Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Cultural Pursuits of the Bourgeoisie


Cornelis Pietersz. Bega, De Alchemist (1663)

We've been on a cultural tear through Los Angeles over the past few weeks, determined, like well-trained truffle pigs, to root out high culture wherever it could be found in Los Angeles. We visited the MoCA for the Murakami exhibit a few weeks back; this weekend we visited LACMA and the Hammer Museum.

As always, the visits to the museums were educational, edifying, etc., but as we were walking through the Hammer today, it did strike me that the cultural pursuits of yuppies like ourselves (and other factions of the bourgeoisie) have a distinct tilt toward the humanities. Through school and college, we are presented with a well-rounded, balanced diet of subjects: science, arts, literature, math, languages, athletics, music, etc. Over time, it seems, Americans tend to be losing their interest in a large segment of these subjects; specifically, math and science. So more and more of us studiously avoid science and math courses in college, and this trend continues as we assume our positions in the aspiring, comfort-seeking, and always highly-conventional middle classes. Our cultural pursuits are almost exclusively focused in the humanities: music, film, visual art, novels, gastronomy, etc.

I guess this makes sense. Math and science do not quite lend themselves to casual, amateur appreciation; they tend to require more involvement, or work. That said, the natural affinity children have for science museums, large mechanical models, biology, the inner workings of machines, astronomy, zoology, etc., seems to be largely lost by the time we have been processed through higher education. (There are, of course, many exceptions: the amateur computer scientists, the hobbyist inventors, mechanics,and astronomers, etc.).

I don't want to belabor this -- I already feel like this sounds too much like a college sophomore babbling about the xeroxed excerpt he just read from a Pierre Bourdieu book. But it is a phenomenon that interests me. Some places have museums dedicated to science that are as extensive as the greatest art museums -- and these science museums are for adults. It's odd that science, and an interest in science, is seen as somehow juvenile or emotionally stunted in our society (i.e., think of the common view of the astronomy buff, or the guy that's really into writing his own code, etc.). The Museum of Natural History is for kids (they have slumber parties there under the blue whale), but the Met and the MoMA are for sophisticated adults. It's as if we want to expose kids to the anatomy of the body, the solar system, the functioning of an helicopter, etc., in the hopes that they'll become cancer researchers or theoretical physicists, but when they grow up and end up as transactional attorneys or hedge fund managers, they just want to check out the Jasper Johns exhibit or the new conductor at the Philharmonic.

This imbalance, this bias toward the right brain at the expense of the left, is probably totally unsurprising to most people, and probably makes sense. Maybe the humanities are generally more interesting and pleasant to take in for fun; it just makes me feel a little stunted sometimes. Perhaps it's the daunting sense that I have little idea of how all this stuff around me works; it might as well be magic, for all I know. Maybe it's the feeling that arriving as a final destination in the realm of art is, in some ways, a dead end of sorts.

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