14 December 2007


I got into a discussion with someone about elitism recently. It all started because he thought skiing was the most elitist sport ever. You have to go far away from where you live, he said. Pay for a hotel room, plane fare, all your meals. And all the expensive gear! You need to buy skis and the appropriate clothes.

He said he was opposed to snow sports on principle. The only reason he concluded anyone would do it is to show off how much money they have.

And I countered that this is a matter of location. You don't live near good skiing. But if you lived in, say, Hailey Idaho, you'd go skiing three times a week even if you were buying your groceries with WIC's help, because in Hailey Idaho, skiing is less expensive than going to the movies or any other form of entertainment around and everyone inherits a pair of hand-me-down skis.

This got me thinking about the nature of elitism in general. I have never liked the word because it is used as such a blunt tool. Everything can be labeled elitist if you can't have it or don't see the value in it. And that self-oriented use of the word totally eclipses the idea that it might actually be valuable to preserve an elite tier of things.

You wind up with serious intellectual problems that are structural in nature. You substitute injokes and cliquishness for hard and interesting work. You toe the line of popular culture instead of actually being avant garde.

It's funny, the way the word elitist cuts two ways. And I wonder how these two spheres of elitism, the actual value of something that is legitimately better and the in-crowd effect, work together.

There are known problems with this idea that anyone can agree that some things are simply better than others. We all went to college. We all know that in order to rank stuff, someone has to be the ranker. And we all know that while the Bush Administration is brimming with folks who are willing to step in and make these choices...

...liberal, thinking people tend to avoid assigning hierarchical value like the plague.

It's potentially a stupid thing to do. You might leave something out, or otherwise expose yourself as a philistine. It was so easy to be an elitist when we believed in objectivity. But in a world without objectivity, it seems smarter to be an assigner of qualities who can see the value in anything. It's best to avoid elitism.

Like a sampler of world cuisine, the art appreciator is supposed to have a broad palate. And I'm no Hilton Kramer. I don't have any bones to pick with this broadness per se. Art should be a place where you can see things that might blow your mind, but may not be entertaining. Art should be a place where you might have to stretch yourself in order to get what you see.

The thing that I am curious about is how this very openness becomes its own elitist dogma.

I see this at the park all the time--people look at the art in the park according to their real-world rules, in which they assign a certain amount of value as a matter of practicality, so that they can navigate and understand the world and their place in it. When confronted with something that makes no sense, like a piece of art, located in a public park, that is made of a material children find irresistable, on the ground, in unstable condition so that children can pick it up and play with it...

...they make a judgement. They say to themselves that it's obviously OK that their children are jumping up and down and pulling at this thing until it breaks. If it wasn't okay, then the sculpture would be out of the way of the children, or made out of a different material. And the fact that it's not withstanding the treatment their children are dishing out is not proof that it should not be touched. It's proof that the sculpture wasn't executed well. They don't have any problem seeing that this sculpture failed in this context for simple reasons.

This drives the administrators of the park (including myself) crazy! Don't these philistines understand, we say amongst ourselves, that it's not a playground, that this is art and should be respected as such?

What I find funny is the way this type of situation inverts the direction of elitism. I am the elitist one in this instance--I am the one shining down some rule that makes no sense, and that provides this sculpture with special privileges that are not even appropriate in this context. And the parent, or the judger, is the one who is just being as broad and sensitive as possible to what is actually around them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My wife and I visited Socrates many times when we lived in Astoria and Jackson Heights. It is my absolute favorite place to see sculpture. I witnessed in person the types of situations you are describing and critiquing. From my perspective I was annoyed that I couldn't view the sculpture in its entirety because these idiots were crawling all over it. When I took my three year old son to see an exhibition there was a multiple part sculpture in the area of the park where the gray cobblestones are placed on the earth to form a sort of ancient looking hill. The talented sculptor had created these bush or shrub like things with an interconnected root system that stretched out on to the grass out of different colored pieces of wire with bright yellow caps placed on their ends. There was a certain amount of repetitiveness involved in the sculpting process and the artist was very meticulous when executing the work. We all loved it. My son gently brushed his hands across the tops of the yellow caps but otherwise he just sat next to it and looked at it very closely. I never would have let him mess with the sculpture.


