Three Levels of Culture: The Relationship Between Culture & Social Class

What follows is a primer on the relationship between culture and social class.

There is another way to approach the matter. Different genres, rather than forms of culture, appeal to different social classes.

Culture is a set of objects and events that are fashioned or crafted so as to serve as objects of contemplation and so yield to their viewers or readers or auditors a variety of emotions, images and ideas. This is true of television, novels, operas, art installations, portraits and anything else elevated to a place where it can stand out as engendering aesthetic as well as other responses. This is the view of culture favored by the philosophical pragmatists of the last century, most notably John Dewey and Arthur Danto. It is very different from the view of culture that we might call anthropological because that view considers the culture of a people to be their entire way of life, including courtship behavior, religious rituals, the way they go about planting crops. The anthropological view does not distinguish very strongly between customs and choices. People do what they are expected to do, even if some warriors are braver than others. The pragmatic view of culture, as do other Western views of culture, thinks of culture as a way for people to lift themselves out of their immediate surroundings so as to have a sense of what is universal, of what is familiar or spot on, and of how an alternative to one’s current life might be.

The usual theory of the relation of culture to social class is that different forms of culture appeal to different social classes. (Gans and Blau each separately argued this point of view in the Eighties.) Auto racing and television appeal largely to the working class and those beneath that, even though there might be some middle class people who are amused by “Dancing With the Stars” and large numbers of the middle class are drawn to the boutique television of “Downton Abbey” and other PBS productions. The middle class is drawn to movies and mystery novels and Broadway. The educated classes are drawn to museums and literature from and about the past. There are, of course, crossovers. Educated people share with working class people a love of baseball, but that taste is not reciprocated by working class visits to art shows. Boxing, in its heyday, drew both mugs and swells. Pop concerts draw teenyboppers of all social classes, and musical styles seem to change every ten years or so. The Big Band sound was once the music of choice for expressing youthful rebellion, and then it was rock and roll, and now it is I don’t know what.

There is another way to approach the matter. Different genres, rather than forms of culture, appeal to different social classes. A genre is a specific emotion or set of emotions engendered by the techniques and conventions of that sort of literature. Comedy and tragedy are the most noteworthy of genres, though melodrama and farce and horror and some others can be thought of as either subspecies of the two main genres or as separate genres of their own. To be clear: a novel is a form of literature while a romance is a genre of literature.

High class literature, the sort that appeals to educated people, is strictly speaking tragic in that emotions of fear and pity, as Aristotle still usefully says, are purged or overcome and so the audience is left serene or at least at peace with itself. This is at the cost of diminishing the tragic hero and heroine, who is worse off for what they have been through. Big Daddy is devastated by the fact that his son is having trouble in his marriage. Philoctetes cannot recover from his PTSD, even though he is released from his island. The audience, however, is better off for having been through this vicarious experience because they experienced a bit of it and so supposedly learned from that experience. That, and not just escape, is what this audience wants from its literature, or is what they have learned to say is what they want from their literature, while middle class people want the escape more than the message, and so have a good time by appreciating the overwrought emotions of the tempestuous characters they see on Broadway or on the screen so that they do not have to think about their own problems. They love  the melodrama of “Casablanca” and of film noir, “Casablanca” because Rick is also diminished by having to give up Ilsa, and we all forever suffer along with him in his loss, and because it is so stimulating to see really and clearly bad people like Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity” so that we can flaunt for a moment our own suppressed bad intentions. Some Edward G. Robinson or other will bring us back into line. And lower class and working class people prefer the pure escape of bathos, which allows them to drown in anger and revenge, as happens in Rambo movies, or in helplessness, as happens in any number of disaster movies. Other people die in hurricanes, or from some ghastly disease, their lives and deaths commemorated in news reports or in a Jerry Lewis Telethon.

It is less easy to give an account of how comedy works, perhaps because, as Umberto Eco noted in “The Sign of the Rose”, we do not have a copy of Aristotle’s work on that subject though we do have a copy of his work on tragedy. So let me give it a try by suggesting that comedy is the opposite of tragedy not because it has a happy ending while tragedy doesn’t, but because the people within comedy are enhanced rather than diminished by their experience within the play or novel or television sit-com. High comedy does this in the case of Shakespeare, Beatrice and Benedict, in “Much Ado About Nothing”, becoming better people because they overcome the anxiety of courtship that is shown in their bickering by falling in love partly because they have been so successful at testing one another’s mettle. This high brow comedy is metaphysical in that it seems that existential tensions, those between men and women, or between those in authority and those who are followers, has been at least temporarily overcome. The King in “Much Ado About Nothing” has graciously presided over everybody getting to do what they wanted to do anyway.

The kind of comedy that appeals to the middle class, those voluntary time-servers in society, much concerned with their own respectability, rather than with existential questions, are more served by the comedy of character, whether that is in Moliere or in “I Love Lucy”. We see the foibles of humanity as expressions of the essential limitations of human nature as those get served through and show through the individual character, Lucy ever so self-aware even in her most outrageous antics, knowing how foolish she is when she stomps on grapes, and so endearing for her aplomb. She is only a farcier in appearance, but is clearly a character actor, and therefore a star, just like Mary Tyler Moore would be, following in her footsteps, and as was also true of Jackie Gleason during that Golden Age of television comedy.

The working class and the lower classes are more drawn to physical comedy because it enhances by allowing physics or ungainliness to take advantage of people and so supply some harmless revenge against their condition without anyone really suffering. That is true when it is done with precision by Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last”, climbing the Los Angeles skyscraper on its outside, or when it is done with sentimentality by Charlie Chaplin, who tries to reduce Hitler to farce and fails, while he reduced the Gold Rush to man trying to bite man and succeeded. The heroes and heroines of farce are enhanced because they escape unscathed and remain hopeful in spite of everything. This notion is, of course, turned on its head by Samuel Beckett in “Waiting For Godot”, where remaining hopeful in spite of everything is totally ironic, the heroes both tragic and comic because they remain serene and never lose their sense of timing. Oh, that we should all reach that stage of enlightenment.

So the kinds of comedy, like those of tragedy, quote from and refer to one another, close in on one another, become plays on what some social classes like so that other social classes will appreciate them, even as their essential claim is on their particular audience. This applies to other cultural and structural divisions than those already alluded to. Consider John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” from this point of view. It was painted for the filthy rich and so had to satisfy their sense of propriety, which meant a work of art had to meet the philistine standards of the age. So Sargent paints in a thin strap to cover Mme. Gateau’s otherwise uncovered shoulder. He meets the standards of convention and yet changes nothing. That is his cheap joke on his audience, just as all of art is a joke on its audience, elevating them or diminishing the heroes and heroines all in the service of what a particular artist or writer takes to be his quintessential art.