Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Rules of Culture

In this month’s Vanity Fair, John Heilpern interviews San Francisco society matron Denise Hale for his column “Out to Lunch.” This isn’t one of those Dominic Dunne exposes of society gone wrong. Make no mistake; I love those. But this is just an agreeable one-page conversation with Mrs. Hale who comes across as a lovely, personable and terribly mannered woman.

What really captured my imagination in this otherwise pleasant, but forgettable article is this proclamation from Hale, a paragon of the upper class:

“If you know the rules you belong; if you don’t know them, you don’t.”

I read this last night, just hours before I was scheduled to appear alongside art critic Dave Hickey on the Nevada Public Radio live call-in talk show “State of Nevada.” I had been told that the scheduled topic was something about high and low culture in Las Vegas.

(On the other hand, Mr. Hickey was told that we would be discussing Michael Jackson and had prepared as such. A superb miscommunication if ever there was one, but, nonetheless, a story for another time.)

So, I had been considering this nonsense of high and low culture last night when I came across Heilpern’s interview with Hale in Vanity Fair. I say “nonsense” because it’s my academic opinion that those terms are useless and meaningless. Any culture – that is to say, any cultural product produced in a given society – is meaningful as it either pleases or displeases the intended audience. And anything that persons in a society choose to spend their time and money on is valuable as cultural product and worthy of cultural analysis so far as it reflects what said people relate to, desire and consume.

Maybe it goes without saying that my academic background is in the field of popular culture. But it doesn’t go without saying that, in my opinion, in this day and age of hyper-accessible media, there ceases to be anything other than popular culture.

The academic definition of elite culture – which is a term I much prefer to high culture – is culture that requires specific skill, knowledge and/or access in order to participate. But in the 21st century, we are hard pressed to name any cultural product that isn’t accessible to vast numbers of people. Therefore, almost all culture has become popular – that is, available, accessible and desirable to countless individuals.

This morning on the radio, I made the statement that the two largest popular culture events of this year were the inauguration of President Obama and the Michael Jackson memorial. At the memorial, popular music stars like Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey performed. At the inauguration, we had Aretha Franklin and Yo-yo Ma performing on the same stage. Classical music used to be considered elite culture. But f you search for Yo-yo Ma on YouTube, you’ll get over 60,000 hits. Some of the videos have been viewed over a million times. That’s not elite. That’s accessible, available and popular. And he’s appeared on Sesame Street, so future generations will know who he is, too. The idea that in this generation and forever after Yo-yo Ma will be considered a figure of popular culture is outstanding. We’re no longer expected to have special training to appreciate classical music nor the money to attend a symphony performance.

This brings me back to what Hale said in her interview: “If you know the rules you belong; if you don’t know them, you don’t.”

In her conversation, Hale was referring to the opportunity to belong to elite society. And, certainly, in a historic context elite society was just that. It was only accessible to those who knew the rules: the passwords and tricks of etiquette and the money to participate.

But today with programs like The Real Housewives of New York and NYC Prep on Bravo, that inside information is available to anyone with basic cable or the internet. The Countess Luann de Lesseps, of The Real Housewives, has repeatedly regaled television audiences on the rules of etiquette and has even published a very affordable book on the topic. And on NYC Prep, one of the featured teenage girls complained that she can’t go to her favorite restaurant anymore because it was mentioned on Gossip Girl and now everyone knows about it. If a fictional program like Gossip Girl is getting those kinds of insider details correct and spreading them around, then certainly the previously exclusive information on reality programs is even more accurate and instructive in the ways of the rich.

I acquiesce that not everyone who watches Bravo has the money to behave like these fictional characters or reality personalities. But Hale didn’t say “if you have the money, you belong.” She said, “if you know the rules.” And the rules are available to us all. In this world of the internet and digitized information, the rules, are no longer secret. Actually, Vanity Fair itself is one of the best sources of this kind of information about elite culture and those people who grace the society pages.

And so is Bravo. Besides informing the public about rich people, Bravo has also opened the doors to information about the things they love, like gourmet food and couture fashion. Top Chef and Project Runway expose the general public to the language of foodies and the tastes of fashion mavens. Chefs and fashion designers that were previously only known by those who could afford to dine in their restaurants and wear their clothes are now in our living rooms explaining their techniques and teaching us the elite language of their craft.

Certainly, just watching these programs will not automatically imbue anyone with the skill to cook food or design clothes. But it gives us the opportunity to observe masters and to discuss these topics intelligently without being rich by design or accident of birth. Decades ago, Julia Child brought the art of French cooking into American homes. But now Top Chef and the Food Network have brought us all varieties of gourmet cooking and James Beard award winning chefs.

Honestly, how many Americans had heard of the James Beard Foundation before Top Chef? And how many Americans knew about New York Fashion Week before Project Runway? But now, I am sure that there are millions of people who would feel comfortable sitting down over champagne cocktails with the likes of Denise Hale and discussing foie gros and couture. Because we know the rules and, therefore, we belong.

To read the interview with Denise Hale in Vanity Fair, go to:

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