Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Highbrow/Lowbrow, by Lawrence Levine

It is worth reading this book for the anecdotes about Shakespearean performance alone, but it should also be pointed out that the book's argument has aged much better than have those of its disputants. Those who wish still to defend the exclusive or near-exclusive teaching and appreciation of a Western Canon now have to find ways of side-stepping the intensely pessimistic and vituperative late-80s Culture Wars polemics, while any writer or speaker wishing to defend a pluralist approach to pedagogy or even mere appreciation can quite unashamedly return to any of Levine's books not only for their language and phrasing but also for many of their facts. (I read Levine's Opening of the American Mind a few years ago and also found it highly valuable as a polemic and, to a slightly lesser extent, as history.) And, even despite the extent to which it has become the dominant historicist interpretation of the "emergence of cultural hierarchy in America," Levine's twenty-two-year-old project still transmits the excitement, boldness, and freshness with which Levine framed his arguments in 1988.

However, twenty-two years is not all that brief, and particularly not for a field of inquiry which has, in that almost-quarter-century, proliferated and subdivided so much as has popular culture studies. The basic type of narrative that Levine constructs is, I think, a little dubious at this point, and some of the assumptions he makes regarding the motivations of both his individual actors and the classes in his account are perhaps a little less complex than they ought to be. Of course, one needs to remember that the basic shape of Levine's account was created to answer a very different set of questions and anticipate a very different set of responses than a historian of popular culture might face today, and that not having to make the case that "high culture" has a more egalitarian and a shorter history than its guardians would like to acknowledge is directly due to Levine's work here. It should also be mentioned that the material of Highbrow/Lowbrow was mostly drawn from a series of lectures—an origin which is not a disadvantage so much as it is a different genre from the monograph.

Highbrow/Lowbrow works with a few different examples—Shakespearean performance, opera, symphonic music, and public exhibition of painting and sculpture—but its argument is virtually identical across each: in the early through the mid nineteenth century, American public culture was shared across classes, but over the latter half of the nineteenth century, the ruling or upper classes began designating certain cultural practices or elements as proper to themselves, and they began building—architecturally as well as ideologically—defenses against the indiscriminate mixing of both content and consumers. Shakespeare would no longer be performed with vaudevillean antics intruding between (and sometimes into) the acts of the play; symphonic music and opera would no longer be leavened with Stephen Foster songs or light dance music; opera singers and illustrious actors would no longer re-shape their performances or their lines to meet the crowd's approval; great paintings would no longer hang between cabinets of curiosities. What had been an integrated culture of all manner of cultural performances and artifacts became dissociated into new categories and newly formed practices, and this dissociation took place on multiple levels, no less profound for their subtlety:
The changes were not cataclysmic; they were gradual and took place in rough stages: physical or spatial bifurcation, with different socioeconomic groups becoming associated with different theaters in large urban centers, was followed inevitably by the stylistic bifurcation described by George William Curtis, and ultimately culminated in a bifurcation of content, which saw a growing chasm between "serious" and "popular" culture. (68)
Levine is masterful at turning up the most apposite examples of how this transformation was effected: how posters advertising performances of Shakespeare were re-formatted and re-phrased over the years to shift audiences' expectations for the kind of show they were going to see, moving from a diverse bill-of-fare with lots of different acts and entertainments to a single pièce-de-resistance which should only stand on its own; how applause between movements was discouraged in the performance of a symphony; how museum hours were set up to draw certain audiences and deter others.

