As I said previously, I do not believe in high culture. That is to say, in contrast to John Stuart Mill and his followers (not to mention Miss Manners), I do not believe that there are some types of culture that are inherently higher and better pursuits than others simply because of the category they belong to. Instead, I believe that everything ought to compete on a level playing field based on its own individual merits. That’s how I judge things.
Miss Manners’ defense of high culture’s superiority is earmarked with the latent, and often unnoticed, idiosyncrasies of the position:
[S]urely we’re getting over the snobbery of pretending that it is undemocratic to recognize any hierarchy of culture, as if both low and high can’t be appreciated, often be the same people… A chocolate bar is a marvelous sweet that does not need to pretend to be a chocolate soufflé; musical comedies are wonderful entertainment without trying to compete with opera; blue jeans are a perfect garment that shouldn’t be compared with haute couture. There are times when you would much rather have a really good hot dog than any steak, but you can still recognize that one is junk food and the other isn’t.
And that’s the extent of it. She doesn’t, in fact, give any justification, but simply relies on the examples being obviously true. The last one is the most compelling. All hot dogs, it can be argued, are inferior to all steaks because the former are made of ambiguously meat-like substance glued together with nitrates, and the latter are made of actual meat. Hot dogs are bad for you; steaks are…probably also bad for you, but in a natural way. Okay.
Chocolate bars and soufflés are more ambiguous. I assume she’s thinking of a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, which is undoubtedly inferior to just about anything with which it might be compared, but that’s what true chocolate lovers refer to as “mockolate,” not the real thing. Good chocolate bars are a world away from Hershey’s. Dagoba and Theo are the best made in the States; imported chocolates like Valrhona are better still, and, I’ve been told, the Swiss and Belgian chocolates that aren’t imported to the United States are the best of all.
Chocolate bars, unlike hot dogs, have a culture. Good chocolate is made slowly by old-fashioned processes out of high-quality ingredients, and many countries stringently regulate what may be labeled “chocolate,” or what may be imported and sold at all. There are chocolate-wine pairings. Connoisseurs like this one use vocabulary reminiscent of wine tasting: “A single square, if given sufficient mouth time, will slowly, smoothly melt, revealing floral, nutty, and coffee notes.” And a good chocolate bar should never, ever be eaten quickly.
Can soufflés compete? Probably, but it’s a competition now. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Personal taste is likely to be the deciding factor. The soufflé cannot claim superiority simply for being a soufflé.
And then there’s the clothing example. Here Miss Manners steps onto thin ice, completely oblivious. Because the difference between jeans and haute couture is entirely unlike the difference between one food and another. Take a look at these haute couture pictures and think about them for a moment. In particular, think about what it would be like to actually wear them.
Fashion has dark undercurrents. Women have starved themselves to appear fashionable; they have destroyed their feet and distorted their bodies into grotesque shapes. Why? Because they could. They did not need the strong bodies and sensible outfits of peasant women. They did not work. People could help them in and out of carriages and outfits. They could pause and rest on a couch halfway up the stairs if their shrunken lungs couldn’t make it all the way at once.
And haute couture, along with all modern fashion, is heir to that. High heels and hiking boots are similarly priced and made with similar care and quality. The difference? One is useful and the other is useless. The uselessness is the point. Because fashion exists to divide us from them, those who can wear high heels from those who need sensible shoes, those who go to the opera from those who go to musicals. It’s a construct supporting the narrative that some people–those who engage in high culture–are better than others.
I don’t believe that some people are better than others. And therefore, I don’t believe in high culture.
Images from Wikimedia Commons.