Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Got No Class

or  Us and Them

Until the last few years, I spent my professional life in the academic side of the arts, where the difference between "high" and "low" art is traditionally quite important for reasons that have a great deal to do with status and power and very little to do with honesty or generosity.   As a music historian at a well-endowed private liberal arts college in New England (which in American parlance shouts "Snobbery!" from the rooftops, even though the reality was much more down to earth), I often felt as if what I was primarily doing was teaching the music of previous oppressor classes to the future oppressor class in the hopes that at least they would be able to oppress people more tastefully.   (No one wants to be oppressed by someone who says "Mose-art"; it's almost as bad as being oppressed by someone who says "nucular"...)

Every field, perhaps every human endeavor, has its own set of signs that divide the in-crowd from the outsiders, those in the know from the Philistines.   In music the signs that you're an outsider might include tapping your feet to a symphony, enjoying Pachelbel's Canon, or calling a piano piece a "song."   These actions do no harm to anyone, but they distinguish between Us and Them, always elevating Us and diminishing Them.

It's a lot like high school.

What we call Classical music has always been the realm of the ruling classes, and, no matter what its genuine beauties and virtues, it retains that taint today.   Gardening, like Classical music, has its roots (ahaha) in the world of the European aristocracy.   Few are the gardening books that do not refer at least once to Sissinghurst and Villandry, possibly Chatsworth and Versailles, with a tip of the (top) hat somewhere along the line to Capability Brown, 18th-century landscape architect to the British gentry.   Most capital-G Gardeners, somewhere in their heart of hearts, have indelibly stamped as a Platonic ideal toward which they strive, The British Garden à la Capability Brown.   (A tip of my own hat, if I had one, to novelist Terry Pratchett for inventing Bloody Stupid Johnson, Brown's incompetent alter ego.)   Lower-case gardeners have their own snobberies, and the distinctions grow ever finer—those who preach The Organic Way vs. those who swear by Roundup; those who grow only native plants vs. those who must have the latest cultivars; those who adore hothouse annuals vs. those who decry them; those who lawn vs. those who ground-cover; those who ground-cover vs. those who gravel; those who like garden gnomes and those who Do Not.

It's not about gardening;  it's about Us and Them, even if we have to go out of our way to create a Them.   Gardening is (yet another) place where we stake our claim for self-hood; it is all too often a tool that allows us to elevate ourselves by diminishing others (who are, for the record, doing us no harm).

I sometimes wish that Edvard Munch, in addition to The Scream, had given us a painting called The Sneer.

A friend who had been employed for years in a more than ordinarily cutthroat music department once asked the dean of his institution why it was so vicious and judgmental.   The dean replied, "Because the stakes are so low."

Because the stakes are so low.   Yes.   I do believe that in some aspects of gardening the stakes are quite large.   Some methods foster biodiversity while others destroy it;  some build the soil while others strip it; some hoard water while others waste it.   But when it comes to the placement (or not) of garden gnomes, I hope we can all agree that the long-term consequences are few.   I recently read a garden essay—by an author whose work I enjoy—that sneered at people who grow orange marigolds.   Let's just pause for a moment to let that sink in and think about the stakes here...

Full disclosure:   I grow orange marigolds.  I love orange marigolds.   Apparently, people like me are a type—and rather a vulgar, déclassé type at that.   I'm not actually offended at the discovery, and please don't feel the need to reassure me that I'm still an OK Person.   The comment actually made me laugh out loud.   It also made me think about the degree to which our snobberies extend, and I'm afraid it set the reverse snob in me into high gear.   So the next couple of blog posts will celebrate the vulgar plants, the gauche plants—the ones that laugh a little too loudly, that wear a little too much makeup, that talk with a little too much twang, that belch a little too often in public.   (Well, not that.   That would be rude.)   And why not?

The stakes, after all, are so low.


  1. I'm one of Them. I not only tap my foot to classical music, I might just get up and boogie to it if the mood strikes, which is extremely gauche.