But the story is largely—and I think wrongly—one-sided. Here is Levine on the central problem of his study:
The problem that requires thoughtful attention is not why Shakespeare disappeared from American culture at the turn of the century, since he did not; but rather why he was transformed from a playwright for the general public into one for a specific audience.This metamorphosis of Shakespearean drama from popular culture to polite culture, from entertainment to erudition, from the property of "Everyman" to the possession of a more elite circle, needs to be seen within the perspective of other transformations that took place in nineteenth-century America. (56)
Levine's narrative is one of simple expropriation: Shakespeare originally belonged to everybody, and then a few decided that he belonged only to the educated and the rich, and that was that. And within the terms of what the upper class meant to do, it is a fairly convincing story, with one fairly large exception I'll get to later. But as a narrative of expropriation, it needs to be more interested in the responses of the people who were being excluded from all this Shakespeare-enjoying and Don Giovanni-listening. The "other transformations" which Levine acknowledges as the context of this specific transformation of Shakespeare are depicted as going on entirely within the (urban) bourgeoisie—professionalization, incorporation, the absorption of the nouveaux riches. No transformations originating in and primarily affecting the working class are considered; all we see is the new labels "popular culture" and "lowbrow" being applied to them by the elites. Are we, then, to presume that the working class was static through this period, that their tastes—if left alone—would have remained within the same field of cultural practices and values, that new technologies as well as new living and working environments might have had only negligible effect? I don't think Levine asks us to presume this, but he spends no time considering whether or not there might have been independent forces pulling the working class away from this "shared public culture" and into its own forms of consumption—dime novels, newspapers, amusement parks, dance halls, sporting events*, etc. Levine doesn't prove—and doesn't attempt to prove—that "popular" culture ever missed the things that the urban elites supposedly took away from them unilaterally.

Secondly, while Levine acknowledges that Shakespeare never really disappeared from popular culture, he plays down too much the ways he has persisted. For instance, Levine quotes Richard Burton as saying that in Hollywood, Shakespeare was box office poison, but that certainly seems at odds with the huge number of attempts Hollywood has made (and continues to make) to break that supposed curse. Nor does Levine adequately consider Shakespeare's presence on radio or in schools. Well, in fact Levine considers the latter, but he assumes that the association of Shakespeare with rote memorization and declamation exercises was part of his dissociation from "the broader world of everyday culture" (33), a conclusion which I find questionable; instead, I think it would be more likely that the memorization of Shakespeare would make him available for the type of parodies and re-codings that enrich an experience of, say, Kiss Me Kate or West Side Story or Loony Tunes which Levine acknowledges have always been an integral part of Shakespeare's place in that broader world (14-15). And while, as Levine argues, references to Shakespeare "have become increasingly limited to the handful of Shakespearean scenes and characters that remained well known in the society" (55), I question to what extent this constriction is really an index for or a product of Shakespeare's dissociation from "everyday culture," or if it isn't rather a sign that everyday culture has been increasingly filled up with other things, competitors for the cultural space that Shakespeare occupied. There is a very implicit assumption running through Levine's book that Shakespeare is fundamental to all people (or at least all Americans), and that his dominant place in this "shared public culture" is almost natural—and therefore that this dominance could only have ended through some form of expropriation. The idea that Frank Merriwell or Nick Carter (no, not that Nick Carter) might have shoved aside Prince Hal and Falstaff seems to be something Levine didn't consider.

To return to that "fairly large exception" which I referred to above, I think the premise of a "shared public culture" as the original condition of American culture deserves a little more scrutiny and the word "shared" needs more than a little bit of examination for the assumptions it's hiding under its egalitarian conviviality. This is a very similar problem to what I have said earlier about Leo Marx's use of the word and its inflections—and it is entirely possible, I think, to see Levine as still writing vaguely under the shadow of consensus history and particularly under the older American Studies. There is a moment of real conflict narrated in the book—the Astor Place Riot—but for the most part the gradual nature of the changes he outlines tends to minimize the disturbances or disequilibria of the transformations in late nineteenth-century popular culture.

