Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The New Elitists

Jose Ortega y Gasset
In a Times Op-Ed piece back in July (“The New Elitists,” NYT, 7/7/12), Shamus Khan, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia, makes the argument that today’s elite class is characterized not by the snobbery of the past with its deference to high culture but by a love of hi and lo—the title, in fact, of a show that was curated by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik at MOMA back in l990. “Today’s elites are not ‘highbrow snobs,'” Khan argues. “They are 'cultural omnivores'…if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation…Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop.” Rather than being a simple reversal of the past, Khan’s argument is more complicated than it seems and is predicated on the notion of sensibility. Ortega Y Gasset wrote two seminal essays on this very subject, The Revolt of the Masses and The Dehumanization of Art back in the l930’s. Esthetic avant gardes protect their integrity through the creation of their own language and in essence are a reaction to populism. Similarly the modern omnivore defies the predictability and order of ideas like the canon. In likelihood he or she admires deconstructionist thinkers like Foucault and Derrida who regard assertions of a hierarchy of taste, of good and bad, as being culture bound. They are believers in the irrational who carry a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in their back pockets. The creation of their own private languages makes them all the harder to fathom. Another sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, coined the term “conspicuous consumption, in his The Theory of the Leisure Class. Today’s conspicuous consumers are less likely to travel around in the Cadillac Escalade as in a l957 Isetta. They are more likely to be found eating in a diner than in Masa, one of the expensive restaurants that Khan cites, and they would be loathe to buy their partners the big diamonds that Richard Burton once conferred on Liz Taylor.  Their sensibilities are like the appetite in Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, something that's become so rarefied, it's almost invisible.

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