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The Pleasures of Snobbery


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#1 du Garbandier

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Posted 23 March 2010 - 05:51 PM

The pleasures of snobbery are real and insidious. For any group of persons interested in the cultivation of excellence in art and life, it seems worthwhile to have a thread dedicated to the examination and, yea, eradication of snobbery and all its pomps.

By snobbery I mean, in the context of cultural taste, the achievement of (or quest for) self-worth by distancing ourselves from those whose tastes we despise and insinuating ourselves into the company and approbation of those whose tastes we admire. Think of C. S. Lewis' "inner ring," the appeal of which I think is just as much in its power of disassociation from some set of people as in the lure of association with another.

One observation I would make: at its core, snobbery has very little to do with the love of arts and literature, and has much more to do with the love of self. The snob does not truly value works of culture for their own sake; rather, the snob loves these things in an instrumental way. The snob loves music or a certain author for the sake of what they do for him or her. As such, the pleasures of snobbery are those of a disordered soul, disordered in being unable to see and grasp a thing in its proper place and time. To delight in the goodness of things in their own right is the privilege of charitable aesthetic vision, whereas snobbery is a debaser of true delight, symptomatic of spiritual derangement.

Which brings me to a related point. Surely a distinction should be made between snobbery and having high standards. Here's what the essayist Joseph Epstein writes in his excellently entertaining book, Snobbery: The American Version:

High standards generally — about workmanship in the creation of objects, about what is owed in friendship, about the quality of art, and much else — far from being snobbish, are required to maintain decency in life. When the people who value these things are called snobs, the word is usually being used in a purely sour-grapes way. "Elitist," a politically super-charged word, is almost invariably another sour-grapes word, at least when used to denigrate people who insist on a high standard. The distinction, I believe, is that the elitist desires the best; the snob wants other people to think he has, or is associated with, the best. Delight in excellence is easily confused with snobbery by the ignorant.


Reverse snobbery--one of the many deleterious results of snobbery--is just as pleasurable a self-valuation as snobbery, and no less insidious. To dismiss as snobs those who delight in excellence is merely to replace one kind of judgment with another, no less judgmental and more self-oblivious one.

Snobbery perpetuates injustice against the works of culture as well as one's neighbor. According to Marcel Proust, it is "the greatest sterilizer of inspiration, the greatest deadener of originality, the greatest destroyer of talent." It is also the friend and enabler of envy, which is the bane of friendship and true community. "Envy," said Samuel Johnson, "is mere unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means, and desires not so much its own happiness as another's misery."* To give oneself over to snobbery is to be consigned to a life of anxiety, perturbation, and dissatisfaction, since there is always some new pitiful upstart down the road to beat down and some new ringbearer up the road to adulate and crawl after, no matter how much one progresses in taste.

My question is, how to guard against snobbery without falling into some other, equally sinful habit of being?

*My quotations of Proust and Johnson are merely meant to establish my personal superiority over you, the lowly reader.

Edited by du Garbandier, 23 March 2010 - 06:42 PM.


#2 Fred K

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Posted 23 March 2010 - 08:49 PM



The pleasures of snobbery are real and insidious. For any group of persons interested in the cultivation of excellence in art and life, it seems worthwhile to have a thread dedicated to the examination and, yea, eradication of snobbery and all its pomps.

By snobbery I mean, in the context of cultural taste, the achievement of (or quest for) self-worth by distancing ourselves from those whose tastes we despise and insinuating ourselves into the company and approbation of those whose tastes we admire. Think of C. S. Lewis' "inner ring," the appeal of which I think is just as much in its power of disassociation from some set of people as in the lure of association with another.

One observation I would make: at its core, snobbery has very little to do with the love of arts and literature, and has much more to do with the love of self. The snob does not truly value works of culture for their own sake; rather, the snob loves these things in an instrumental way. The snob loves music or a certain author for the sake of what they do for him or her. As such, the pleasures of snobbery are those of a disordered soul, disordered in being unable to see and grasp a thing in its proper place and time. To delight in the goodness of things in their own right is the privilege of charitable aesthetic vision, whereas snobbery is a debaser of true delight, symptomatic of spiritual derangement.