Part of the problem, I think, is what Levine presumes is actually being "shared" in this antebellum public culture. Levine assumes that because people of all classes and tastes were going to the see the same performances of Shakespeare in the same place and at the same time, we can safely bracket the separateness of their reasons for doing so; the important thing was that they went, and we can read their choice as an affirmative one for the event, if not for all parts of the event (i.e., some may have gone for the poetry but resented the bawdiness, others for the inverse). Regardless, Levine sees the "shared public culture" as the product of a nearly ideally free market:
When Shakespeare, opera, art, and music were subject to free exchange, as they had been for much of the nineteenth century, they became the property of many groups, the companion of a wide spectrum of other cultural genres, and thus their power to bestow distinction was diminished, as was their power to please those who insisted on enjoying them in privileged circumstances, free from the interference of other cultural groups and the dilution of other cultural forms. As long as they remained shared culture, the manner of their presentation and reception was determined in part by the market, that is, by the demands of the heterogeneous audience. They were in effect "rescued" from the market place, and therefore from the mixed audience and from the presence of other cultural genres; they were removed from the pressures of everyday economic and social life, and placed, significantly, in concert halls, opera houses, and museums that often resembled temples, to be perused, enjoyed and protected by the initiated—those who had the inclination, the leisure, and the knowledge to appreciate them. (230)
I am not convinced that many of the situations Levine describes as locations for a "shared public culture" really count as sites of free exchange. Many of his antebellum anecdotes are urban, and we can assume that many of these people had some variety to choose from, although I think this variety should not in most cases be overstated. But a number of his anecdotes concern frontier, rural, or basically non-urban performances of Shakespeare, and there I feel we are much closer to something like a monopoly than we are with the custodial culture of the urban elite "rescuing" art from the marketplace. When you're in a town with only one movie theater, sometimes you see what's on simply because you want to see a movie, and anybody else who wants to go out that night has to see it too. I wonder how often this enforced "sharing" underwrote the more egalitarian "sharing" Levine envisions: how many times did classes mingle for the simple reason than that it was better than staying at home? More pertinent to the elites who would go on to cordon Shakespeare off into the "serious" sphere: how many of these elites went to see Shakespeare performed in the old manner simply because there wasn't yet the (local) surplus capital to put into taking the necessary steps (building theaters, hiring directors, actors, support staff, forming boards of directors, etc.) for seeing him in their own way? It would of course be a very different story if Levine simply argued that, as soon they had that capital, they did just that, but how right might it be? Obviously, I would need to do quite a bit of research to back it up, but it seems intuitively right.

Of course, none of this answers the "why Shakespeare?" question which, after all, undergirds or buttresses (I'm not sure which) Levine's project more generally: Shakespeare is possibly the one figure whom we can believe would draw a truly motley crowd anywhere. Even if we've been taught, as Levine's elites tried to instill, that Shakespeare is only truly appreciated by the educated, we've also all been taught that he is the most universal dramatist, the artist with the clearest insights into human nature, perhaps the only genuinely transhistorical figure of modernity. I don't mean to knock Shakespeare at all, but I feel that Levine's answer to the "why Shakespeare?" question—why was he the one who consistently drew such diverse crowds in antebellum America?—is a rather hopeful, Because he's Shakespeare: anyone who is allowed really to feel him will respond, and, unfortunately, I find that a little insufficient.**

Levine's trust in the market and his trust in Shakespeare are essentially the same, and while I very much admire the product of that trust—a call for a renewal of a shared public culture—I think they, or at least the market, are not very stable pillars on which to build such a renewed culture. Our notion of "sharing" also must have more meat on it than co-presence and the possibility of conviviality, which I think even Levine acknowledges was the extent of those motley Shakespearean performances. Levine's book, however, is irreplaceable as a step in that direction; it is certainly great enough to present clearly the problems which it doesn't resolve and to point the way to the tools which will improve it.

* Levine actually argues that sporting events and the movies were—and are—the only forms of a "shared public culture" still surviving. However, sporting events arguably don't feature the key element of this "shared public culture"—the diversity of types or levels of entertainment which one found in mid nineteenth-century Shakespearean performances or operas. While a lot more than the game is going on during a sporting event, rarely is there the kind of mixture of poetry and pratfalls (except, I suppose, metaphorically) that Levine has in mind.

** So does Levine, briefly: he allows for some structural reasons why Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of antebellum America on page 45: he could more easily be presented as a moral playwright; he aided the development of the star system, whereby a star and not an entire company could travel more easily and, because the local company knew their Shakespeare, could perform with him or her; Shakespeare's plays similarly had one large role, also nurturing the star system; American dramatists had not developed sufficiently.

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