Commentary Magazine

Culture and Policy

To the Editor:

David Thorburn’s review of Popular Culture and High Culture by Herbert J. Gans [Books in Review, May] failed to make a point it came close to making. . . .

Whether or not Gans (or Mr. Thorburn, for that matter) “separates himself from the strict assumptions he sets out to criticize,” or “defers to the continuing authority of high culture” would be of little importance to me but for one thing: the power to prescribe. It is necessary to look at Gans’s position with some care, as the following sentence from Gans’s book, as quoted by Mr. Thorburn, demonstrates: “And while both [high school graduates and college graduates] deserve praise if they read Proust, they should not be expected to, at least not in evaluations that result in public policy.”

Public policy! It fair chills the bones, whatever side of the elitist-democratic dichotomy Gans is “really” on. Consider the simple arrogance of Gans’s repeated declaration that “all people have the right to the culture they prefer.” Didn’t Thomas Jefferson observe that this right and even greater ones are inalienable? In what sense is Gans now going to guarantee this right with his public policy?

As Mr. Thorburn describes it, sociological research teams ought to be hired to determine by questionnaire and so on what are the cultural needs—maybe even desires—of the various distinguishable audiences in our population. Then by the artful use of governmental muscle, subsidies, and the like, suppliers of culture will be encouraged to put out in the right proportions.

Mr. Thorburn views all this with alarm, but mainly because he (quite rightly) distrusts the possibility of replacing the “unpredictable Muse” by a sociological questionnaire. He also suspects Gans of a greater elitism than Gans pretends to, but of course he can’t be certain it will be Gans and his friends who would be conducting the surveys, so this is not quite an objection to the scheme.

But I wish that Mr. Thorburn had more explicitly viewed all this connection between culture and public policy with a more basic alarm, an alarm all of us ought to feel when it is proposed that a government agency start guaranteeing us a right we thought we have had for the past two hundred years.

If we had no surveys, no taxes, and no subsidies relating to the arts, we would have nothing to fear from either the “elitists” (however defined) or the “rabble” (ditto). Not only would all people be entitled to the culture they prefer, they could all go out and buy it in the proportions they fancy, and no one of them need impose his taste on another. The only questionnaire really needed is the turnstile, cheaper to operate, by the way, than a sociological research project, though its manufacture employs few authors of books.

Why must the arts always be economically and politically distinguished from (say) groceries, not only by the priests of high culture, but also by those who attack such priesthoods? Is not food even more essential to our lives than art? By Gans’s standards, teams of nutritionists should survey our gastronomic needs, being careful of course not to deride the lovers of hot dogs and sauerkraut, and then arrange public policy (taxes and subsidies, of course) to make sure we get what we want, or at least no less than we ought, considering our education, to want.

Well, there are those who believe this last proposition, but even vigorous advocates of the free market in food often fall victim to the belief that socialism in art at least must be a good thing. It isn’t. It’s a terrible thing. Instead of pointing this out, Mr. Thorburn mainly argued with Gans about the philosophy the proposed commissioners of culture ought to have.

Ralph A. Raimi
University of Rochester
Rochester. New York



David Thorburn writes:

Ralph A. Raimi’s real quarrel is not with my review, not even with Gans’s book, but with governmental intervention in cultural matters. Gans himself, as I indicated perhaps too elliptically in my review, is committed to a cultural pluralism not unlike that described in Mr. Raimi’s seventh paragraph, although Gans is less naive than Mr. Raimi, whose vision of a cultural free market strikes me as an unworkable and undesirable fantasy. Whatever the follies of federal, state, and municipal programs for the arts—extravagant as these often are and have been—I do not think it reasonable to conclude that our culture would be enriched, nor anyone’s rights extended, by the laissez-faire policy Mr. Raimi proposes. That the turnstiles in museums and concert halls are used far less often than those at sports arenas does not justify eliminating museums and concerts.

All societies, ours included, institutionalize culture in various ways; and all societies, ours included, develop immensely complex strategies whereby certain cultural forms or activities are valorized while others are discouraged and even forbidden. The power to prescribe in the aesthetic as in the moral realm is not limited to government bureaucrats, is not even mainly centered in government. Publishers, broadcasters, the moguls of professional sports, critics, artists, performers, clerics, professors and teachers, even (perhaps especially) parents—all are continually engaged in acts of judgment and prescription concerning the cultural life.

Gans understands this and understands especially how deeply class prejudices affect our attitudes toward culture. I respect this side of his book a good deal, and Mr. Raimi’s letter makes me regret that I did not discuss it more fully in my review.

But I do not regret my disagreement with Gans, which I’m certain is not so trivial as Mr. Raimi imagines. Gans wants us to respect the audience for mass or popular culture but cannot bring himself to respect the arts they favor except in relative terms. His position is ultimately not much different from that of the elitist culture-vultures who rarely admit (who probably don’t even recognize) that a contempt for many people is inherent in their confident dismissal of most American art. One cannot easily assume the intelligence or good sense of an audience whose aesthetic preferences are said to be vulgar and stupid. As I suggested in my review, the solution to this dilemma is to try to respect both the mass audience and their aesthetic choices. This is easier to say than to do, of course, because as Gans reminds us in the good half of his argument, many deep-seated prejudices inhibit our efforts to respond freshly and openly to certain forms of popular art.


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