the double inclination to ape one's superiors, often through vulgar ostentation, and to be proud and insolent with one's inferiors.Well, that certainly sounds like a bad thing! But what is the difference between this and, say, admiring the work of outstanding composers? If I think Haydn was pretty great, in what way is this "vulgar ostentation"? The definition seems to recall an historical epoch when the middle class was trying to creep into the upper class by imitating their tastes. Does that go on any more? Last I checked, the tastes of the upper classes seem to revolve around Beyoncé. I suppose there was a time when nice middle class families had their children take piano lessons so they could lord it over the poor kids down the street. But isn't that all in the past?
Perhaps not, as I just ran across a blog post criticizing some typical snobbisms of today:
I have had that experience: a gourmet menu with wine pairings that was excessively complex and stressed externals (number of courses, variety of unusual ingredients and so on) rather than a couple of dishes prepared with real skill and attention.When people get rich, they shed their skin-in-the game driven experiential mechanism. They lose control of their preferences, substituting constructed preferences to their own, complicating their lives unnecessarily, triggering their own misery. And these are of course the preferences of those who want to sell them something. This is a skin-in-the-game problem as the choices of the rich are dictated by others who have something to gain, and no side effects, from the sale. And given that they are rich, and their exploiters not often so, nobody would shout victim.I once had dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a fellow who insisted on eating there ... Dinner consisted in a succession of complicated small things, with microscopic ingredients and contrasting tastes that forced you to concentrate as if you were taking some type of exam. You were not eating, rather visiting some type of museum with an affected English major lecturing you on some artistic dimension you would have never considered on your own. There was so little that was familiar and so little that fit my taste buds: once something on the occasion tasted like something real, there was no chance to have more as we moved on to the next dish. Trudging through the dishes and listening to some b***t by the sommelier about the paired wine, I was afraid of losing concentration. I costs a lot of energy to fake that I was not bored. In fact I discovered an optimization in the wrong place: the only thing I cared about, bread, was not warm. It appears that this is not a Michelin requirement.
There is a great deal of snobbism driven by commercial considerations. When people achieve a certain level of affluence they want to show it off in some way. As he says, they lose control of their actual preferences, replacing them with constructed preferences that ape their superiors. What do really rich people eat in restaurants? And the bonus is that you can lord it over the people who can't afford it.
Does this actually happen in the music world? There are a lot of things mitigating against it. For one thing, music for several decades now has been taken over by a very powerful populism: rock, pop and other genres all stemming originally from the music of the people: blues, jazz and country. Classical music, the music of the European aristocracy transplanted over most of the world by now, is pushed into a fairly minor niche these days, sociologically. If you try to lord it over someone by mentioning your taste for classical music, they are likely to laugh in your face! Though the other day a business client asked me my taste in music and just for fun I said: "agonized Russian modernism!" She replied "like Shostakovich?" So that was rather nice. But normally you are going to get perplexed confusion or a chuckle.
Here is my experience: there is a lot of false ostentation being flogged in the marketplace these days and a lot of people can't tell the difference. The difference with what, you ask? With genuine quality. Yes, there is such a thing, though there is certainly an ongoing effort to smudge or conceal this. People really are out there trying to sell you stuff that really isn't worth it and this happens on all levels from a Snapchat IPO that is likely a bust, to a poor quality hamburger at your local fast-food outlet, to a cheap pair of shoes from China that wear out in a couple of months, to a glitzy special menu at your local pretentious restaurant. We encounter poor quality every day.
But we also encounter high quality, though less often. That pair of Italian shoes that were comfortable, looked great and lasted a long time, that Canadian mining company whose shares just kept going up and up, that piece of technology that worked really well and didn't cost an arm and a leg, that great little restaurant that always had good food at a good price, and on and on. Quality and price are often not correlated. I used to delight in searching out wines that were really excellent and cost less than ten dollars. That was a lot more satisfying than paying too much for a disappointing premier cru château.
There can be false ostentation and insolence in classical music, of course. Just look at some of the publicity for solo artists and conductors. The audiophile who always mentions how much he paid for his speaker system is another example. But we also have unassuming artists of high aesthetic quality. Preferring to enjoy what they do is hardly vulgar ostentation, is it?
So I guess what I am trying to say is that you can genuinely prefer classical music without being a snob. All it really costs you is the time to sensitize yourself to a certain kind of musical quality. You don't have to spend a lot of money and you certainly don't have to lord it over other people. Though the urge to turn them on to a particular composer is always a lurking danger!
For our envoi today, let's listen to something by John Dowland, the great English lutenist at the end of the Renaissance. This is the "Tremolo" Fantasy played by Nigel North: