Hey teacher, leave us kids alone
Earlier today, "writer and senior literature teacher" Christopher Bantick penned an outstanding example of trollgaze in the Sydney Morning Herald, arguing that Kids Today are all uncultured swine 'cos they don't like Pavarotti. Or something.
Bantick would be easy enough to write off if he was just another rockist claiming that the Lady GooGoos and Justin Bibbers of today pale in comparison to the rock stars of 30 years ago, but Bantick one-ups rockists by claiming that all pop culture since The Rolling Stones is effectively garbage. "Maybe our jingoistic egalitarianism has gone too far with the sense of cultural equity. Who knows what a sonnet is, a partita, a motet, or who was Goethe or Christopher Marlowe? As for ballet, forget it," he gripes. Good grief. Goethe, weren't they the bad guys in Mass Effect?
Bantick's core premise, so as to make sure there's no confusion, is that cultural and institutional elitism is a good thing for everyone; it inspires people to strive for the upper strata by giving them something to strive towards, as opposed to ostensibly encouraging complacency by opening the doors to everyone. This is the absurd dream the ridiculously privileged have been putting forward for centuries, one which, time and time again, has been proven false. In fact what it does is widen the cultural (and therefore economic) gap, galvanising the self-importance of the elite while marginalising everyone else. Phew, what a mouthful. I'll explain.
Our society thrives, essentially, on mateship. Research has shown that employers are far more likely to hire people they believe they could get along with, or have things in common with, as opposed to people they don't have things in common with. Not just work ethic or values, but extraneous interests. It seems like common sense; folks wanna work with other folks they can have a chat with at the proverbial watercooler, and if nobody watches the same TV shows or listens to the same music, well, conversation is that much harder to stimulate.
Unfortunately, that has the pernicious side-effect of reinforcing the same ancient biases and the cycle continues forever. If the employer is a typical bloke (in academic terms, a cisgendered heterosexual white male), they're more likely to hire typical blokes, and so you end up with a workforce predominantly staffed by typical blokes while women and people of colour remain unemployed. The cultural egalitarianism which Christopher Bantick finds so offensive has levelled the playing field somewhat. These days you're just as likely to find young white dudes bumping Le1f as you are young black dudes bumping Animal Collective (this is in itself a wild generalisation, but bear with me), and cultural overlap has perhaps never been greater. There are reasonable debates about appropriation to have in some cases, but for the most part, thanks to that very same egalitarianism, we're sharing more cultural touchstones than ever, and therefore it's much easier for us to get along as human beings. The positive side-effect is that that bias-reinforcing cycle I mentioned earlier allows a wider, more diverse range of people, and hopefully we can all agree that having fewer women and people of colour stacking the unemployment figures is a good thing.
Another factor is that the classical arts like opera and ballet are typically supported by the extremely wealthy in communities which exclude minorities. It doesn't seem that farfetched to infer that the communal dances and musical innovation which sprung from non-white communities was, in some small part, a reaction to the exclusion from ballet and classical music. Twerking seems like the obvious example to mention here. Christopher Bantick, I can only imagine, might regard twerking as obscene with its literally in-your-face sexual physicality, but then ballet has been sexualising the pre-pubescent forms of men and women for ages. These non-white cultural phenomena have rich histories of their own, and I don't mean to imply that they only exist in relation to their exclusive white counterparts, but then, when the elite has ignored and demonised you for so long, of course you'd have no reason to find their culture more appealing than your own. Bantick expects people will look at the elite and think "I want to be like that!" and for sure some people do, but largely the more obvious response is "Well, guess I'll go play over here instead. We don't want any part in your stupid, hostile game anyway." The elite have rarely done anything which doesn't benefit themselves, so assured are they of the superiority of their traditions, so why should anyone not already in the club help them out?
Is this about whether Christopher Bantick is racist or not? Yes, absolutely. Racist, classist, ageist, it's all intertwined, and Bantick is now at the center championing the preservation of a society which benefits him disproportionately to the benefits it might hold for others in different positions. Not only that, but his blind nostalgia for the classical canon contradicts his own distaste for cultural complacency; he "teaches serious, classically demanding literature" while never demanding of himself that he seriously evaluates the art being made right now. It's a total denial of reality to assume that art stopped being worthwhile after Keef met Mick Jagger in the middle of last century. Bantick quotes Keats, "I feel the daisies growing over me," which might as well be a Morrissey lyric.
Every single day, independent artists are scraping apart their souls to explain some sliver of humanity or evoke some transcendent feeling just like Bantick's heroes did, only rather than kow-towing to the whims of the privileged elite, they've found ways of doing it on their own terms. (In fairness, so do plenty of major label artists as well.) Bantick would have us return to a system where those artists, rather than being allowed to roam freely, were kept behind gilded gates and only allowed to enrich the lives of people with the correct dress code, the right password. These people deserve nothing but revilement for their cultural greed. Classical music is often beautiful and ballet is impressively physical, but so are Big Freedia and the footy. I reserve the right to appreciate each of them for their respective qualities, but never at the expense of another.
Jake Cleland (@sawngswjakec)