Cultural Incongruities

Social Insight — POSTED BY Brainwaving Admin on August 7, 2009 at 7:19 pm

Russell Southwood is queuing outside his local cinema in south London, listening to his iPod. Hip-hop and jazz, as usual. What is less usual is what he is queuing up for: not a film but a live transmission of this season’s opening night from the Royal Opera House. “I like hip-hop and opera,” he says. “Not a big deal.”

In most rich countries, the old distinction between high and popular culture is breaking down

That’s increasingly true. Every other Saturday, Darren Henley is at the Priestfield football ground cheering on his beloved Gillingham. In the evening, he goes to a concert by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestra, because he is also the boss of Classic FM, a radio station that sponsors those orchestras.

Cultural incongruities are popping up everywhere. When the Guardian, which sponsors the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, picked ten visitors to interview, one turned out to be a check-out clerk at Tesco who saved all his money during the year so he could go to the festival for his holiday. He was far from the most unlikely visitor who might have been found. High-ranking officers from the SAS (Special Air Service), Britain’s crack covert-operations regiment–who have to remain anonymous–have been known to spend their holidays each year travelling from their base at Hereford to Hay for lectures on Wordsworth and Darwin.

The sharpest of all these cultural contrasts, though, was the one taking place at the Royal Opera House itself the night Russell Southwood was queuing. Every seat had been taken not by the furs-and-cufflinks brigade but by readers of the Sun, a newspaper not noted for its opera coverage. Amid huffing and puffing from connoisseurs, 2,200 readers of Britain’s biggest-selling daily, accompanied by a trio of page-three girls (modestly attired), descended on the house of Handel and Callas for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. The paper celebrated with an inch-high headline: “Well Don, my Sun”.

In most rich countries, the old distinction between high and popular culture is breaking down. Isolated examples of this have been seen for a long time. In the 1960s Karlheinz Stockhausen, a doyen of avant-garde music, appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper”. In the 1990s the Three Tenors found a mass audience for Puccini. But what used to be a characteristic of individuals or particular occasions is now becoming the defining feature of the whole culture.

Millions more people are going to museums, literary festivals and operas; millions more watch demanding television programmes or download serious-minded podcasts. Not all these activities count as mind-stretching, of course. Some are downright fluffy. But, says Donna Renney, the chief executive of the Cheltenham Festivals, audiences increasingly want “the buzz you get from working that little bit harder”. This is a dramatic yet often unrecognised development. “When people talk and write about culture,” says Ira Glass, the creator of the riveting public-radio show “This American Life”, “it’s apocalyptic. We tell ourselves that everything is in bad shape. But the opposite is true. There’s an abundance of really interesting things going on all around us.”

One of the commonest complaints by cultural doomsayers is that nobody reads good books any more. Yet in the past two years, the Oprah Book Club in America recommended Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and three novels by William Faulkner–good by any standard, and they all made the bestseller lists.

That may seem Pollyanna-ish. But consider these straws, all blowing in the same direction. In 1999/2000, there were 24m visits to Britain’s biggest museums. In 2007/08, the figure was 40m. Between 1999 and 2001, Britain scrapped entry charges, so the increase is partly attributable to that. Still, it was a lot of people. And another factor is the popularity of blockbuster exhibitions, such as the Terracotta Army show at the British Museum–which are seldom free, so scrapping charges cannot be the sole explanation. In most of the great cities of the West, museums now dominate the lists of most popular tourist attractions. More people go to the Louvre each year than to the Eiffel Tower; in London, three museums–the Tate, the British Museum and the National Gallery–each attract more visitors than the London Eye.

In 2006 the New York Metropolitan Opera started an experiment to reach a new audience. It began transmitting opera performances live to cinemas. In the first year it broadcast six productions to 98 movie houses in America; 325,000 people watched. The second year, it transmitted eight operas to 935,000 people. This year, there will be 11 productions, 850 cinemas in 28 countries and a forecast audience of 1.2m: roughly 100,000 people per show, compared with just 3,700 at the Met itself. A few dress up in finery. Many more stood outside in Times Square, New York, this year staring at the digital displays that usually advertise Panasonic or Disney, watching the Met’s opening-night concert.

