Why Aren’t Audiences Stupid?

Michael Kaiser has an article up on Huffington Post bemoaning how, in the age of the Internet, he can no longer sort the critical hoity-toity from the hoi polloi. Parabasis has a bit to say on the subject, too, but I felt compelled to offer my own two cents.

Originally this was going to be a snarky list of insults based on Kaiser’s anything-but-bulletproof commentary. But I decided against it, because–although I could make fun of the fact that despite making more than a million dollars a year as the president of the Kennedy Center, Kaiser apparently doesn’t know whether they’ve done a good job on a show unless a newspaper writer tells him so, or even how to tell the difference between a good writer and a bad one short of the name value of their publication–there is, in the end, only one problem with Kaiser’s arguments, and it has nothing to do with criticism.

No, the disgusting–and I don’t use that term lightly–truth is that Kaiser’s argument represents a world-view that thinks art is really just a cultural commodity to be sold to audiences, who, in return for suffering through work they often don’t even enjoy, can now claim a sort of sophistication they otherwise lacked.

Don’t be suckered. The idea of the critic that Kaiser laments isn’t the idealized public intellectual he tries to paint a picture of. This “serious” critic of “serious” art is, in the end, providing just another consumer report. This is a deeply important task in the world Kaiser imagines we live in–without a member of the cultural elite defining the value of a cultural good, how are the plebs supposed to know whether the ticket’s worth the cost?

That’s why the thing Kaiser finds truly “scary” is the idea that audiences can now voice their own thoughts via the Internet. Because the audience, of course, isn’t supposed to have its own thoughts. It’s supposed to accept the value of what it’s consuming and, should it find itself out of step with elite opinion, worry about its ignorance, about why it’s so wrong.

Unfortunately, since we’re not living in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, this entire idea of the value of art is aging as quickly as the Kennedy Center’s audiences. Back in the day, Gatsby tried to spend enough money to dye his blood blue. These days, even the old money live it up like gauche lottery winners. The idea of cultural sophistication as an important good the middle class needs to consume is waning.

But there’s nothing wrong with that. Make no mistake–the work that suffers in this scenario isn’t important art (important art being of as little importance to bastions of bourgeois sentiment as fun). It’s a middle-brow cultural commodity. It isn’t actually “serious” work at all. Serious work–work that pushes boundaries, speaks to audiences willing to listen, and inspires future generations–will continue to be made regardless of whether newspapers continue to appoint cultural arbiters capable of guilt-tripping the masses into paying inflated prices for middling work.

Michael Kaiser should grow up. Art needs defenders, not more complainers whose high-falutin’ arguments amount to little more than gripes about the fact that their middle-brow, mainstream institutions no longer intimidate people enough. Fear won’t stop the future, anymore than complaining about change helps shape the next generation of cultural institutions.