Cultural perception is a funny thing.
Today, William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the foremost – if not the foremost – literary creators of the English language. University libraries have whole sections dedicated to Shakespeare criticism and his plays are performed by the best of actors and actresses. The man himself is semi-deified as “the Bard”, at whose altar all students of literature are expected to worship. His work is revered to an extent that it is almost holy scripture.
Despite the best efforts of many, Shakespeare is still seen as somewhat ‘high culture’ in the general perception. Serious literary scholars and the ‘upper crust’ go to watch Shakespeare performances, not the average man on the street. Students are force-fed Shakespeare (often the clichéd Romeo and Juliet) during their English Literature GCSE and then usually never pick him up again. Their experience of him is usually a bewildering one of inscrutable language, high-flowing concepts and the nagging sense that they are not intelligent enough to ‘get him’ – hardly conducive to fostering an interest in his other works.
This is both a shame, and also rather ironic. Because Shakespeare didn’t write for the elites, nor was his work considered to be high ‘art’ by his contemporaries. Shakespeare was a popular writer, scribbling out bawdy entertainment to be fed to the masses of London, and sometimes disparaged for it. It was only later that he achieved his posthumous reputation as the preeminent master of English literature.
One of the nice elements of studying Literature at university is that it has dispelled a lot of the preconceived myths that I had about the great canonical writers. So often, as you pore through the history, the writings and the criticism, you realise that so many of these men and women were not great minds soberly crafting works of art in ivory towers; often, they were writing mostly for financial or political gain. If you read Daniel Defoe you might be surprised at the often rushed, barely-fleshed out narratives you find, as if he was writing to a tight deadline. The reason is because he was writing to a tight deadline so he could get his next pay check, and thus sometimes the writing is of dubious quality. And yet, he is heralded today as one of the main contenders for writing ‘the first English novel’.
I often ponder on the topic of ‘high culture’ and the popular view of cultural objects, on how our preconceptions of certain books, films, music, etc. shape the way we approach them – or govern whether we approach them at all. I have already talked a little about the snobbishness with which some people disdain sci-fi and fantasy fiction; many people I know will not even touch these genres. It works the other way of course as well – how many people do you know who have been to a live opera, or would even think of going to an opera? There is a huge cultural preconception of the opera as being for the pretentious and/or elite; this (not entirely inaccurate) view creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is not just about social class either. How many boys and men do you know that have willingly read a Jane Austen novel? Most (including me until I read her) consider Austen to be a ‘girl’s novelist’ – writing about the silly, dreary love-lives of the Georgian gentry. Few realise that Austen is one of the most shrewd and sharp satirists in English literature, and that her work can be comic gold. As such her reputation of being just a silly romantic novelist persists.
Times are changing, however. More people watch Shakespeare than ever; artists like Andre Rieu bring classical music to a wider audience, and in the dusty passages of universities scholars are starting to pay attention to neglected elements of what might have previously been seen as ‘low’ culture. A lot of the snobbishness and ‘counter-snobbishness’ seems to be dying a little, which is nice to see. I have no particular desire to tear down walls, but it can’t be all that bad to see people explore and enjoy a wider variety of cultural products than they might have expected to.
However, I would suggest that the old cultural snobbishness is being replaced with a new form, somewhat propagated by the more-irritating elements of hipster culture in their quest for the ‘authentic’. I have no problem with prizing hand-made artisan goods over the mass-produced tat churned out by the megacorporations; however, it can get a little ridiculous and faintly insulting when you get the feeling that you are being sneered at every time you walk into a Tesco rather than your local artisan organic food store, or if you don’t roast your picked-by-hand-super-organic “Black Dog” coffee beans with a bunsen burner, or whatever is considered the ‘authentic’ way of doing it.
But hipsters and their obsession with drinking everything out of a jam jar aside, I do wonder what products of today’s culture will be revered as canonical in the centuries to come. Will it be the Manbooker-Prize Winners and Phillip Glass, as one might expect, or will it be George RR Martin and Lady Gaga? Hopefully it will be a bit of everything, but who can tell what – and how – our descendants will think a few hundred years down the line?