New Cultural Divide

Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper had an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last week (subscription, alas, required) in which they offered two opposing views of what the cultural state of the US will be in the future. Regrettably in their opinion, both visions of the future are not mutually exclusive and will define the new cultural divide.

The first vision of the future is rather optimistic. As the cost of technology decreases and becomes widely accessible, the ability of people to express and educate themselves has been increasing. The authors cite British social critic Charles Leadbeater who feels the 21st century will be shaped by amateur professionals-“ProAms.”

Those pro-ams are people who have acquired high-level skills at particular crafts, hobbies, sports, or art forms; they are not professionals but are often good enough to present their work publicly or to contribute seriously to a community of like-minded artists or creators. Pro-ams typically make their livings in other work but are sufficiently committed to their creative pursuits to view them as a possible second career later in life.

A well-educated populace of amateurs who can converse intelligently with authorities of a field and perhaps even parlay their pursuits into a second career. Not only does technology make it possible for them to indulge their interests, but it enables them to cheaply disseminate their work to others providing for the development of ideas on a scale never before possible. What’s not to love about that scenario?

Well, actually, there isn’t a lot not to love about that scenario–if you are able to be a part of it. Like all incidents of cultural divide, the separation is mainly a function of the gatekeepers. The new optimistic trend they describe does away with the old gatekeepers for the most part because it allows people to make their own choice about what they want to experience, how long they want to invest processing the experience and in what environment they want to encounter it. The concepts of high and low art have less influence in this situation as do the arbiters of such things.

According to an article in the American Sociological Review by Richard A. Peterson, an emeritus professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, hierarchical markers of taste have eroded. Today people define their status by consuming as omnivores rather than as snobs. A new kind of cosmopolitanism underlies the mixing and matching of different cultural forms.

As an illustration, imagine an encounter between two people on the street: a classical-music lover and a lover of rock music. If you are asked to predict which of them is likely to listen to Latin music, ethnic music, jazz, and blues, who would it be? It turns out that the classical-music fan is much more likely to enjoy those nonelite art forms, according to data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ national survey of public participation in the arts. If fact, when you analyze the NEA statistics, the classical-music fan is more likely to listen to just about every genre of music. Today’s cosmopolitan consumer culture is not bound by old hierarchies.

The more pessimistic view of the future is all about gatekeepers. Noting the ever increasing consolidation of the media in the hands of fewer and fewer people, many are forecasting a future where the variety of voices one can encounter becomes increasingly narrow. The authors point out that this is not only true in retail stores where only CDs of a limited number of artists might be available, but also in the arts where “small and medium-size organizations are facing competitive pressures from the growing number of big performing-arts centers – cathedrals of cultural consumption that might bolster a city’s image, but that bring with them some of the same constraints endemic in the consolidated media industries”

The authors also point out that things are moving from a world where we are no longer purchasing but renting culture.

“A few decades ago, cultural consumption required a small number of pieces of equipment – a television set and antenna, an AM/FM radio, and a record turntable. Now cable television, high-speed Internet connections, DVD-rental services, satellite radio, and streaming-audio services all require hefty monthly fees. Even consumption that feels like a purchase, like an iTune download, is often really a rental…”

According to the authors the new cultural divide will be comprised of those who have the time, resources and knowledge to “navigate the sea of cultural choice” to inform, cultivate and share their cultural lives on one side. Those who lack these things will obviously be on the other side of the divide receiving their culture via tightly controlled media channels.

The authors don’t quite know how the developing gap will impact political, cultural, social and communal life in the future. They do ask the question: “Can America prosper if its citizens experience such different and unequal cultural lives?”

I personally don’t see that this question has any more validity being applied to the chasm they anticipate than to the divide that already exists. It might involve different segments of the population than the current one does, but perhaps through lack of imagination, I don’t see the emerging one being markedly larger or destructive to society than if the old gap endured.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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