Status and Pretense

This essay, How to Behave in an Art Museum by Timothy Aubry, expresses well the connections within modern western culture among fear, pretense, status, snobbery  (or coolness), egalitarianism, etc.

I actually like being in museums, for about 15 minutes at a time, and don’t wonder how I should behave or what I should or shouldn’t say. But what Aubry says here is equally valid in other situations and echoes ideas of mimetic theory and also some from Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004).

Some lines that seem particularly illuminating in Aubry’s essay:

“You’re not sure whether your replies will make you look like a philistine or a snob. Which would be worse? Which are you more qualified to be?”

Museums, with their egalitarian educational goals and their obscurely significant high-culture objects, stage a confrontation between America’s democratic pretenses and the invidious struggle for prestige that these pretenses conceal and enable.”

For both Girard and de Botton, rivalry and envy are more likely to develop when we’re exposed to “the superior achievements of those whom we take to be our equals” (de Botton), which can lead to anxiety and resentment. To the extent that we feel nowadays that artists are pretty much people like us (our “democratic pretenses”), we will be more likely to feel rivalry with them, to engage in “the invidious struggle for prestige,” to be intimidated by them and their art, to seek to bring them down to our level, and also to compare ourselves to others who are exposed to the same achievements, who seem to desire the same thing we desire.

“… trying too hard to show off your expertise is a dead giveaway that you haven’t got as much status as you’d like. But in previous decades there was still a belief that those who took advantage of inexpensive museum fares, public libraries, and so forth were elevating themselves. For my generation, say those born around or after 1968, the sign that you’re at the top of the hierarchy is a readiness to acknowledge that the high ground you’ve come to occupy isn’t actually higher than any other ground.”

This is very American. Our purported populism has always made us wary of those claiming, by virtue of their position or education, to know better than everyone else. One thing that’s changed, though, is that this populism, often disguised as the heady skepticism of continental theory, has managed to sneak into the very bastion of elitism, into the places where the aspiring intellectual first learns how to be a pompous snob: academic humanities departments. The institutionalization of deconstruction, identity politics, and Marxist criticism, in other words, has replaced the pious attitudes of previous eras with a different set of now-habitual postures: distrust of the canon and the institutions that preserve it. Whatever their merits, these frameworks have created enough ambivalence to make art appreciation a vexing enterprise for a generation of well-educated museumgoers. Because if you don’t believe in high culture, then what are you doing at a museum?”

I think Aubry is saying that populism is now a form of elitism.  It’s cooler and somehow better — a sign of wisdom and enlightenment — to be a bit naive and childlike, informal, perhaps amused, and quite skeptical of anything that smells faintly of authority.

“The closer we get to the top, it seems, the more likely we are to believe, or pretend to believe, that the ladder we’ve been climbing leads nowhere — is meaningful only to those who stare at its innumerable rungs from below. Self-improvement, we discover, is a sham. We were better off when we were just kids, when we knew what we liked effortlessly, when our passions were not learned. And so we end up in MoMA’s romper room, doing somersaults on the carpet, hoping to return to a state of innocence.”

“the role that youthful irreverence continues to play, at least for some of us, as a defensive default pretense

I do actually believe that self-improvement is a sham. But it happens to the worst of us.  We’re not kids and we can’t forget (until we get Alzheimers) what we’ve learned and what we fear. Perhaps there are times when we can hold our knowledge loosely, perhaps play hide-and-seek, perhaps look  quietly and even in wonder at art and experience what we experience, in the moment, with all our defenses, envy, knowledge, beliefs, and desire for prestige.

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