Snobbery, as you define it, could also be called preference or communion. In our temporal life, to be attached to one community is necessarily to eschew attachment to all - as any happily married person can testify... a lot depends upon how one defines the love of self and the love of art as well as what the proper order is. I think you're onto something with the phrase "charitable aesthetic vision," but I would be satisfied with the word charity, caritas: I have loved you with an eternal love [for this I have attracted you to me] having pity on your nothingness.

In the Christian experience, love of self is neither an absolute good or evil. It depends upon how one considers the self. Am I the measure of all things? Am I the froth of epiphenomena, the crest of a wave? But I am not satisfied with myself (Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours) and my desire is for the infinite, the eternal, not the transient. I am a created human person: both social & individual, contingent - and yet created for a destiny that is good. What then is art, culture? Culture is the expression of humanity, of life, and it is by its nature both social and personal. Great art is that which opens us up to the breadth and the depth of human experience. In Fahrenheit 451, the deadliest censorship is not of books but of humanity (Clarisse is more volatile than any book could be when she asks: Are you happy?).

#3 jfutral

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Posted 24 March 2010 - 09:14 AM

Not sure how wide a definition of snobbery you want to pursue. I think there is also another kind of snob which is a bit more obsessive, but probably no less insecure—the "collector" who seeks mastery as identity. Or in contemporary terms of technology, needing to be identified as a "guru".

I am not so convinced by the articulation of the nuances of "elitist". Seems to me to be called "elite" is not so negative a connotation as being called "Elitist". And "elite" seems best when it is conferred upon someone rather than someone trying to self-identify as "elite", either directly or through action. I think the latter is when someone veers towards elitist/snob.

I mean, I didn't look _real_ hard, but I could find no definition of "elitist" that did not convey a negative connotation. Not that I don't understand the intent of your quote. But it seems a better choice of vocabulary could be in order. Or not. What do I know?

By and large, I do agree that there is often the need, from either direction, to erroneously conflate excellence with snobbery.

Joe

#4 du Garbandier

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Posted 24 March 2010 - 09:48 AM

Snobbery, as you define it, could also be called preference or communion. In our temporal life, to be attached to one community is necessarily to eschew attachment to all - as any happily married person can testify... a lot depends upon how one defines the love of self and the love of art as well as what the proper order is. I think you're onto something with the phrase "charitable aesthetic vision," but I would be satisfied with the word charity, caritas: I have loved you with an eternal love [for this I have attracted you to me] having pity on your nothingness.


Although I think it is true that attachment "to one community is necessarily to eschew attachment to all," there's a key difference between that and what I am getting at. In snobbery I build myself up at the expense of someone else. Whereas felicity in marriage does not depend on trampling on others. The paradox of snobbery is that I also trample myself by adulating the people I want to be like. There is always an identity gap between myself and my betters. Thus snobs fluctuate between gross overestimation and gross underestimation of self-worth, all the while losing sight of the true self-worth at which you've hinted, Fred.

I am not so convinced by the articulation of the nuances of "elitist". Seems to me to be called "elite" is not so negative a connotation as being called "Elitist". And "elite" seems best when it is conferred upon someone rather than someone trying to self-identify as "elite", either directly or through action. I think the latter is when someone veers towards elitist/snob.

I mean, I didn't look _real_ hard, but I could find no definition of "elitist" that did not convey a negative connotation. Not that I don't understand the intent of your quote. But it seems a better choice of vocabulary could be in order. Or not. What do I know?


Yes, I agree that the word elitist is not very satisfactory--but I couldn't think of a better single descriptor, and so I just went with "having high standards" (quite different from elitism). It's difficult to even talk about someone with high standards without shades of imputed snobbery.

#5 Andy Whitman

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Posted 24 March 2010 - 10:16 AM

The pleasures of snobbery are real and insidious. For any group of persons interested in the cultivation of excellence in art and life, it seems worthwhile to have a thread dedicated to the examination and, yea, eradication of snobbery and all its pomps.

