Department of Classics, Hunter College C.U.N.Y.
She's Culture Vulture Lucy....
from Culture Vulture, Weldon Kees, Bay Records, 1998
(lyric recorded by Weldon Kees and Bob Helm, 1953)
I'm not just talking about their presence in museums, art galleries, playhouses, and the glitzier cafes and bookshops. Those places constitute a kind of natural habitat for culture vultures, and one expects to see them in such spots. Since about 1960, when "attending the cinema" (instead of just going to the movies) became a social status marker, film theaters have become a prime hangout for them. But you'll also now find them in restaurants, shops, parks, and--God help us--college classrooms.
"Culture vulture" is a convenient mnemonic phrase for a person who attends lectures, readings, and public exhibitions of the visual or performing arts solely as a means of ratifying his status in some imagined elite. These people have been endemic to Western society since the Renaissance, when (as the historian Burckhardt pointed out) a sundering divide opened up between the cultivated and the uncultivated classes. Culture vultures want to make sure everyone sees that they are on the posh half of that divide. For example, they may have no actual interest in the opera or the ballet, but they dutifully attend performances, simply because they feel that their aspiration to a high social position requires it. They may be members of a museum or concert hall. because "it seems the right thing to do." They show up at art galleries, not so much to view the paintings as to be viewed by their neighbors.
Do culture vultures actually like the art, music, and various performances that they pay for? It's a moot point, for their motivation in attending has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with status seeking. Most human beings have some artistic interests. Someone may be a passionate admirer of Baroque music, someone else an aficionado of Monet's paintings, another person a fan of classical jazz, or devoted to Shaw's plays, or crazy about Hemingway's stories. In fact, it's usual for people to have a range of aesthetic hankerings that we indulge piecemeal, as the occasion allows. But a culture vulture has no overriding aesthetic interests at all. His attitude might be expressed in the following question: "Is this public art display or performance socially prestigious, and if so, how can I attach myself to it in such a way that the prestige will rub off on me?" Thus, for the culture vulture, attending a symphony at Lincoln Center is really analogous to wearing an Armani suit, or sporting a Gucci handbag, or ostentatiously using an expensive laptop in public. The music is unimportant; the socially conscious gesture is crucial.
The problem is acute in New York, where social and class distinctions are savagely exacerbated by a multi-ethnic population, and by intense competition among ambitious newcomers for membership in the New York elite. Every talentless little turd from Podunk who thinks he's a budding novelist or choreographer comes here to live (usually in Manhattan), where he pays an exorbitant rent, a preposterously high college tuition, and flagrantly inflated prices for everything else. Such people will work for years as waiters or free-lance computer programmers or part-time prostitutes until they finally realize that their talent is imaginary, or at least too modest to provide a living. But until then, the desperation and rage inherent in their situation are the driving forces behind the lust for cultural differentiation--that is, the need to proclaim one's specialness and difference and superiority. New York offers an array of institutions where one can publicly establish one's credentials as a member of the sophisticated upper crust, or--to put it in a different perspective--to distance oneself from those who are socially inferior.
The recent imbroglios over certain controversial displays at the Brooklyn Museum are useful illustrations of my point. The Brooklyn Museum, a third-rate institution that has always lived in painful consciousness of its inferiority to the august Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan, is particularly prone to trumpet its sophistication, and consequently to attract culture vultures who want to do the same for themselves. The Museum basically serves two paying constituencies: a younger population of status-conscious yuppies in Park Slope (my own neighborhood), and an aging but dwindling group of old-fashioned liberal-s (mostly retired schoolteachers and other civil-service types) who like to think of themselves as a bastion of cultural enlightenment. So when the Brooklyn Museum puts on exhibits of art offensive to Christians, it is not showing any sort of avant-garde courage, or even any serious interest in transgressive art. It is merely increasing its revenues, in good corporate fashion, by appealing to its natural niche markets. Showing disdain for white working-class ethnics and their religion is a favorite pastime of culture vultures, which is why they come in droves to any well-publicized blasphemous or obscene display. Again, the art is not the issue; the assertion of oneís social loyalties is.
All of which leads me, inevitably, to the poetry scene. Poetry until lately has been free from the culture vulture infestation. This made perfect sense, since genuine poetry is probably the most marginalized of art forms in this country, with very little prestige attached to its public manifestations. Coming to a small storefront or library reading room or church auditorium to hear open-mike recitals hasn't the panache of going to the latest hot exhibit at the Whitney, or having lunch on the piazza at the MOMA. There are of course some exceptions: the poetry lovefests at the 92nd Street Y in upper Manhattan are well-known and tony, and that makes it a good place to observe two typical sorts of New York culture vulture: superannuated dowagers in support shoes and turbans, and vaguely effeminate yuppie males with immaculately trimmed beards, both carrying copies of The New Yorker and The Nation as fashion accessories. But for the most part such people never bothered to come to the more ordinary poetry readings.
That, alas, is changing. I now notice, in venues where I wouldn't have imagined it possible, the presence of culture vultures. To me this is a sign that class divisions in American society are growing painfully sharp. If someone feels compelled to show off his superior status at an obscure poetry group reading in a rented basement, then we are in a very bad way.
