What’s the Matter with Arts and Entertainment?

By Tom Zimpleman

Snobbery, like bacteria, is found everywhere.” That’s a sweeping judgment, to be sure, but one that’s entirely defensible. Gather more than three people in the room, get them started talking about anything, and almost assuredly, one person will be a snob. I’m a snob, and you’re a snob too, and the author of the sentence that opened this column (Joseph Epstein) admits to being an incorrigible snob. That’s not to say we’re snobbish about everything, or even most things. But the tendency exists, and I daresay the best that anyone can hope for in this life is to be snobbish in a way that most people don’t care about and that consequently hurts no one.

The omnipresence of snobbery is both a blessing and a curse for Epstein, who this summer published an entire book dedicated to the subject. The title is simply Snobbery, although it’s subtitle, “The American Version,” let’s you know that the author intends to narrow his focus. Which is worthwhile, of course, because what interests us – especially in regard to our own culture – are not those instances in which snobbery is easy to spot, but rather those cases in which it’s oblique, even to those who engage in it. Class snobbery is a classic case, but it’s a boring subject: nobody likes or defends class snobs – I doubt they even like themselves (if they did they wouldn’t need to be snobs) – but there are multitudes of people who can get away with attitudes far worse. Epstein’s best example involves intellectual snobbery. Decrying the stupidity of the American public is an honorable pastime, although upon reflection it’s also a particularly malevolent one. Additionally, to those who engage in it, it’s particularly hurtful. No one is an expert on everything, everyone is in over his head in at least some conversations, and so the anxiety must know no end. As a graduate of the University of Chicago, Epstein knows intellectual snobbery well. “[At the University of Chicago] people were not ranked by physical beauty, or athletic skill, or wealth, or family connections. None of these things seemed to matter. All that did was intelligence – or to be more precise, intellectuality, which I would define as the ability to deal in a sophisticated way with the issues, questions, and problems represented by art, science, politics, and the things of the mind generally.” Of course, while Epstein’s generally right about the pecking order of university life – at least in those places that feel the need to devote newspaper coverage to their US News and World Report ranking – there are other dynamics involved. Perhaps in response to the atmosphere Epstein knew in his own college days, even the best students feel the need to affect something of an ant-intellectual streak. Thus, complaining about work, skipping class, claiming to be a total idiot admitted only because of a clerical error, are all common components of contemporary discussions about academics. I do those things, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one.

As valuable as Epstein’s discussion is, however, I can’t help feel that it overlooks something important; something’s been brewing among young people in the last twenty years or so. It’s manifested itself on numerous occasions – among those kids who swore never to listen to another Jawbox album after they signed with Atlantic Records, among those that rush to dump on anything Jim Jarmusch has made post-Dead Man (or post-Stranger than Paradise for the true purists), among those caught up in the mid-90’s independent cinema boom that produced some of the most inane relationship comedies ever made – as a hybrid of cultural and intellectual snobbery. It ditches one hallmark of a snobbish attitude (emulation of supposed social betters) to become a textbook case of another (jealousy of opinions and beliefs). It’s a sort of cultural snobbery akin to Gnosticism, the belief in salvation by secret knowledge. We’ve all seen it, and a good many of us have engaged in it. We want to be fans of a band, but we want to be the only fans of that band. We want to drop names that no one else understands, particularly when asked for our opinion on something. We want, more than anything else, solitude in holding our opinions, but we want others to admire us for the rigor with which we develop those opinions. Again, the idea is to appear as though we have some kind of secret connection – that we have our fingers to a cultural pulse that’s dead to the rest of the world. And we’ll let go the minute the rest of the world appears to catch on. A lot of disagreeable people started listening to Pavement after “Cut Your Hair”? Pavement’s no longer an underground sensation. Did a particularly hateful person from one of your classes bring up Kiarostami? You’ll never watch Taste of Cherry again. Once the word is out, our hope for salvation is gone.

The question that motivated Epstein motivates me here as well: we’re all snobs, and we know it’s a petty habit, but hardly a unique or devastating one. All the same, why do we have to do it? Why can’t we just like what we like, without concern for what other people like. It’s an excellent question, but one that there will never be an answer for. There are two senses in which snobbery is like bacteria: not only is it everywhere, but its recurrent and so prevalent as to be ineliminable. So long as there are young people, there will be people who think that Modest Mouse went to hell after Interstate 8. Thus does snobbery live on.