Snob or Slob?; Miscellany | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Snob or Slob?; Miscellany

Sociologists say its getting harder to tell the difference.


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Last week's workshop on arts audiences at the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center reminded me of something I heard at a Gold Coast dinner party a decade or two ago. The relative pleasures of attending the Lyric Opera and a Bears game were under discussion, and the Bears had the edge when the hostess, presiding from her seat at the far end of the table, settled the question. "Yes," she said, in a flash of candor, "but it's better to be seen at the opera."

No more, apparently. Sociologist Richard A. Peterson's latest research on "changing arts audiences," in progress with coauthor Gabriel Rossman, suggests that the snob value of the fine arts has taken a dive. Peterson, a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University with Chicago roots (his grandfather built Peterson Avenue as a toll road), maintains there's been a change in status indicators that's visible, first of all, in the way people present themselves. "Informality is all around us," he noted in his talk last week, illustrating the point with pictures of a tieless George W. Bush and looking like a page from L.L. Bean himself. Highbrows are now a lot more casual in their dress, and a lot less exclusive in their cultural activities.

The concept of a world divided into highbrows and lowbrows has its roots in mid-19th-century pseudoscience, which touted a high forehead as an indicator of intelligence. "This was a way of showing that particular individuals, sexes, and races were superior and deserved to rule others for their own good," Peterson said, maneuvering a portrait of the impressively domed Shakespeare onto his overhead projector. Other status indicators--like certain ways of dressing, talking, and holding a fork--were more easily acquired markers. According to Peterson, by the late 19th century, high fashion and high art were twin signatures of America's upper class, and then the arts got a real leg up--they took on moral value. Participation in the arts could make you a more worthy person, while popular culture was disdained as mere entertainment--common and brutal, favoring sensation over reason. These distinctions went hand in hand with the class divisions prevalent at the beginning of the 20th century. Highbrows not only embraced high culture but vigorously rejected anything with a lowbrow taint, an attitude that persisted through the mid-20th century and encompassed everything from furniture to food.

High art as a signifier of superiority on both personal and national levels is still with us, Peterson says. It's evident today, for example, in the tagline for the National Endowment for the Arts: "A great nation deserves great art." But when he and a coauthor studied NEA arts participation data from 1982 (using musical preferences to distinguish brows), it turned out that many highbrows were not only supporting the symphony and the opera, they were also attending rock concerts or collecting R & B. "They were not obeying the law of snobdom," Peterson says. "For want of a better word, we called them more omnivorous in their taste." These days, he says, high status is indicated not so much by exclusion as by a discriminating appreciation of many art forms. More lowbrows, in contrast, have a narrow, "exclusive" range of artistic interest; in Peterson's lingo they are "univores."

Music industry marketing gurus who are packaging Yo-Yo Ma with Appalachian fiddler Mark O'Connor have picked up on this omnivorousness, Peterson says. But arts organizations that continue to appeal for support by stressing the "precious and exclusive nature of the fine arts and the danger they face from the encroachments of popular culture" may alienate both highbrow omnivores and a substantial group of lowbrows who share some highbrow tastes. Peterson's most recent work indicates that about 40 percent of lowbrows are open to a range of cultural experiences and 44 percent of those say they like classical music or opera. These are impressive numbers in light of the huge disparity in size between the lowbrow and highbrow cohorts: lowbrows make up 93 percent of the population.

Between 1982 and 2002, according to Peterson's data, the median age for classical music audiences went from 40 to 49, and the number of people who cite classical as their favorite music genre dropped from just under 8 percent to 6 percent. A contingent of lowbrows with highbrow taste might, if cultivated, provide future audiences for the "sick giant" of classical music, which Peterson says now has a support system that consists of "rich people throwing money into concrete" for buildings that aren't used. In Nashville, where he lives, "We just went through a huge campaign to build a new auditorium without any suggestion of why we need a new auditorium," he said. The impetus? "A set of donors who want to put a name on it." Of course, Peterson added slyly, "that's not Chicago."


Two members of the a cappella ensemble Bella Voce have decided not to let a board decision last spring put an end to the 23-year-old group. Contralto Ruth Thuston and tenor Daniel Fulwiler raised $11,000 and recruited a new board, and this week it was announced that the group will be reborn. A previously scheduled concert at the Cultural Center October 30 will be conducted by former artistic director Anne Heider; winter and spring concerts have been announced, but there's no word yet on Heider's replacement. . . . Columbia College announced this week that it has purchased the ten-story Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies building at 618 S. Michigan Avenue for $8 million; Spertus will rent from Columbia until 2007, when it moves into the $55 million, ten-story building the institute is putting up next door. In a little spin magic, Spertus is getting rid of a 75,000-square-foot structure, and Columbia is buying one with 104,000 square feet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.

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