Let me give some examples. There is one older woman who has been showing up regularly at a poetry reading series I attend. She sits there (in the front row) goggle-eyed with rapt admiration of those who get up to recite. After every single poem she says under her breath--but loud enough to be heard by everyone--"Oh wow, that's powerful!" Every single poem! You would think that she would have heard at least a few pieces that she didn't like. But I soon realized that she wasn't praising the verse--she was praising her own exquisite sensibility, and letting us all know that it was constantly at work.
Recently at a Manhattan reading that took place on the twentieth floor of a skyscraper, a breathless woman actually said the following to me: "Isn't it wonderful? Here we are, high up above the streets, reveling in all this beautiful poetry. And we're totally isolated from the barbarians on the ground!" She said this as if she were safe within a bomb shelter while everyone else was being incinerated. I longed to tell her that her attitude represented the core problem with poetry today--that it had no audience other than the self-absorbed little circle of mutual masturbators who produce it and praise it. But I didn't say anything. What would be the use? When people are invincibly ignorant it's best to leave them to their fate, as the Greeks realized.
That same month, at a different reading in another borough, something eerily similar was said to me by another woman. She had once worked (in a non-performing capacity, no doubt) for the Martha Graham dance ensemble. Describing her work with Graham in the 1950s, she enthused "It was absolutely elevating. We were producing pure dance, according to the highest standards. What was anyone else doing? Nothing! We were a privileged elite, and it was delicious!" And here she was, half a century later, at a hole-in-the-wall poetry reading, reciting nostalgic poems about that same sense of aristocratic hauteur. Does anyone besides me notice the absolutely poisonous nature of this woman's soul?
I mentioned the college classroom earlier, and here too one finds a rather unpleasant confirmation of the trend. I teach at Hunter College, a school in the C.U.N.Y. system. We have an "Honors Program at Hunter, wherein students with higher grades and proven scholastic abilities may take somewhat more advanced courses than the ones regularly offered to undergraduates. There's nothing wrong with the idea in itself, but an unforeseen consequence has been the growth of an insufferably snobbish attitude among Honors Program students towards their fellow classmates. For example, I give a course, open to all students, in the rudiments of Greek and Latin vocabulary. I make the course as clear and as straightforward as I can, so that the material (which is somewhat recondite) will be accessible to the widest range of students. As a result, the vast majority of my class usually earns A or B grades, even when they are not Classics majors. Want to guess which students don't get high grades? It's the Honors Program students. Why? Very simple: They are socially offended by the idea that ordinary students can get A or B in my class, and therefore they refuse to take the classwork seriously. In their view, only Honors students should get A grades; everyone else should be in the C range. So they sit there in spiteful silence, not deigning to take part in class discussion, and not studying. After all, what sense is there in putting effort into a class where black, brown, yellow, and working-class white kids can get A? There's no way to show one's superiority to the Great Unwashed in a situation like that. These Honors students are embryonic culture vultures, since their interest is in sending social signals, and not in actual learning.
We are now living in a society where appearance--and especially status-marking appearance--is more important than real ability, knowledge, or achievement. Credentials, public recognition, and celebrity are taken as the only guarantors of worth. If you think this hasn't affected the composition of poetry, think harder. Instead of just sitting down and writing the best poems they can, many young poets are frantically net-working and asskissing to get themselves into print, or into the good graces of some editor. Rather than worrying about the poem, they are worrying about its reception. This is a degraded and sick habit, but it is now general, even among some older poets who should know better. And the poetry that emerges from it all is merely timeserving tripe.
As the socioeconomic divisions grow more pronounced in Western society, especially valued will be any kind of cultural marker that says one is not part of the hated laboring classes, with their supposed religious and political atavism. In the past, a visible connoisseurship of art, music, dance, and drama was sufficient for this purpose. Culture vultures (that is, those anxious to disassociate themselves from the proletariat) merely had to keep their opera season's tickets and museum memberships up to date. But that, it would seem, is no longer enough. A frantic desperation now possesses them. A vast range of things has turned into ammunition in our intensifying social war: neighborhoods, schools, habits of diet, recreational practices, entertainment choices, speech patterns, wardrobes, lifestyles--y6u name it. It's now a combat zone between ordinary working people and the obnoxious yuppie elites who think of themselves as our natural rulers and masters.
Itís a shame that poetry had to be sucked into this war, but it was inevitable. Anything as rare and unpopular as poetry was bound to be snatched up as a perfect status-marker by culture vultures. And if by some strange chance poetry should once again become part of the common patrimony of literate persons, as it was a hundred years ago, watch how quickly our culture vultures will drop it.
Someone may object that there have always been marked social differences between the classes. Yes, but in the past this was primarily in material goods, like homes, clothing, and food. An English country squire in 1510 may have been better fed and dressed than his tenants, but he was not particularly different from them in his tastes, general attitudes, and philosophic worldview. Today, however, traditional material class differences are being reinforced by the addition of very serious ideological and attitudinal ones, and those differences are being flaunted in increasingly obnoxious ways. The culture vultures are merely a symptom of this disease.
If these trends continue, they will lead to a social explosion. It's one thing to be exploited economically by a clique of aristocrats; people throughout history have tolerated that. It's quite another thing if that same clique also despises your tastes, your religion, your politics, your entire lifestyle, and goes to ostentatious lengths to show it. That's when the knives are sharpened. Right now, behind the babble of our culture vultures, you can hear the whirr of the whetstone.
Joseph S. Salemi