By snobbery I mean, in the context of cultural taste, the achievement of (or quest for) self-worth by distancing ourselves from those whose tastes we despise and insinuating ourselves into the company and approbation of those whose tastes we admire. Think of C. S. Lewis' "inner ring," the appeal of which I think is just as much in its power of disassociation from some set of people as in the lure of association with another.

One observation I would make: at its core, snobbery has very little to do with the love of arts and literature, and has much more to do with the love of self. The snob does not truly value works of culture for their own sake; rather, the snob loves these things in an instrumental way. The snob loves music or a certain author for the sake of what they do for him or her. As such, the pleasures of snobbery are those of a disordered soul, disordered in being unable to see and grasp a thing in its proper place and time. To delight in the goodness of things in their own right is the privilege of charitable aesthetic vision, whereas snobbery is a debaser of true delight, symptomatic of spiritual derangement.

These are helpful distinctions. Perhaps it might also be helpful to think about viewing others with whom we differ aesthetically on a continuum that has disdain at one extreme and tolerance in the middle and love at the other extreme. It seems desirable to me to at least move toward tolerance, love being perhaps unattainable, at least for those who insist on reading Harlequin Romances and listening to the latest American Idol fop.

I have been guilty of snobbery, in the sense you use the term, and understand its appeal. And yes, spiritual derangement sounds about right. To put a slightly different spin on it, as one recording artist once told me, "I think it's fine that you don't like my album, but why do you have to be such an asshole about it?" Touche. To that end, I would prefer not to be a snob. Or an asshole. They are frequently so hard to tell apart, if they should even be distinguished at all. I do think aesthetic standards are important, as is exposure to a wide variety of artistic expressions. If you're going to read, you might want to be aware that there is more out there than Harlequin romances. But delighting in the goodness of things in their own right and a charitable aesthetic vision toward others sound like fine foundations of an approach that moves away from snobbery.

#6 du Garbandier

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Posted 24 March 2010 - 10:26 AM

love being perhaps unattainable, at least for those who insist on reading Harlequin Romances and listening to the latest American Idol fop.


I shudder to think of how you might receive my pet documentary project examining the silky underbelly of dandy-and-fop culture, American Fop.

#7 jfutral

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Posted 24 March 2010 - 11:21 AM

...But delighting in the goodness of things in their own right and a charitable aesthetic vision toward others sound like fine foundations of an approach that moves away from snobbery.

That's interesting, especially from a critics POV. I wonder at what point a critic might even venture beyond the simple snobbery discussed here? For instance, the NYT reviewer of Parson's Dance Company's latest work when it first premiered about a year ago was quite... well... uncharitable. One of the NYT Cultural editors saw the show, but after reading the review was left wondering what it was that she didn't get. She saw the show, enjoyed it and then read the review and was left wondering if they saw the same show. Should the reviewer have been more charitable? How do you balance charitable and honest, or elite and snob in situations like this?

Joe

#8 Andy Whitman

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Posted 24 March 2010 - 12:27 PM


...But delighting in the goodness of things in their own right and a charitable aesthetic vision toward others sound like fine foundations of an approach that moves away from snobbery.

That's interesting, especially from a critics POV. I wonder at what point a critic might even venture beyond the simple snobbery discussed here? For instance, the NYT reviewer of Parson's Dance Company's latest work when it first premiered about a year ago was quite... well... uncharitable. One of the NYT Cultural editors saw the show, but after reading the review was left wondering what it was that she didn't get. She saw the show, enjoyed it and then read the review and was left wondering if they saw the same show. Should the reviewer have been more charitable? How do you balance charitable and honest, or elite and snob in situations like this?

