Shamus Khan, a sociologist at Columbia University, thinks the way we define “great” has as much to do with status anxiety as artistic worth. He points out that in 19th-century America, the line between “high” and “low” culture was lightly drawn. A steel magnate’s idea of an entertaining evening might include an opera singer and a juggler. But by the turn of the 20th century, the rich were engaged in a struggle to assert their superiority over a rising middle class. They did so by aligning themselves with a more narrowly defined stratum of “high art”. Buying a box at the opera or collecting impressionist art was a way of securing membership of a tribe.
Although the rigid high-low distinction crumbled in the 1960s, we still use culture as a badge of identity, albeit in subtler ways. Today’s fashion for eclecticism—“I love Bach, Abba and Jay Z”—is, Khan argues, a new way for the bohemian middle class to demarcate themselves from what they perceive to be the narrow tastes of those beneath them in the social hierarchy.
This quote is a keeper, too:
“Saying that cultural objects have value,” Brian Eno once wrote, “is like saying that telephones have conversations.”