American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century
by Michael Kammen
Knopf. 320 pp. $30.00
“Value-subtraction” was the term used by American economists to describe the process by which factories in Communist Russia combined leather, glue, and dye into shoes worth less than the raw materials that had gone into them. The Cornell historian Michael Kammen seems to have replicated that depressing achievement in the pages of his latest book. He has chosen a fascinating and important topic, delved deeply into the existing literature, borrowed some interesting ideas, and produced the intellectual equivalent of a pair of Bulgarian evening pumps.
Kammen’s book is not, in fact, a history of taste. It is a history of arguments about taste, and especially the argument that erupted in Britain in the middle of the last century and in the United States in the early years of this one over the fate of high culture in an age of mass purchasing power. Would great art and traditional handicrafts be submerged by plinky songs and mass-produced vulgarities? Or could a bourgeois society find some way to preserve the artistic ideal?
In the 1930’s, according to Kammen, that argument became subsumed in a slightly different one. Depression-vintage Marxists rejected the old certainty that, culturally speaking, the lower classes were inherently defective. In particular, what was regarded as the authentic culture of working people—sea shanties, Shaker chairs, primitive paintings, quilts, Negro spirituals—suddenly acquired immense prestige. If the Victorian Matthew Arnold had worried whether culture could survive democracy, the Marxists of the 1930’s introduced a fresh culprit: capitalism and, specifically, the mass entertainment produced by those shiny new industries of the 1920’s—Hollywood, the radio, and the book club. Variants of this Marxist argument, and variants of the variants, survive to the present day.
Kammen’s is a familiar story, told in a more than familiar way, with few heroes but all the usual villains. He dutifully condemns as reactionary and snobbish anyone who identifies with the Arnoldian tradition, from Van Wyck Brooks in the 1920’s down to Hilton Kramer. Beyond that, however, this is a book crammed with judgments that never add up to a thesis and with facts that never constitute a coherent narrative. Periodic glimmers of an original thought are as hastily stifled as a burglar’s flashlight.
What went wrong? Like those Soviet factory managers, Kammen is trapped within a corrupt and authoritarian system—in his case, American academe—whose rules require him to ignore reality for the sake of ideology. And the most salient piece of reality that Kammen neglects or is unable to come to terms with is this: the steady reduction of standards and ambition in his sector of American cultural life since 1950.
When Michael Kammen joined the Cornell faculty in 1965,1 would wager that not one of his colleagues would have admitted to watching television regularly or to liking rock and roll. Their tastes in art would have conformed to the demanding modernist canon: in painting, Picasso; in sculpture, Calder; in poetry, T. S. Eliot; in architecture, Louis Kahn. The thought of reading one of the commercial novels recommended by the Book-of-the-Month club would have made them shudder, and the suggestion that such books might be added to an undergraduate reading list would have sounded in their ears like the death knell of civilization.
Absurd as the pretensions of yesteryear could be, they still make a poignant contrast to those of today. Which of Kammen’s present colleagues would hesitate to confess to watching Seinfeld? Or to enjoying the Rolling Stones? The austerity of high modernism has given way to the ironic celebration of Disney World. Professors who in 1965 would have scorned Irving Wallace today not only read but assign Alice Walker.
Kammen comments approvingly that since the 1960’s, educated people have discovered they can enjoy popular culture. That is hardly a new development. What is new is something that Kammen is still old-fashioned enough to be shocked by: the academic discipline of cultural studies, which ascribes deep intellectual interest to the once-reviled products of mass culture.
When this field got going 30 years ago, it operated in a spirit of suspicion and hostility: see how those evil corporations delude and manipulate! But over the past three decades, suspicion and hostility gave way, first, to an ironic appreciation of the products of mass culture, and then—as old-style Marxism lost favor serially to the New Left, the counterculture, the deconstructionists, and finally postmodernism—to something very like genuine applause.
Kammen describes how leading cultural-studies professors now “find creativity in the act of consumption and emphasize the concept of ‘appropriation’: selecting those aspects of media messages that are meaningful to [consumers] and then ‘recycling’ to suit their own needs.” It is this line of reasoning that has brought us doctoral dissertations on the novels of Barbara Cartland and the semiotics of wrestling, and in time—who knows?—to appreciations of Hooters restaurants, Jean-Claude van Damme movies, and the aesthetics of pseudo-Georgian tract mansions.
Although he repudiates the aesthetic nihilism of the cultural-studies professors, Kammen offers no explanation of his reasons for doing so, preferring instead ex-cathedra pronouncements of the “My own position is more like that of Jones than that of Smith” variety. Aware that in failing to appreciate the hermeneutics of soap operas he is heading out onto a dangerous limb, he taps his way delicately. But he cannot quite smother his feeling that high culture is listing badly in present-day America, or that the sight grieves him. He even gives signs of glimpsing why it is in so much trouble:
The democratic ethos that some critics had hoped for in the 1920’s and others demanded in the 1930’s finally became actualized as a dominant view during the 1960’s. It became much less acceptable to demean the taste of ordinary men and women. Parallel with that trend, cultural critics of a populist persuasion began to insist that mass culture had some attractive or redeeming aspects, and, moreover, that intellectuals had no right to tell lowbrows what to like or dislike.
As explanations go, that is not exactly right. Present-day intellectuals are quite willing to tell lowbrows what to like; it is just that they have kicked Milton and Dryden off the list and put Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath in their places. But Kammen has at least accurately identified contemporary culture-bearers’ discomfort with the old notion of high standards, even as he recoils from inching further along that limb. At one point, he notes with incredulity that “as late as 1948, T.S. Eliot continued to assert that culture, by which he really meant high culture, and ‘equalitarianism’ could not be reconciled.” But the reason Eliot continued to assert that proposition was that it was true. There is, after all, no way to vindicate cultural standards without acknowledging (a) that some artists have more talent than others and (b) that some readers, listeners, and spectators have better judgment than others.
Kammen himself is constrained—almost—to admit as much. “The sacralization of culture during the later 19th century,” he writes cautiously, “may have been accompanied by an excess of cultural authority—an undemocratic and therefore not a desirable situation. But the marked decline of cultural authority during the later 20th century, a combined consequence of corporate power and cultural democracy, may not be so entirely desirable either.” And there he halts, for to go one step beyond “may be” and “not so entirely desirable either” would plunge him off his limb and into a thicket of dangerous taboos that he does not dare to break or even to question.