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THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

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Aristotle meets Eminem

Honors Program senior seminar, "Democracy & Art."

CLASSNOTES

Class
: HP260: Democracy & Art

Instructor: Honors Program Faculty Martha Bayles

Readings: Poetics, by Aristotle; The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, by Ross Murfin and S.M. Ray; plus writings by (in assigned order) Stuart Miller, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, Plato, Horace, Friedrich Schiller, Marshall McLuhan, Russell Neuman, Karl Marx, Jerry Z. Muller, Peter Landesman, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Robert C. Toll, Gary Giddens, Steven Watts, Roger Shattuck, Clement Greenberg, Richard Grenier, Boris Groys, George L. Mosse, Jost Hermand, Ralph Ellison, and Isaiah Berlin

 

Martha Bayles is not surprised that concerns about snobbery and elitism come up frequently in her Honors Program senior seminar, "Democracy & Art." At first, students were "expecting me to deplore the fact that they don't go to the opera," she recalled in a conversation at the Lyons Hall cafeteria a few days after teaching a segment called "What Is Taste?" --a class that began with a discussion of Edmund Burke's essay "Introduction on Taste" and concluded with an undergraduate's presentation on the lyrics and sound of the rap star Eminem.

In that class, far from showing a preference for opera, Bayles had spoken knowledgeably about how the rhymes and sounds used by Eminem compared with those of other rappers, leaving some students visibly impressed. A nationally known pop culture critic and the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (1994), Bayles is equally at home discussing classical ideas about art and modern trends in American culture. And she doesn't think a little elitism is such a bad thing. "I'm an elitist," she readily admits. "But what kind of elitist am I?"

Though the seminar's five-page syllabus directed students to the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Tocqueville, and Burke, as well as contemporary think-ers such as Marshall McLuhan, Michel Foucault, Roger Shattuck, and Isaiah Berlin, discussion among the 10 seniors (six women and four men) often turned to current music, television, and film. Bayles not only expected that but encouraged it. She takes it for granted that popular culture is what most students argue about when they argue about art.

If she accomplished nothing else in the course, she said, she wanted to impress upon her students that a "traditional set of standards of excellence" can be perfectly suitable to judge popular culture. She wanted students to become familiar with the literature on aesthetic theory and to apply those theories to their own taste. Whether it is theater or television, literature or film, opera or rap, "I don't think the standards are all that different--which is an extremely controversial view," she said.

Why controversial? That's where democracy enters into it, says Bayles. In today's politicized debates about art, traditional conservatives dismiss almost everything in popular culture, even as most academics judge popular art by whether it challenges or reinforces the existing order, rather than whether it meets standards of excellence. Bayles sees herself in between those two camps.

In the introductory meeting of the class, Bayles discussed the differences between aristocracy and democracy, explaining that the Greek root of aristocracy means "rule of the best." In a democratic culture, she said, "there's a tendency to dislike critics, to dislike the idea of cultivated taste, to dislike the idea of an elite who can say what's good and what's not good." But what Americans tend to reject in the abstract, Bayles says, they embrace in practice. Not only do people look for advice and judgment from critics, the world of art is dominated by "sophisticates" who are perceived to have superior taste.

"I think that the way we think about [art] partakes to an excessive degree of an aristocratic view, and that's partly because educated people in American society guard with their lives their cultivated taste," Bayles said. "They look down on a lot of people who don't have such cultivated taste. And the thing is, there is something inherently aristocratic about art, in the sense that there is something inherently elitist about art."

Bayles admits to her own kind of snobbery; it's just that she rejects the "aristocratic" style. The democratic snob, she suggests, can value The Sopranos and "The Three Tenors" equally.

Bayles has an informal manner in the classroom, often making self-deprecating asides in discussion and keeping a sly smile playing around her lips. She is tall, with brown hair worn in a simple, swept-back style. This being an Honors Program seminar, she expected students to keep up with a heavy flow of reading assignments; students were required to e-mail her with three to five pages of notes on each week's readings by midnight every Monday. She also assigned "taste tests," calling for each student to lead a discussion of a work of art he or she considered significant.

