Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize and Redefining High Culture

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

This week, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Angry internet posts screamed at the world. The validity of the Nobel Prize as a marker of high culture came into question. The traditional gatekeepers of culture, the educated, the academic, screamed to the sky that this was a travesty.

The real issue is that by inducting a popular culture icon into the hallowed walls of high culture, this prize creates a shift in the definitions of literature and music and breaks down a false divide. Diana Crane in her chapter titled “High Culture versus Popular Culture Revisited: A Reconceptualization of Recorded Cultures” makes several important points relevant to the reason that Bob Dylan’s induction matters. First, she notes that “the use of modern technologies to produce, record, or disseminate culture objects has often been taken as an indicator that such creators are production popular rather than high culture” (59). By this definition, music disseminated through radio, as opposed to in-person concerts, would be considered popular (or low) culture because there is easy access to it. However, the rise of technology is increasingly outdating this definition. The classical music touted as modern high culture was created in a time where the only people who had access to art, music, and literature were those with financial means. In order to go to the opera, one had to be able to afford not only opera tickets but also the required attire. To read great works, one had to have an education that enabled literacy. Only those with money and access had an education allowing this. Today, we would argue that high culture required a certain level of privilege in order to engage with it.

As time rolled forward, theater was viewed as low culture. Shakespeare, as the old wive’s tale goes, was considered low culture for his time. He was bawdy. He was vulgar. His plays were performed for the masses. His works were functionally the B Movies of his time. Today, however, Shakespeare is considered high culture. Examining the reason for this unearths the same reasoning that opera was high culture: access. In order to decode Shakespeare in our modern day, one needs to not only be literate but to be able to cognate the syntax of people during Shakespeare’s time. The same can also be said of The Canterbury Tales. The reason they are considered high culture is because they require translation from one era’s modern language to another era’s language. It does not mean that they were high culture in their own times.

Cultural gatekeepers create the sense of high versus low culture. These gatekeepers, whether they be awards committees or academics or others, believe they have the right to determine what cultural object is worthy of admiration. The problem, as Crane notes, is that “through a process of cultural exclusion based on the use of high culture as a symbolic boundary, urban cultures that are aimed at local audiences drawn from lower-class or minority groups are typically not defined as high culture (e.g black and Hispanic theater, graffiti, and mural painting in urban ghettos) and are generally ignored by critics and historians” (60-61). Those works created by people without privilege are considered low culture. Bob Dylan does not appear to fall into one of these underrepresented groups when viewed as the traditional “old, white male,” despite his traditional Jewish upbringing. A case can be made that the brouhaha over his nomination parallels the same gatekeeping seen in social discourse over rap music, comic books, television shows, and movies.

Over the last year, critics have been astounded by the hip-hop musical sensation Hamilton: An American Musical. The gatekeepers of high culture, critics, accepted this version of hip-hop as acceptable. People acted as though the incorporation of history and hip-hop was previously unfathomable because the two were so distinct. Critics admitted Hamilton into cultural canon in part because the source material was a Pulitzer prize-winning book that made the material acceptable to the gatekeepers of high culture.

In English classes nationwide, teachers attempt to reach their students by using rap music as a hook. By making the analogy that hip-hop is another form of poetry, teachers engage students in what some consider a mundane subject. In fact, in a Saturday Night Live skit from October 8, 2016, the joke was made about the hip teacher trying to teach literature through hip-hop with Lin Manuel-Miranda as the teacher saying that Shakespeare was the original rapper. This teaching method of using hip-hop as spoken word to engage children in literature is so overused that it has become a humorous trope. Yet, the majority of society considers hip-hop artists neither musicians in the traditional sense nor poets in the traditional sense. The societal gatekeepers act as though these art forms are meaningless in the larger scope.

Bob Dylan represented a similar type of popular culture intended for those without a voice in the 1960s. Yes, he is an old, white man. However, by presenting him with the Nobel Prize for Literature, the gatekeepers are accepting new modes of high culture. Consigning art forms to popular culture, thus excluding them from the more widely accepted high culture, ensures the ongoing cycle of privilege that created high culture. Bob Dylan’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature marks a shift in the societal view of high and low culture. No one currently alive remembers a time when Shakespeare was considered low culture. However, surely there was a similar tipping point in the societal view of his works. Today, we are lucky enough to witness the seismic shift in how the gatekeepers recognize cultural meaning.

The times, they are a-changin’.

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