Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Capital ‘C’ Culture Syndrome

Kudos to Kevin Plunkett for his exhumation of the forgotten Philadelphia novelist John McIntyre (“Noir Town: The hard life of John McIntyre, the legendary Philly novelist nobody’s heard of," City Paper, March 16, 2006). It gave me a King Tut discovery-level thrill. But the larger question remains. How did McIntyre (1871-1951) get lost? Here’s my explanation of this bit of cultural amnesia.

After all, Lincoln Steffens had made a rep and a bundle in 1904 when he published The Shame of the Cities. That’s where he observed that Philly was not only corrupt, but content in its corruption. And two years later Upton Sinclair shook up the slaughterhouse with his political fiction, The Jungle. How come Philly remained corrupt up to the Dilworth era, whereas the meatpackers got their act together promptly? My guess is: because all classes eat meat and fear butcher corruption, but only the lower classes suffer from political corruption.

It all really started in 1876 when the regnant Republicans sold out the country to the South by withdrawing federal troops during an incomplete Reconstruction in exchange for the South’s collusion in the Gilded Age. To this day we are bedeviled by this Faustian bargain. (George W. Bush is only the latest con man in this kleptocracy.) And how did this degradation of the democratic ideal work out in Philly? It created the Main Line, where the upper classes could avoid the ugliness of the city’s moneymaking activities by creating economically gated communities that simulated their Anglophilic ideals, down to the place names they gave their new settlements.

That’s when the Robert Montgomery Scott illusion was born— namely, that high Culture with a capital "C" could compensate for the miseries of poor working people and eventually might even civilize them sufficiently to live with their betters. Incidentally, it wasn’t until I had been Ph.Deified for 20 years that I stumbled across what Matthew Arnold had really said about Culture and the newly enfranchised masses. We all heard about the importance of savoring the best that had been thought and said, but it wasn’t until Cambridge had its first blue-collar Ph.D., Raymond Williams, that we learned why it Culture so important: so that we could bring a stream of fresh ideas to resolve the problems caused by industrialization.

Consider Philadelphia in the 1920s. Its ivory tower was the University of Pennsylvania, the last local redoubt of WASPishness. Penn had a chance to hire W.E.B. Dubois when that prescient black scholar produced his Harvard Ph. D. dissertation on the Philadelphia Negro bourgeoisie. No way. And Penn was off bounds to Jews as well: The English Department didn’t hire its first Jew (Charles Lee, né Levy) until the 1950s— if you can call a JASP a Jew.

Meanwhile, the WASPish types who ran the Modern Language Association cynically turned their backs on the public schools, since they were interested only in the private schools from which they drew their privileged graduates. Thus the privileged became more privileged, further separating the cultivated from the undercultured.

Consider as well the quirky patent medicine millionaire, Dr. Albert Barnes. He had no use for the Art Museum crowd, significantly entrusting his foundation to the black Lincoln University. And he quite openly built his curriculum on John Dewey’s pragmatism. Barnes wanted his blue- as well as his white-collar students to metabolize the significance of art as human experience. The Art Museum squad was more interested in playing the art market with their "discretionary" funds, which essentially meant playing head games over the Higher Goofiness of Modernist art, from Dada to abstract inexpressivism.

The Inquirer’s art critic Ed Sozanski recently praised Marcel Duchamp: "With dry wit and dispassion, he directed art audiences to cherish the idea more than the object, while warning them against taking art too seriously"(Feb. 19, 2006). Maybe Dada should be renamed Duh, Duh? Mr. Dada famously turned a urinal into an "art object." Recently a nutty European viewer took a whack at the portable, non-functional pissoir. Who’s nuttier? Urinalysis could be better than mine! In their neo-Parthenon on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, our current cultural commissars ask us to revere some slightly duChamped sheets of glass as Prime Art!

Also recently, Philly was treated to the visions of a Brazilian city planner who has turned his hometown into a wonder by starting with small “c" culture and building on that. The Scott crowd has it backwards. You build a decent society of fairness and accessibility and the Culture follows. All that hoopla about betraying Barnes by bringing him to the Parkway. And Calder too! Wrong. Everyone wants a Bilbao effect. We have covered the country with museums and filled the people’s minds with drivel. It won’t work.

Let’s hope some Phillyphile publisher like Running Press gives us a shot at reading John McIntyre, and that Ph.D. candidates start using the McIntyre archives at Temple to explain why we’ve been so blind up to now.

Note: This piece was first published in the literate and lively Broad Street Review. An exchange of views with the editor will follow over the next several days.

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