* * * * *

One of the commonest complaints by cultural doomsayers is that nobody reads good books any more. Yet in the past two years, the Oprah Book Club in America recommended Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and three novels by William Faulkner–good by any standard, and they all made the bestseller lists. This year, Waterstone’s, which owns over 300 bookshops in Britain, asked two celebrated novelists, Sebastian Faulks and Philip Pullman, each to choose 40 titles and write a few words of recommendation. The chain then piled copies of the books on tables next to the entrances of its main shops and waited to see what would happen. Faulks and Pullman hardly dumbed down their choices: they included Fernando Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”, and Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style”. The sales increases for these books over the same period the year before were, respectively, 1,350%, 1,420% and 1,800%–clear evidence of latent demand. If you offer it, they will come.

Literary festivals show the same thing. The Arts Council tries to keep track of their number: 43 in Britain in October alone. Some are tiny, like a weekend festival in Mere, a village in Wiltshire. Others are huge. Next year, the Hay Festival expects to sell 165,000 tickets for events over two weeks. When it began, in 1988, there were 2,000 visitors. Its director, Peter Florence, says the audience has grown, about 15% a year for the past 20 years. Now, he is branching out abroad, helping organise festivals in Cartagena (Colombia), Granada, Havana, Nairobi and Beirut. Not far from Hay, in Cheltenham, another literary festival has also grown, from 67,000 visitors in 2005 to over 87,000 this year. It, too, has children: the Cheltenham jazz, science and classical-music festivals have all flourished on the back of the literary one.

Of course, it may be just that there is more of everything, from serious-minded literary gabfests to drunken holidays in Benidorm. “In the past 20 or 30 years”, says Ira Glass, “there have always been little pockets in the culture where people do interesting work. But now there are so many more places, so many more people who are willing to try anything. The result is that there’s a lot of crap, but there’s also more stuff that’s good at every level.” And the internet, with its instant searches and e-mail newsletters, makes it much easier for people to know what is happening and how to get it.

Where you can make direct comparisons, the serious end of a market is holding up as well as or better than the popular one. Take television. There certainly is no shortage of chewing gum for the eyes. But a clever quiz show such as “QI”, which one might have expected to have lasted a season, is now in its sixth year on BBC2. The even more upmarket radio programme “In Our Time” was the BBC’s first podcast, in 2004, and it was an instant hit. Janice Hadlow, the new controller of BBC2, recently told the BBC staff magazine: “I want to see intelligence in popular programming. It’s good to see it cropping up in all sorts of different places–not just those programmes where you might expect it.” A series like “The Wire”, which its creator David Simon admits “requires thought and commitment to watch”, has survived poor ratings to become a critical smash. Barack Obama was one of many to call it the best show on television. The Los Angeles Times used it as an example of what “is generally acknowledged to be something of a golden era for thoughtful and entertaining dramas”.

Television, opera and perhaps museums might be said to be absorbed passively. But that is not true of literary festivals, nor of some of the new businesses taking advantage of changing public taste. In a former grocery shop in Bloomsbury, Sophie Haworth, who used to run the Tate’s education programme, has just opened the School of Life, aiming to bridge the gap between adult education and self-help. Haworth calls it “a one-stop shop for the mind”. It is more rigorous than most self-help groups and more fun than adult education. Its courses are sold out for months ahead. So are public debates for 800 people on propositions like “It’s wrong to pay for sex”, staged by Intelligence Squared. When the company started, says Jeremy O’Grady, one of its organisers, he was virtually offering free tickets to tramps on the streets to fill the hall. Now you can hardly squeeze in. “Marketing people always think the public is seduced by glitz and instant gratification,” says O’Grady. “But we’re less shallow than we think we are.”

Lastly, lest you think the School of Life and Intelligence Squared, which cater for thousands, are typical of the new cultural endeavours, consider Classic FM. Before it came along in 1992, Radio 3 had a monopoly over Britain’s supply of broadcast classical music. But (as is often the way with monopolies) it catered for insiders far better than for anyone else. As Henley says, Radio 3 “super-served the connoisseur”. You almost needed permission from the Royal College of Music to listen to it. During the day, Radio 3 strode about in a corduroy jacket; in the evening, it changed into white tie and tails. “Classical music had a language and a set of values that made it very elitist,” argues Henley. “It said: ‘This is the music. This is what you wear. These are the rules.’ But when we talked to people, they said that while they loved the music, they all thought they were the only ones put off by the way it was presented. It was like a club where the door is always locked. From day one, our aim was to blow open the locks.”

Classic FM’s launch was nothing short of sensational. Within four months, it had 4.2m listeners–twice Radio 3’s audience at that point and a vivid example of latent demand. “The audience was always there,” Henley says. “We just identified a need that wasn’t being fulfilled.”

