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The NY Times: Elitism and Populism—which is more harmful to the arts?

To misquote J-Lo, I’m just a boy from the Bronx. My father was a garbage man. My mother a homemaker. I went into the Army at 17 in order to go to college. And, honestly, get away.

So when I saw this headline in the NY Times “Which Force is More Harmful to the Arts: Elitist and Populism?” I did what I often do. I looked up what words really mean.

Populism: support for the concerns of ordinary people.

Elitism: the advocacy or existence of an elite as a dominating element in a system or society.

First, the question is framed negatively, which makes you approach it negatively. Like my wife asking our grandson: whose pie do you dislike better? Mine or you mother’s? Really? Is there an upside to answering that? Even framed positively: Whose pie do you like better? Is a lose-lose. Because the answer, of course, is I LOVE BOTH!

I also check author bios. In this discourse between two authors—well, okay sort of authors, — one listed that he was a columnist for the Tablet, published two collections of poetry and had won a prize for criticism in 2010.

The other has a longer bio—NY Based critic, translator and moderator. She talks about operas and Bugs Bunny so I guess she was taking the populist POV?

The guy said an “’elite’ writer tends to be ahead of is time, a scout for posterity.” He ends by saying to understand this one author you have to “think and see like Bolano. This takes a kind of talent—a talent for reading, which is more common than the talent for writing, but still in the possession of a minority.” I guess that would be the elitist POV. I get it even if you don’t. Because I have a special talent. As a person who has made his living writing for over a quarter of a century and penned over 70 books, it never occurs to me that my readers need to think like me to understand me; that feels a bit narcissistic. I have to engage and entertain the reader.

I had to re-read the article twice, being from da Bronx, to even figure out who was taking which side of the discussion. Because they both sounded pretty snooty. That’s a populist term.

At the Maui Writers Conference, where I taught for seven straight years, we (a group of genre, bestselling authors) used to judge an award sponsored by a literary agent. The award was for the “best” submission. The question we asked every year to the person sponsoring the award was: Do you want us to pick the best writing or the most sellable one? Because the two were not the same. We also used to joke they gave literary writers prizes and popular ones, aka genre writers, checks.

First, I hate to group people under labels. But it seems as if the NY Times, which I peruse every day (my wife reads every word, every day) tends to take an elitist POV in its book review. Hell, their bestseller list just dropped the mass market paperback bestseller list; talk about an elitist decision, since over half of it is constantly dominated by romance novelists. A genre which sells 56% of all fiction, which means it’s popular. So the Times made a very conscious decision to discard and ignore the popular!

Second, what does “harmful to the arts” mean? Whose art? What is art?

What’s harmful to the arts is trying to pigeon hole art. One of the most thought provoking new TV series in the past year was Westworld. A reboot of a Michael Crichton story. It explores what is consciousness. When they actually used the term “bicameral mind” my wife and I looked at each other because we bonded over Julian Jaynes and his epic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. My copy was destroyed when I rolled my Jeep in the Okefenokee Swamp which pretty sums up how I look at elitist vs populist.

What I think we need to do is frame the question positively. How can we get people who were raised differently, who have a different life experience, who often literally have different brains, to understand each other? I told me wife the other day that at my high school in the Bronx, Cardinal Spellman, from which a current Supreme Court justice  graduated, we drew students from all over the city. There were kids from really rough and poor neighborhoods. And one thing I discovered was they really didn’t understand where they came from was “rough and poor”. It was the norm. Same for a farm girl from Nebraska. That’s their norm.

The real question is: How does art reach both of them?

I submit the answer is by touching not just the brain, but by touching the brain and the heart.


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