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Neal Gabler

The end of cultural elitism

Tastemakers beware: The audience is no longer interested in your opinion

By Neal Gabler
January 6, 2011

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AS ANYONE who has ever wiggled in his seat at a classical concert or stared in disbelief at a work of conceptual art can attest, culture in America has usually been imposed from the top down. Media executives, academics, elite tastemakers, and of course critics determined what was good and what wasn’t, what would have cultural purchase and what wouldn’t, what would get rewarded and what wouldn’t. Which isn’t to say that ordinary folks were entirely passive in this process. Early in the Republic they began a counter popular culture to challenge the so-called “official’’ culture, and it survives today to the point where it has often merged with high culture. But the cultural hierarchy held on.

Or at least it did. Among the many effects of the Internet, one of the most significant has been the democratization of cultural influence. No longer does the New York Times or the New Yorker or Time anoint the books we should be reading, the movies and TV shows we should be watching, the music we should be listening to. A populist aggregating website like Rotten Tomatoes that awards fresh or rotten tomatoes to movies, or Ain’t It Cool News, which preempts most mainstream film criticism by reporting on movies first, probably has more power than all the tonier critics combined. And Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace certainly have a great impact. One has only to look at “American Idol’’ to see how regular citizens have seized control of starmaking.

Naturally, no one relinquishes that kind of control willingly, which is why the old cultural imperialists joined forces recently in several bold attempts to show that they still mattered. But what is striking about these forays is not that they happened but that they were ultimately unsuccessful. For over 200 years, normal Americans have longed to exercise their cultural independence and free themselves from the tyranny of the elitists. Last year they did. In effect, the elitist empire struck back and then struck out.

What the commissars were hoping to revive were the days when they could collectively settle on a movie like “The Social Network,’’ and the case would be closed. “The Social Network’’ received all sorts of accolades and attention.

But then something startling happened. Audiences didn’t bow. They yawned. On its face a film about the birth of the country’s most popular networking site would seem to be surefire even without the commissars telling us how great it was. Yet it not only failed to ignite at the box office it failed to ignite in the national mind.

Similarly, the commissars were all atwitter over Jonathan Franzen’s novel of domestic dissatisfaction, “Freedom.’’ It was considered the book of its time, the book that captured American malaise, another instant classic.

But without addressing the book’s merits, which are considerable, only its cachet, it performed less than overwhelmingly both commercially (it soared to the top of bestseller lists but didn’t linger long) and culturally. There are books, not necessarily good ones, that become pervasive because they strum some national chord: “The Great Gatsby,’’ “Portnoy’s Complaint,’’ “The DaVinci Code,’’ to name a few. The tastemakers tried to make “Freedom’’ into one of these signposts. Instead, they found themselves inviting a backlash from those democrats who found the book boring and empty.

And the commissars failed again with “Boardwalk Empire,’’ the loudly-touted HBO series about an Atlantic City bootlegger during Prohibition. The critics fell all over themselves to praise it as a landmark to stand alongside “The Sopranos.’’ Except that once again, the tastemakers proved far more enthusiastic than audiences. Though HBO, as a subscription service, is not ratings addicted, the show’s ratings have plummeted, and “Boardwalk Empire’’ has hardly made the kind of impression that “The Sopranos’’ did.

Obviously, even in the days before the Internet, tastemakers weren’t always successful in selling their predilections. Word-of-mouth could have a counteractive effect. But what these recent campaigns demonstrate is that even when all the elitists seem consciously to combine forces to make their choices ubiquitous in all the traditional media, they can no longer dominate the culture. No single group can.

There are so many forms of connectivity now beyond word-of-mouth that cultural power has been diffused, which had always been the populist American dream. So the elitists will still tell us what we ought to like, only no one has to listen anymore because everyone has his own opinions and the means to share them. For the commissars, it is the end of their run.

Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’’