15 December, 2007 21:25  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Well, yeah. I appreciate your love for the park. The piece you are talking about was very successful--it was called "Electrees" by Hyungsub Shin.

But what I am saying is that climbing on a sculpture is totally appropriate in a park--the people who annoyed you were doing it right! And if you and your son had come across something that didn't work in that context, then would you have been wrong to deal with it in a less educated and respectful way?

15 December, 2007 22:05  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

What I am saying is that the respect we treat art with is often given regardless of the artist's earning it, through context.

The park is a beautiful place because it exposes the lie of that automatic elevation of art. Well-made art is almost universally respected, it's amazing the aura that forms around sculptures that respect the context they are being placed in. And art that does not look around itself and work to be a part of this larger context tends to suffer.

I think *that's* populist.

15 December, 2007 22:08  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoever limbed on the sculptures was doing the appropriate thing within the context of a public park. Unfortunately all artists can't make resilient work when they get the opportunity to exhibit in the sculpture park. Many of the artists exhibited in Socrates exhibitions need exposure because it is early on in their careers and they will exhibit their work even if it means it will get demolished or modified beyond recognition. Of course resilient public works like Tom Otterness' squat bronze people and Botero's rotund bronze people can be exciting at times but often they fall flat, aren't that visually exciting when compared to what is happening live on the street at the moment you view the sculptures. Of course I have my idealist moments and I think to myself that I want more art to be exhibited in many different contexts. So much great art rots in storerooms across the world. Show the stuff but be honest with yourself about the risk you are taking.

15 December, 2007 22:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I do understand your original message. That the term or concept 'elitism' like any label does not have a clear cut meaning or context. The determining factors of who will use the term and who will become the target of the term is based entirely on situation and the specific frame of mind the person using the term is experiencing.

15 December, 2007 22:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We all went to college. "

That's rather an elitist remark. I guess you assume (maybe correctly, but still) that anyone who would participate in this discussion went to college.

01 January, 2008 14:42  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

That's rather an elitist remark. I guess you assume (maybe correctly, but still) that anyone who would participate in this discussion went to college.

Yeah, anonymous, this is exactly the kind of sloppy usage of this word that I am talking about in the original post.

You wrote this because it's easy. It's easy to call any statement that carves anything elitist. But to what end? What exactly does it mean that assuming anyone pinheaded enough to follow this blog went to college is "elitist"?

What I am arguing is that this kind of kneejerk declaration you are making is a distinction without a difference. Yes, I am saying that the audience for this blog probably-to-definitely went to college. I work with a lot of people who haven't gone to college, and can say with certainty that most people who haven't been to college and gotten art degrees don't find what I am writing about particularly interesting!

Does this fact mean that art is not interesting to people who have never been to college? No. It's more of an admission of my wonkishness.

Does this fact mean that I am an elitist? Please. I pick up dog poop and dead cats and chat and do manual labor all day, and am even in charge of the trash pile! My closest colleagues at work haven't even finished high school.

What function does your comment serve?

Seriously. Structurally. I am not trying to attack you. I am seriously asking what it does to pick apart a statement for instances of elitism?

I think it makes it impossible to make legitimate distinctions, to see differences and appreciate them as they are. The guys I work with see the world very differently than I do. It is really important for me not to assume that the way I look at the world is always right and the way they look at the world is categorically wrong. I learn things from my colleagues as often as they learn things from me.

But pretending not to see that difference, or acting as if a difference does not exist, is not respectful. It's actually really crappy and closed-minded. It stops actual looking and learning, and substitutes a wall of polite denial (code name: elitism) that keeps either of us from learning anything about what is actually going on.

I mean this with as much respect as possible. Not just for your un-named self, but for the entire world of people:

Fuck your easy usage of this way-too-easy word.

04 January, 2008 18:25  

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