Now, with 6m listeners a week, Classic FM is easily the largest commercial radio station in Britain (BBC Radios 1, 2 and 4 are bigger but are not commercial). One in nine of Britain’s adult population are regular listeners. They are not just the cardigan-wearing classes, either. At least 1m Classic FM listeners also tune in to Radio 1. So do about 400,000 children under 15 and, during the spring, half of all those who call the station’s musical-requests programme are students who, it seems, switch from pop, rock or dance music at exam time to something that helps them concentrate or relax. The station’s presenters embody its crossover appeal. One, Alex James, was the bass player for Blur, one of the leading Britpop bands of the 1990s; another, John Brunning, was lead guitarist for the 1970s band Mungo Jerry.

Like any good marketing operation, Classic FM divides its audience into segments. It labels them nervous discoverers, background listeners, classics as pop, popular enthusiasts and connoisseurs, and it provides programmes tailored to each. In the morning, when there are more background listeners and nervous discoverers (the youngest of the groups, also the Radio 1 listeners), the music is bright, breezy and interspersed with news and talk. In the afternoon, programmes turn more soothing for the popular enthusiasts (older, affluent, more women than men). In the evening when listeners have time, and connoisseurs tune in, you get traditional concerts.

The station goes out of its way to be user-friendly. For new or occasional listeners, it sells guidebooks (“The Friendly Guide to Classical Music”). For the enthusiasts, there is a monthly magazine. Last Christmas, it even held a “Barbie at the Symphony” concert in Liverpool’s Philharmonic hall–“The Nutcracker”, “Swan Lake”–for another target audience: doll-loving girls (and their parents).

This leaves it open to accusations of dumbing down. It is certainly true that a good deal of Classic FM’s output is undemanding; the most ferocious and rebarbative contemporary music is banned. But it plays the world’s greatest music in proper recordings. It takes the classical canon beyond the traditional audience of connoisseurs and, with its magazines and books, tries to engage new audiences more deeply with the music it plays. Darren Henley’s quest is unfinished. “I’ve no doubt”, he says, “that one day, everyone will listen to classical music, maybe not all the time, but at different stages of their lives. It offers people a spirituality, an otherworldliness that they want. We hear that from our listeners all the time.”

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Philippe de Montebello, soon to step down after 31 years as director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is fond of saying “the public is a lot smarter than anyone gives it credit for.” He seems to be right. But why? It’s unlikely people are more intelligent than they used to be. Perhaps the elites that enjoy high culture are now bigger for some reason? Perhaps popular tastes have changed in such a way as to benefit high culture? Or perhaps it has nothing to do with changes in the audience, and more to do with the artists and institutions, who have become more skilled at attracting people? Answer: all of the above.

Hard though it may be for professional pessimists to credit, educational standards have risen appreciably over the past 40 years. A good way to measure this is to look at how many people have degrees in each generation. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris has worked this out and found that 29% of Britons between the ages of 25 and 34 have what it calls “type-A tertiary education” (basically, universities). But the share is little more than half that in an older generation (16% of those between 55 and 64). This reflects the expansion of universities in Britain since the 1960s. And in case you suspect the effect is merely a result of relabelling polytechnics as universities, the OECD has allowed for that, too. It calls the polytechnics “type-B tertiary education” (ie, vocational and higher training). Type B education in Britain has been flat. The growth has come from universities alone. In a literal sense, there has been an expansion of mass intelligence: more people have been trained at universities to want, or expect, more intellectual stimulation.

People with degrees are much more likely to go to museums than anyone else. Two researchers from Oxford University, Tak Wing Chan and John Goldthorpe, studied the influence of income, occupation, social class and education on whether people go to theatre, dance, cinema, music and the visual arts. They concluded that education is by far the most important factor. “The higher individuals’ education level,” they write, “the higher, one might say, is their capacity for cultural consumption.” They also looked at whether people tended to concentrate on one thing (going to the movies, say) or to engage with lots of art forms. They found that university graduates were far more likely to be “cultural omnivores” than “cultural univores”. Others have found the same thing. In 2007 the American research group MRI looked at the viewing and reading habits of the elite market, which it defined as those who went to, or subscribed to, at least two of the following: the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, HBO, theatre, art galleries or classical concerts. They found that of this group, a third also read People magazine, watched “American Idol” and subscribed to the cable sports channel ESPN. One of the features of the market for mass intelligence is its heterogeneity.