  2. A delightful piece! I am a more mellowed and seasoned landscape architect now, but came out of school quite a landscape design snob - so, I find this wonderfully fitting.

  3. I completely agree! Nicely written. I have orange marigolds around my yard, and I do love Pachelbal's Canon. Looking forward to reading about vulgar plants....

  4. Thanks for your comments, klb, kh, and Tierra! kh, in our areas of specialty I wouldn't be surprised if we all start out as snobs—I wonder if stating who we're against is safer somehow than stating who we are, or maybe figuring out who we're not is a necessary first step to self-discovery. (Kind of like Oedipus, only not as messy.) klb, in grad school I used to conduct along to concerts just to drive one of my professors nuts... Tierra, glad to know you're another orange marigold lover. We will revel in them next time!

  5. I would probably qualify as a classical snob to some extent (I play the viola), but someone tapping their foot to a symphony wouldn't bother me (so long as it wasn't audible, interfering with the music). I've done my share of foot tapping, and I'd say it's a pretty high compliment for someone to be enjoying the music that way.

    As for marigolds, orange is not my favorite color, but I've found they're pretty easy to grow, which makes me likely to grow them again next year. As a beginner gardener, any small success is worth repeating.

    I don't see what's wrong in having a standard of beauty or quality, though. Though perhaps it shouldn't be expressed in a judgmental manner, since it is rather subjective. I wouldn't want to be looked down on because I enjoy eating hot dogs and macaroni and cheese and would probably prefer them over some gourmet dishes. I do understand that hot dogs aren't haute cuisine, though. :)

  6. Ah the curse of snobbery and reverse snobbery which traps and entwines and doesn't allow you to immerse and truly enjoy.
    You make your points so well, and remind me of a certain 'coolness' one had to have at my secondary school in a boring suburb of London. The moment you managed to break out of the trendy cliques and the 'in crowd' you found yourself suffocated by another group's subtle (or not so subtle) rules, whether punk, goth or rock chick.
    I remember finally (FINALLY!) meeting other 'alternative' young 'uns with spiky hair who liked the same music as me, and then actually finding a place that PLAYED 'our kind' of music ... and then sadly standing around the edges of a vast dancefloor, heart thrumming, brain singing, adrenaline pumping, but unable to move ... because stepping onto the dancefloor to show your love and appreciation of the music would be considered 'uncool' ...
    Oh sad youth! to think our dancing days in life are so few, and we spent the best of them gazing at an empty expanse of oakwood floor.
    Too scared of others opinions to truly express ourselves. To afraid to just smile and enjoy the flowers.
    Thanks for your thought provoking blog.

  7. Jennifer—welcome, and thank you for your comments! I think the tricky part of setting standards of beauty is being able to discern when they're arbitrary (personal taste), when they're based on a subconscious set of class values, and when they're based on something intrinsic like good craftsmanship. (And gosh darn it, why don't we have a good gender-neutral word for that yet?) I'm uncomfortable when I realize how many of our standards are class-based, in our supposedly classless society. The anti-orange marigolds garden writer considered them to be much too lower-middle class, and that was clearly a bad thing. (Why?)

    Bags—I'm so happy to see you here! The image you portray of that dance floor is vivid and all too painful—when we're young, perhaps we have an excuse for letting others define our enjoyments, but once we've grown beyond that... I've begun to hate the whole concept of "cool." It's all about never living anything to the hilt, never letting yourself be moved, never going over the top with enthusiasm. Why live with the dampers on all the time???

  8. A timely case in point, by the way (the comments made my jaw drop): Garden Rant

  9. Stacy, Popped over here from Gardenrant~had to visit since I so agreed with your comment~ I have had a charming time visiting and reading your posts! Keep up the good work~gail

  10. Great post and wonderful writing. And I did not know orange marigolds had such a rep. Guess that makes me a philistine. ;)

  11. Gail, thank you - it's been quite a week over at Gardenrant... :) I love your Garden Agreements, by the way!

    Thank you, littlehouse - We Philistines are thick on the ground these days.