On the evening Burke's essay on taste was discussed, Bayles noted that in Burke's day, in late 18th-century England, there was a general consensus about art among educated elites. "We live in a very different world, where taste is very much up for grabs," she said. The students grappled with Burke's arguments. On the one hand, he seemed to be saying that all people are equipped to appreciate the best of art and culture--a democratic sentiment. Yet at the end of the essay he changed course as he took up the question of defects in judgment that cause "a wrong Taste."

"My sense of his argument is that there is a ‘right' taste," said one student. "Burke really gets into deep waters here," Bayles responded, noting that his essay is influenced by both rationalist thought and romanticism.

For the last half-hour of the two-hour class, discussion turned to a "taste test" led by student Kamal Bakhazi. Looking dubiously around the stately, book-lined Honors Program seminar room, Bakhazi connected a portable boom box and expressed the suspicion that the rap music he was about to play would sound different here than in his dorm room. "It's supposed to sound good," he said. He handed out the lyrics to Eminem's song "Renegade" and hit the play button.

After the song, Bakhazi discussed the value of controversy in Eminem's art. Students held a lively conversation about the intention of Eminem and other rap stars to shock, and about whether songs like "Renegade" can be considered art. "I definitely think Burke would be horrified," Bakhazi said. Bayles noted in conclusion how quickly the discussion turned to questions of judgment, as opposed to simple appreciation for "the lightness of the rhythm track" or Eminem's verbal ingeniousness. "His sound is amazing," she said.

The discussion of sound spilled over into the following week's class, for which students had read a selection from Plato's The Republic. As Bayles called attention to Plato's comments about rhythm and lyrics, making the point that "people have long believed that there is good and bad in music," the conversation ranged from the bands Radiohead, REM, and the White Stripes, to the German composer Wagner and the uses of martial and ceremonial music in wartime.

Bayles later steered the discussion to a comment in Plato that men "shouldn't be lovers of laughter." This led her to mention ancient Greek plays featuring the Satyr, at which point she turned to the marker board behind her and, with a few deft strokes, drew a Satyr, making the point that the Greek plays led to our concept of satire. Comedy, she said, "brings the high and mighty down. In that way it's very democratic. And you know who pointed that out? Aristotle." This was by way of introduction to the assigned reading for the following week: Aristotle's Poetics.

What draws students to a class on democracy and art? Judging by a few conversations after class, about half are coming from a strong interest in politics and the other half from a primary interest in art. Bakhazi is a political science major who expressed an interest in how art is judged under different political systems. As well, he said debates about what music is good and whether some art is more "valid" than other art "are arguments I'm always having with my friends."

Kate Vassos, an English major, said it was her interest in literature and poetry that drew her to the seminar. Though she described herself as a conservative and expressed some nervousness about the way conservatives are sometimes cast in a censorious role in matters of art, she said she hadn't thought much about political questions in art before this course. "I think it's rare for people my age to think of politics as having anything to do with art," she said.

That wouldn't hold true for Tristan Nelson, though. He's a computer science major with a strong interest in the humanities. Having taken a "Politics and Art" course previously at BC, his appetite was whetted. Asked for his opinion of what democracy has to do with art, Nelson drew immediately on the reading Bayles assigned from Alexis de Tocqueville (from Volume 2 of Democracy in America). Tocqueville made a point about Americans' crude understanding of art, Nelson noted, and worried that democracy "wasn't leading to great art." Clearly art and democracy don't need each other, Nelson allowed, "yet somehow art does come out of this democracy."

Bayles shares this view, calling American culture "amazingly creative." HP260 marks the fourth time she's taught "Democracy & Art" (she gave it twice as a visiting instructor at Claremont McKenna College in California and once for the drama and dance department at Colorado College), and she continues to organize her thoughts for her next book, which will be a consideration of the idea of a "democratic aesthetic."

The material is very much on her mind. As she concluded a lunchtime interview and began to make her way across campus, she called over her shoulder, "I'm not saying democratic culture is the same as aristocratic culture--but that doesn't mean it's worse."

Dave Denison


Dave Denison is a writer based in the Boston area.

 

Photo: The class, from left: Tristan Nelson, Chris Schroeck, Sara Birnbaum, Professor Bayles, Evan Glover, Kate Vassos (foreground), Eliza Bent, Casie Mazilly, Cameron Esposito, Ashley Wright--all seniors. Not shown is Kamal Bakhazi '04. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

 


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