A fine line between willful philistinism and appreciating what you actually like

by phil on Monday Sep 4, 2006 9:47 PM

There are two strategies for dealing with culture snobs. One can try to refine their tastes through exposure to sophistication. Or one can cultivate a willful philistinism, like the Sloanes of Britain have done since the 1970s.

It wasn't until college that I knew of a cultural elite. I had no idea that there was a spectrum of critical music taste: some listen to the radio, then others listen to Radiohead, then there those who follow Pitchfork Media, then some only listen to discarded B-sides from the 70s, and then others only listen to Classical Music. Before this discovery, before I entered college, people I knew in High School just listened to whatever we liked, whether it was a rapper we saw on MTV or some Classic Rock our parents' liked. I didn't know you could walk into a crowd, mention that you liked Blink 182, and watch as the eyes rolled.

After enough eyes rolled at me, I kept my mouth shut until I found something more obscure to name-drop. Maybe Pink Floyd? But then eventually the eyes started to roll at that as well. I began finding myself on a maddening search to become beyond reproach. I ultimately landed on Brian Eno. He's a man who doesn't call himself a musician, who helped found ambient music, and who founded the culturally significant Roxy Music. Many people know his name, but few have heard his music, and those that have, respect him. Phew. There. I'm beyond reproach.

That is until I met a guy who only listens to Jazz because everything else to him is "dirty." His eyes roll, without a doubt, at almost any artist I mention. It was at this point that I gave up on playing this cultural spectrum climbing game.

Little did I know that other people had developed, at a much younger age, a "willful philistinism."

Back when I was culturally oblivious, I met an indie film actress from Hollywood, and she was proudly into pop music. She would, for example, be proudly into liking Eminem. I had always wondered why she was so "proud" of it, but then her pride started to appear like defensiveness. On some level it occurred to her that listening to Eminem was in bad taste, and yet somehow she was going to defy that standard. But what or who was she defying? I loved Eminem, so she wasn't trying to impress me. Then it made sense when I realized where she was from. In Hollywood she is probably fighting at parties against the same cultural climbing threat that I was only just recently exposed to at college. She learned early on that it's better to avoid the game altogether, and hence she stood defiant against critical music appreciation.

As you get older you experience more and more of the vicissitudes of subtle class snipping. You start to notice this phrase more and more common: "I may not know art, but I know what I like." It's always funny to hear people break out and spout that cliché, because it makes you ask yourself, "who the hell are they talking to?"

Unfortunately for these people, they haven't found a social group that encourages philistinism. The example that caught my attention are the Sloane Rangers, a group of wealthy Britons, as epitomized by Princess Diana, who are unembarrassed to admit the disliking of ballet, opera, modern art and James Joyce; most public intellectuals of the 70s/80s were left wing, and to align oneself with the cultural values of a left wing intelligentsia was anathema to (typically) staunchly Tory Sloanes.

It's amazing how groups of people can form enclaves within which an alternative reality of ideals exist. It's not that being a Sloane will make you just feel good for having base taste, they will actually make you a good person. You won't feel anything, because to feel means to be aware that it's just the felt qualities that are being perceived. You will be a good person among that crowd for being disgusted at those with critical taste.

And the flip side is true too. If you have a refined cultural sensibility and roll among Bohemians, then you've achieved something for yourself in life. People respect you, invite you over to their parties, and offer you the most beautiful mates.

I find willful philistinism interesting because you're not just a snob, but a snob of snobbery. The snobs reject mainstream taste, while as willful Philistines reject those that have to strive so hard to distance themselves from the mainstream.

As a structure, I find this interesting. Instead of cultural taste being laid on a spectrum, it almost appears like a ring. These spectrum-to-ring transformations occur when the spectrum is actually a ladder, and those who seek to maintain their power, reject the whole hierarchy itself.

Look at the Republicans, the party of the wealthy elite, also identifying with anti-intellectualism and the countryside. The countryside connotates many negative qualities, such as illiteracy, destitution, backwardness, and naiveté. And yet somehow, the farmer's life is romantic. On a related note, Sloanes also support pro-hunting legislation.

I've read people talk about anti-intellectualism like it was some sort of noble maturity. The most notorious is Peggy Noonan, columnist for the Wall Street Journal. I've never read a good argument for why I shouldn't listen to what professors think about politics. Is it because all they have is theory? I'd rather trust people who have thought things through rather than those who shoot from the gut, as if that's some sort of talent.

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