The End of Taste

I just got through reading Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which was suggested quite a while ago by Conscientious in his post on A Photo Editor's post on our post on a Salon post about “unliterary” and “literary” audiences. (Circularity, thy name is blogs.)

It’s a genuinely fascinating read — much more so than I would have guessed, since I have relatively little interest in music to begin with, and no interest at all in Celine Dion. What I was expecting is an attempt to make sense of “low” tastes from the perspective of “elite” taste. And the book certainly does deliver that. But what is also there, and what is even more interesting, is how thoroughly the book grounds its explanation of Celine Dion in class and ethnicity.

Part of this is going into Dion’s background, and into the demographics of her listeners — in essence, there are aspects of her music that would seem appropriate to US audiences in a black musician or in a country singer, but which can seem out of place in a musician hailing from the “null set” of Quebec, even though they’re present in Dion for much the same reasons.

But the second and even more interesting part is his discussion of schmaltz, which he identifies as more or less constituting Dion’s musical genre. Schmaltz, Wilson explains, has its roots in the contributions of immigrants to American music and theater (e.g., Irish nostalgia, Italian operatic melodrama), and derives its perishability in part from the process of assimilation.

Remember that “white” is a moving target: ethnic groups such as the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, Portuguese, fancophones, etcetera, eventually became “white,” but initially, to their British-descended neighbors, they were not. A genealogy of American schmaltz would probably track neither-black-nor-white cultures through decades of semi-assimilation. (p. 54)

Schmaltz…is never purely escapist: it is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing, a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price. This makes it especially vulnerable to becoming dated: the outer boundaries of extreme conformity, of uncontroversial public ecstasy and despair, are ever-mobile. Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise. And then it becomes shameful, the way elites of the late nineteenth century felt when they wondered what their poor ignorant forebears ever heard in light Italian opera. Likewise, as a specialization of liminal immigrants in America, it can become a holdover from a time “before we were white,” perhaps dotingly memorialized, but embarrassing head-on. (p. 61)

Wilson also discusses the increasingly bifurcated musical production and consumption of the upper and lower classes in the US, starting from a comparatively mixed/unified cultural landscape and ending in one where there are sharp divisions between what people of different classes are expected to know and enjoy:

Through most of [the 19th century] opera was popular music too, sung on the same programs as parlor songs and beloved among both high and low economic classes in English translation…Operatic songs, full of melodrama and romance, were sung alongside parlor songs at home and parlor songs would be dropped into productions of operas (often when rowdily participatory nineteenth-century audiences yelled out for them). Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s first mid-century American tour, sponsored by P. T. Barnum, was perhaps the first “blockbuster” event in American pop culture, and Lind would sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” between Mozart and hymns…The same held true for passages of Shakespeare, another popular nineteenth-century commodity. It was only in the later 1800s that a consolidating upper class became wealthy and populous enough to shut out popular treatments of classics in the name of “culture” and “standards,” by building ritzy exclusive opera houses, condemning English translations, and turning against “light” Italian opera in favor of “high” German opera. This brought to an end the mixed programs of Shakespeare, opera, melodrama, parlor song, comedy, freak shows and acrobats typical of the earlier nineteenth-century stage. As Walt Whitman, an enormous Italian-opera fan, put it in 1871’s Democratic Vistas, with “this word Culture, or what it has come to represent, we find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy,” meaning the snobs and aristocrats of old Europe. (p. 56)

As Wilson explains, Dion “aspires to the highbrow culture of a half-century ago,” in terms both of musical styling and of symbols used in her performances. And the tacky, schmaltzy nature of her music, its datedness, is not just about being out of sync with better contemporaneous music — it has ethnic and socio-economic implications. Wilson attributes Dion’s polarizing tendency to the fact that she taps into this kind of “before we were white” schmaltz material without appearing to middle American listeners as an ethnic performer. That pastward orientation is also in a sense a democratic orientation — although not necessarily a progressive or positive one: “[Dion] stinks of democracy, mingled with the odors of designer perfumes and of dollars, Euros, and yen.”

I have a hard time not jumping from this to photography — but I also have a hard time pinning down on exactly what terms to set up the comparison. Photography differs substantially from music in terms of its age as a medium and how its producers and audiences think about themselves. And while race and ethnicity certainly have their own (sometimes complex) histories in photography, they’re not really analogous to what Wilson is describing about the history of music.

What does stand out for me is the association of perceived illegitimacy with historical displacement/datedness, and the increasing isolation and class-segregation of production and consumption. These things are certainly hallmarks of photography over the last half-century or longer. (And of course photography has always been a medium defined by anxiety regarding novelty and originality.)

And I suppose these things might go some way toward explaining why I (as something of a class outsider or outlier) tend to gravitate toward photography of the past — up to around 60’s and 70’s, about a half century ago. The ease of my appreciation diminishes as art photography is fully adopted into the academic world and as the production and consumption of art photography becomes more and more the province of the rich.

Now, I usually chalk this up to my near-total lack of formal training of any kind touching on art — which is certainly not wrong, but maybe it’s not complete either. Quite possibly I’m drawn to photography’s past not just because I never got an introductory course on it, but because I relate to some aspects of the medium better before it was “white.”

I suppose that begs the question, since we’re on an analogy to Wilson’s Dion, whether I am drawn to photographic schmaltz. It’s not a taste I would probably have thought of myself as having, and I’ve been pretty harsh in the past on photographic “porn” or what @vossbrink identifies as “kitsch,” which overlaps pretty well with Wilson’s definition of schmaltz.

But I wonder if what Wilson has to say about schmaltz doesn’t bear somewhat on my feelings about Roy DeCarava — especially in contrast to my feelings about certain other examples of well-known documentary photographs. I’m thinking particularly of how Wilson frames the opposition of schmaltz to irony:

…songwriter Stephin Merritt argued that “catharsis in art is always embarrassing.” It’s a common belief, though seldom so drolly expressed. He was partly drawing on Bertolt Brecht, who held that the purgative release of catharsis can defuse social criticism. But like many of us, Merritt transposed that political caveat to a personal one, a matter of style. His enjoyment, he claimed only half-joshingly, depends on having the embarrassment built into the art, as irony, which allows him to register emotion without the shameful loss of self-control involved in feeling it. (p. 130)

While it would be completely unfair to imply that there is anything at all unsophisticated about DeCarava (quite the contrary!), there isn’t a surplus of irony in his photographs, and certainly no attempt to defuse or diminish or sanitize their emotional intensity — and no attempt to provide either DeCarava or the viewer with any kind of safe distance. And those are the most powerful and important American photographs I’ve ever seen.

Of course, as justly as I can point to DeCarava’s work as offering catharsis which need seek no refuge in irony, it’s still obviously a bit of an evasion on my part. In no sense would it be fair to point to his work as “schmaltz.”

No, if we were going to pursue an analogy to Wilson’s Celine Dion, we’d really have to go for it, wouldn’t we? Really, if we were being honest, we’d have no choice but to go full Geddes. And I simply, honestly do not have it in me to do that. At least, not this week.

You’re welcome.