See all: The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies In this unusually wide-ranging study, spanning more than a century and covering such diverse forms of expressive culture as Shakespeare, Central Park, symphonies, jazz, art museums, the Marx Brothers, opera, and vaudeville, a leading cultural historian demonstrates how variable and dynamic cultural boundaries have been and how fragile and recent the cultural categories we have learned to accept as natural and eternal are. For most of the nineteenth century, a wide variety of expressive forms—Shakespearean drama, opera, orchestral music, painting and sculpture, as well as the writings of such authors as Dickens and Longfellow—enjoyed both high cultural status and mass popularity. In the nineteenth century Americans in addition to whatever specific ethnic, class, and regional cultures they were part of shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival groupings than their descendants were to experience.
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Levine; Harvard University Press; pages. Talking one day to a fellow scholar about the films of Buster Keaton, Lawrence Levine concluded that Keaton was a great artist. His colleague agreed but then offered a caveat. Keaton, he explained, was a great popular artist. Levine draws a picture of nineteenth-century America in which William Shakespeare was the most performed playwright in the nation, symphonies played popular music as much as they did the works of the great masters, and museums exhibited painting and sculpture alongside mastodon bones.
Cheering, whistling, and climbing onto the stage, nineteenth-century audience members were often as much part of the performance as the artists themselves. His performance precipitated the Astor Place Riot, in which at least 22 persons were killed and wounded. As the century wore on, culture became more strictly defined and less tolerant of popular entertainment.
Other art forms were demoted to the level of cheap, popular entertainment. Levine challenges the idea that there are a fixed number of great cultural artifacts worthy of study by the serious student. Given the glories of the best American popular music, theater, and, in our own day, movies, he has a strong case.
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Lawrence W. Levine
Essentially, Levine is arguing that a cross-class American cultural consensus existed in the first half of the nineteenth century, but was eroded by the turn of the century by elite efforts to separate "art" from "popular culture. While serious performances of Shakespeare had been presented alongside popular songs, farces, and other "unelevated" fare in the early part of the century, latter-day cultural elites insisted that such masterworks be presented unsullied by popular material. The effort to separate "high" and "popular" culture was often presented didactically- as a necessary element in the uplift of the less fortunate. Levine stresses, however, that the impetus behind the move was just as often a desire to cordon off "respectable" performances from the unworthy.
Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
For most of the nineteenth century, a wide variety of expressive forms—Shakespearean drama, opera, orchestral music, painting and sculpture, as well as the writings of such authors as Dickens and Longfellow—enjoyed both high cultural status and mass popularity. In the nineteenth century Americans in addition to whatever specific ethnic, class, and regional cultures they were part of shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival groupings than their descendants were to experience. By the twentieth century this cultural eclecticism and openness became increasingly rare. Cultural space was more sharply defined and less flexible than it had been. The theater, once a microcosm of America—housing both the entire spectrum of the population and the complete range of entertainment from tragedy to farce, juggling to ballet, opera to minstrelsy—now fragmented into discrete spaces catering to distinct audiences and separate genres of expressive culture. The same transition occurred in concert halls, opera houses, and museums. Too many of those who considered themselves educated and cultured lost for a significant period—and many have still not regained—their ability to discriminate independently, to sort things out for themselves and understand that simply because a form of expressive culture was widely accessible and highly popular it was not therefore necessarily devoid of any redeeming value or artistic merit.