Cultural snobbery and Wayne Swan's Springsteen mania


Wayne Swan and Bruce SpringsteenThe other night, I went to a local restaurant where I'd heard there would be some interesting music playing. I didn't ask what would be played, trusting that whatever it was, I'd enjoy it.

I had set myself up for disappointment. I was confronted with a monotonous set of noise music; three guitarists improvised a 40-minute electro-acoustic work without any discernable sense of structure, melody or rhythm. There were some interesting harmonics, but no patterns emerged in the sound to cling on to or understand.

The composition, as a noise piece, no doubt had a place in the context of its own history. Without a grasp on that history, the experience for me was one of boredom and mild disdain. While the noise droned on, I used my phone to look up where I might be able to play darts later.

It is impossible for me to say whether it was a successful composition. But I doubt anyone else in the room — mostly serious-looking white men in their late 20s with beards and scruffy hair — could say, either. I don't believe any of the audience members truly enjoyed the performance aesthetically, whatever they might pretend.

There's no reason why any kind of art should be pretty, or pleasing, or easy to understand. Even boring and impenetrable work is legitimate. Anyway, questioning what is or isn't art is not interesting, and institutional opinions on the matter never actually interfere with artwork being produced.

But asking what it is that makes something valued by a particular social group, even if it seems monotonous or inane, is an interesting question.

In Australia, land of the cultural cringe, sociological research presents us with findings that the 'social elite', at least those selected by Who's Who, mainly consume middle- and low-brow culture. Mainstream cinema, books that are on best-seller lists, and Bruce Springsteen, for example.

The pride taken in consuming 'low' culture, celebrated by Wayne Swan's Springsteen mania, is positive in its belief in the legitimacy of mainstream taste, which is dictated more democratically than highbrow taste. But it is negative in its inherent dismissal of cultural codes which engage the intellect in a more challenging way. Swan's political justification for Springsteen's music sidelines the art itself.

Paul Keating, with his public love of Mahler, can only be seen as an anomaly in the Australian context. For the Australian elite, artworks are primarily for entertainment, and any intellectual connections made are peripheral. Noise music, then, is not endured by the Australian elite.

There is a popular theory about cultural consumption, first argued by Pierre Bourdieu, that cultural taste is linked to class and power structures: high social groups exercise sophisticated and inaccessible cultural tastes in order to prevent access to power by lower social classes. This engendering of cultural tastes renders 'lower' cultural forms disgusting. If lower classes wish to gain access to the elite, they do it by mimicking their cultural habits.

This theory was originally applied in France, where opera and ballet have a history of belonging to the affluent classes. In Australia, where the elite prefer Steven Spielberg films and going to the footy, middle- and working-class participation in elite cultural forms would seem misguided, if the point were simply social mobility.

So it's probably not that the bearded noise aficionados actually want to be in Who's Who. They participate in an unprecedented highbrow cultural form to construct their own elite identity, marked as different and, by default, superior, to the mainstream.

The tropes of elitism here are connoisseur habits (appreciating musical works intellectually by framing them in a historical context) and fashions (all those beards) in order to distinguish their belonging to a group that is impenetrable by outsiders. Initiation is granted through education in, and appreciation of, the field.

For me, noise music is boring, but no more so than test cricket. My intolerance of both is a result of my not being indoctrinated into either community of appreciators. The differences between the two are arbitrary because in either case, there has to be an intellectual interaction between the viewer and the game/work in order for the viewer to not be bored witless. But noise is deemed highbrow, and cricket is lowbrow.

We all belong to the mainstream until we display communicable differences, marked sometimes by race or disability, by exceptional talent, or by sexual or religious difference. When 'sameness' like this is celebrated, it's no wonder people who have the means choose to differentiate themselves culturally.

I suspect that when regular folks start participating in traditionally highbrow culture, there is an element of doing it because of the perceived social mobility attached to it. I disdain this because it reinforces the marginalising idea that power really does belong to an exclusive social group.

But the other reason, that differentiating oneself from the mainstream when the mainstream itself is hostile to difference, well, I don't think that's so shallow after all. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Wayne Swan, Noise Music, Bruce Springsteen



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Existing comments

And maybe we enjoy particular music because it speaks to us in meaningful ways and has nothing to do with elites. I am equally moved by the wonderful structures of Bach, by the agonies of Shostakovich, by the rhythmic pulse of Chet Baker or Dave Brubeck and by the voice of Chicago and Mississippi blues. Let's not over-intellectualise this.
ErikH | 03 August 2012

In Swan's case, you cannot help thinking that any amount of cultural learning, however high or low, would have helped him to answer the questions about why he wanted a policy approach built in the image of a musician. His (& Labor's) disdain for useless education – you know, music and literature and stuff – means he is totally lacking in the equipment to explain why Springsteen's songs speak to him and millions of others so clearly.

Your thoughtful article also reminds of how the furious response to 'that Monthly essay,' as Swan calls it, completely overlooked the most important criticism that any genuine essayist would make of it: it is an appallingly confused example of an essay, whose non sequiturs crowd out even the clichés and platitudes. Once upon a time, no polite journal would have published such a thing, even in this country of anti-elite pre-latté, cultural egalitarianism.
Tom Clark | 03 August 2012

Too much pigeon-holing in this article to really make any sense to me. And the use of the royal "we "just tipped me over. I don't think anyone can relate to this high-brow, low-brow, social mobility framework. And if they did I'd be sad for them.
AURELIUS | 03 August 2012

Awesome article Ellena. I think you've just deconstructed the essence of 'hipster'. How refreshing to read a piece that speaks to our better impulses, and leaves us feeling more inclusive!
Edwina | 03 August 2012

@Erikh you are aligning yourself with a high-brow taste in music, thereby constructing your own elite identity. Maybe the reason you don't understand the argument in the article is because you're in so deep.
Trent the Don | 03 August 2012

Wayne's expertise is to slap adhesive labels onto human beings according to class and personal bias. Are you not doing the same thing?
Belinda | 04 August 2012


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