I'm going to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Kevin Holtsberry at Collected Miscellany, who apparently agrees with Anne Applebaum's recent observation (Washington Post) of a "divide" between "high culture" and "low culture," one that has allegedly been growing larger of late. In identifying the possible cause of this divide, Kevin proposes that
Without falling into a blind nostalgia about the past, it is safe to say that middle and even lower class citizens looked to high society and art for inspiration. Those with the means and the leisure time attempted to set a standard for taste and class. Sure this didn't always reflect a true meritocracy and it had its share of problems, but there was a sense of responsibility and a sense of standards. The iconoclasm and egalitarianism of the counter-culture sought to destroy this system. Its inspiration was relativistic and anti-hierarchy. Rules and standards; culture and custom; traditions and mores; these were all oppressive tools the powerful used against the weak. They must be thrown off to achieve freedom.
Everything that's wrong with Kevin's argument is contained in that first sentence. In order: 1) He has fallen not into "blind nostalgia" about the past, but utter fantasy. There's never been--never--such a thing as "high culture" in America, or there has been only in "relativistic" terms: some things might be "higher" than others, but when everything's hugging the ground in the first place, the distance isn't very great. This is not to say there haven't been serious artists, writers, thinkers--there are plenty of them around, even now--but that no one in the rest of the culture ever considered such people, or their work, as particularly important or worthy of recognition. Such figures in American intellectual and cultural history have always worked in isolation and took whatever audience they could find. Later on some of these figures have been "canonized" as great American writers or artists, but this is merely a form of nationalism, and doesn't have much to do with "culture" in the way Kevin wants to use the word. The prevailing American attitude toward "high culture" has always been that it's one of those attributes of "old Europe" that America can do without
Thus, 2) It isn't at all "safe to say that middle and even lower class citizens looked to high society and art for inspiration." Most citizens of these classes have been mostly unaware that such a thing as high art exists, or if they were so aware they had long been instructed to view it as suspicious, a conspiracy against "normal" Americans. Even now, from both the right and the left, high art is assailed as "elitist" or "nihilistic" or just plain sissified. At one time the universities did make a little room for the study of serious art and literature, but, perhaps inevitably, they too succumbed to the general disdain for such stuff long embedded in American culture. Conservatives have taken what's left of this legacy and now use it as a weapon in the culture wars. I'm sorry to say that Kevin seems to have adopted this strategy as well.
3) Surely we can all agree that "high society" and "art" are not the same thing. Perhaps in old Europe the two have been and to some extent still are on speaking terms, but "high society" in America" is "high" because that's where the wealth is, and the only place art has here is as an entry in one's investment portfolio. If by "high society" we mean the fashionable crowd, then art is for this group if anything even less important. It's a bauble, a frill, the latest and the newest, a way to get into the papers. (Getting into the papers is the real core value of American culture.)
Art and literature are the products of hard work and seriousness of purpose, and what's produced frequently enough outrages the denizens of high society and the standard-setters of culture (a large portion of the latter are just baffled by it). However, perhaps this is all to the good. If art and literature in the United States were ever accepted into something called "high culture," this would probably be an indication that they've entered into their death throes.
The Literary Saloon also questions the validity of the high/low distinction, but for reasons somewhat different than the ones I've given.