There is a second, indirect link between education and culture, albeit one that is hard to pin down. Over the past two decades, education has been increasingly rewarded; in the “knowledge economy”, university graduates have done much better than others and the value of a degree has soared. People with degrees also go to cultural events more often so, though there is no necessary connection, there is a correlation: education, culture and income or status tend to go together. A study by the Pew Research Centre in America last year measured this correlation by proxy. It found that 60% of people with incomes of less than $20,000 a year said they had a low knowledge of current affairs; 15% had a high knowledge. For those on incomes of $100,000 and over, the shares were almost exactly reversed: nearly 60% high, less than 20% low. Keeping abreast of current affairs is obviously different from going to the opera or science festivals. Indeed, going to an arts event is often an escape from work. But it is also a way to gain status, to network and to use and burnish the thing that helps you at the office: knowledge.

An alternative explanation for the growth of mass intelligence comes from Peter Florence of the Hay Festival. Forty or 50 years ago, he argues, the public appetite for debate and intellectual curiosity was partly met by politics. The 1960s was a period of political ferment. Later, the current of public interest ran through television and radio; the BBC and ITV played a huge role in bringing theatre, opera and the rest of it to a wider audience. The tradition of public service, he thinks, “nourished an appetite for culture that has survived the splintering of monolithic public-service broadcasters and been encouraged by the rise of the internet”.

No doubt these long-run trends have played a role. But if they were the sole explanation, you would expect the market for mass intelligence to have developed slowly, imperceptibly. And one of its striking features is how rapidly it can appear–as Classic FM, Waterstone’s and the Met have all shown. The behaviour of arts providers makes a big difference too. Most successful arts organisations are busy blowing away a certain dustiness and injecting a sense of fun and style. Adult education and debating societies used to mean draughty halls and comfortless benches. The School of Life, in contrast, looks like a designer shop and the Intelligence Squared debates take place, says O’Grady, “in the most comfortable leather seats northern Italy has to offer”. This year’s Christmas programme at London’s Southbank Centre includes a Quentin Crisp lookalike contest and a concert by an orchestra using instruments scavenged from rubbish–drainpipes, traffic cones, discarded soy-sauce bottles.

When arts organisations do this, they can not only expand their audience but sometimes create new ones in the most unexpected ways. This is what Naxos Audio Books has done with recordings of classic books on CD and tape. Its bestsellers include abridged versions of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (three CDs) and a four-CD account of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Amazingly, Naxos sells thousands of copies of an unabridged version of “Ulysses” (22 CDs). “When I first proposed it, my colleagues thought I was mad,” says the company’s founder, Nicolas Soames. “At the start, it was just a hunch. I thought that if we read writers like Dante or Milton aloud, it would make them live again for a new audience.”

What was most remarkable was the origin of that audience. “I was a judo journalist,” Soames says, “and when I visited judo groups I found that everyone wanted to learn. The -do in judo means ‘the way’ and the concept inculcates in those doing the sport a strong desire to learn. These people would never sit down and read Dante or Joyce. But they would listen to them if they were read well enough. Now we know there is a group of people I call self-improvers who want a wide range of intelligent stuff, including the classics.”

From opera in cinemas to audio books for judo-players: the expanding market for intelligence is certainly unexpected. But what does it really amount to? Is it a profound cultural change or a mild shift upmarket? Here are three tentative conclusions. First, the growth of a market for intelligence may not imply anything about the quality of art being produced. Artists and patrons do separate, if related, things. Accusations of dumbing down are legion. On the other hand, the LA Times’s view that this is a golden age for serious television might be applied more widely. It is hard to believe that those who accuse arts institutions of dumbing down would want audiences to be smaller.

Second, the growth of intelligent interest may help resolve an argument that exists in universities between those who say culture is really all about class or income, much as it always was, and those who say that, no, sweeping statements about class are no longer relevant, and that these days personal taste, not class or money, is what matters. The new audience suggests both schools are partly right (or wrong). Taste has become fantastically heterogeneous: people do indeed watch and read whatever they want; intellectual snobbery is breaking down. But as Drs Wing and Goldthorpe have shown, one group–those with university degrees–read more, watch more and mix and match more than anyone else.

Third, what does all this say about the widespread view that societies are dumbing down, educational standards are crumbling and people’s ability to concentrate is collapsing? The reply must be that it cannot be true across the board and that for a significant number, the opposite is the case: people want more intellectually demanding things to see and hear, not fewer. Surely both things are happening at once: part of the population is dumbing down, part is wising up. But something has changed. H.L. Mencken, the so-called sage of Baltimore, said: “No one in this world…has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” A growing number of people are proving him wrong.

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008

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