Joe

Most critics become critics because they love art. I love music, I wouldn't spend inordinate amounts of time listening to it if I didn't. That said, sometimes we have to review art that isn't very good (at least according to our lights). Couple that with time/deadline constraints and the inevitable tendency to become cynically jaded when overexposed to anything, and it's easy to become snarky. There is a well-known rock critic who is (in)famous for his one-line (and sometimes one-word) reviews. Sample: A new album from a band called GTR: The one-word review: SHT. Now, there is a part of me that appreciates this, and even revels in it. It's witty, and there is an undeniable appeal in calling a big, steaming pile of dung a big, steaming pile of dung.

But it's unhelpful. It's unhelpful to the reader, who deserves more than a one-word dismissal. It's unhelpful to the artist, who, regardless of the aesthetic merits of a work, poured himself or herself into it, and is still a human being made in the image of God. And it's unhelpful to my soul to write such mean-spirited material.

So I will try (and have been trying) not to write that way. Believe me, it's easy to do. I have done it. But I don't want to do it. It's possible to be honest, and to write a negative review, without ripping into the person(s) who created the work under review. It's highly unlikely that there isn't some mitigating factor in a work of art that isn't at least somewhat praiseworthy. I don't think that means I have to sugar-coat reviews. But it does mean that I need to present a balanced viewpoint that takes into account the strengths (few though they may be) as well as the weaknesses. And it means that I can't take cheap shots.

It pains me to write that. I love cheap shots. But I can't (or at least shouldn't) take them. I'm trying to write that way.

#9 jfutral

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Posted 26 March 2010 - 09:19 AM

The pleasures of snobbery are real and insidious. For any group of persons interested in the cultivation of excellence in art and life, it seems worthwhile to have a thread dedicated to the examination and, yea, eradication of snobbery and all its pomps.

I think sometimes snobbery also can insinuate itself when we strive for something new or become dissatisfied with what we have or even just develop more sophisticated tastes. Like the NYT reviewer I mentioned earlier. At some point seeing the same (seemingly) thing over and over again makes it harder to appreciate the work as it is presented on its own terms. Or to expect something more of an artist who has risen through the ranks of the common only to be seen to take steps backwards. Like getting to the point that only top shelf brandy will do. Or even only a particular top shelf brandy at that. At this point we start to look at others as the "uneducated masses". Of course _they_ would like the cheap stuff. They haven't had the privilege of the _real_ thing. Or they haven't paid their dues yet.

This can happen to the artists as well. Like rangers, or delta force, or seals, some could say the are right to think they are the elite, because, well, they are. I think John Cage and Merce Cunnigham (if I didn't know Merce Cunningham already as a real humble and self effacing kind of guy) could be perceived this way. I'm kind of having this discussion in Atlanta right now. Many of us in the dance community are dealing with developing the dance audience here. A local presenter wants to bring in Ballet Preljocaj. Right now they are touring a work called Empty Moves, parts 1 and 2. Preljocaj has done some amazing and compelling work. But Empty Moves, done to a John Cage sound track called Empty Words (even for me, a Merce fan—but not a Cage fan) borders on audience abuse. If we are in the midst of trying to promote dance and get people out here to see dance, this piece will not accomplish that goal.

So, sometimes it isn't just about excellence or its pursuit. Sometimes it seems it could just be self-indulgence. Or maybe that's what you are trying to say and I missed it. I think it does, at least, center around self-identity.

Joe

#10 Holy Moly!

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Posted 27 March 2010 - 12:00 AM

at the risk of repeating myself: everyone should read carl wilson's book about celine dion.

#11 Darren H

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Posted 31 March 2010 - 08:28 AM

At the risk of repeating Holy Moly: everyone should read Carl Wilson's book about Celine Dion. I think it might be fun to have an unofficial A&F "book club" discussion, even.

#12 jfutral

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Posted 01 April 2010 - 03:35 PM

Kind of somewhat related. Two NYT critics spar over Tharp's Come Fly Away

Joe

Edited by jfutral, 01 April 2010 - 03:35 PM.


#13 jfutral

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Posted 05 August 2010 - 08:35 AM

This article in the NYT today reminded me of this discussion.

Joe

#14 Ryan H.

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Posted 06 August 2010 - 09:19 AM

This article in the NYT today reminded me of this discussion.

I dig it.