent into "high culture" occurred relatively early. As soon as Charles II assumed the throne and the Restoration period began, managers traded the large open-air theater for a smaller indoor theaters that catered exclusively to aristocrats who could afford high-priced tickets. And some time after that, the study of Shakespeare entered Literature and Arts A.

Ballet and opera, now further removed than Shakespeare from popular appreciation, actually took much longer to ascend to the ranks of "high culture." Opera actually took root in very few countries. Audiences had difficulty accepting dialogue in song, much the trouble some audiences have with Evita. But where opera and ballet were accepted, they were accepted by the masses as popular culture. Opera and ballet were not "high culture."

More than that, western Europe considered those in ballet and opera to be morally bankrupt. The upper classes did frequent this entertainment, but the entertainment was not considered refined or aristocratic by any means. In fact, the dancers and singers were mostly very poor young men and women of the lower classes enticed by money. But there was an ethical draw-back: the Church refused to marry or bury actors and dancers. Thus the frequency of early ballerinas that entered nunneries to repent in their later years. In America, ballet was considered immoral up to the 20th century. Only at that point did ballet ascend the ranks into "high culture."

It is not unusual for us to consider works of the past far superior to works of the present. In the 19th century, an American education was only rounded out by study in Europe, an older civilization than the colonies. In the 1600s, scholars in Europe, to become part of the educated elite, had to study the ancient classics in Greek and Latin. Even before that, when the Romans had conquered the Greeks, who had an older and more established culture, they hired Greek tutors to educate their young aristocrats. Harvard only continues this tradition with Shakespeare, Rome of Augustus, "Greek Heroes," and the courses on the Middle Ages (Chaucer and the like).

But before we separate the "high culture" from the popular culture and decry the lack of virtue in the arts of the present compared to the past, we should look at the origins of "high culture." After all, almost everything that is "high culture" now was popular culture once, else it wouldn't have survived to this day.

Who knows--350 years from now even Terminator may be considered "high culture."

Tanya Dutta's column will appear on alternate Mondays.

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