A nous, l’ivresse meilleure des chants joyeux!

June 2, 2011 at 4:37 am

| Gabriel |

As is well known to most sociologists of culture, there has been a steep decline in consumption of traditional high culture. You can look at data like Survey of Public Participation in the Arts to see a pretty steep decline in taste for classical music and opera, much of which appears to be cohort-based rather than period or age based. Hence a series of NEA reports on the aging arts audience.

Enter the curious fact that even though we increasingly don’t actually listen to classical music or opera, we still admire people who do as is observable in the lab as a fairly substantial halo effect (h/t Robin Hanson). This suggests that in some sense we are leaving money on the table, cultural capital wise. An interesting question is why we don’t take up this cultural arbitrage opportunity?

One answer would be that it’s simply too hard for most people to make themselves like fine art, even if they wanted to in some sort of deliberate calculation. This would parallel the observation that returns to education continue to increase but college and high school graduation rates have stalled as we reach deeper into the talent pool. Whatever the merits for formal education, I have a hard time buying this for music since (a) lots of classical and opera is intrinsically pretty accessible and (b) a few generations ago classical and opera was much more popular, including among people with little formal education. Similarly, a lot of pop music is not intrinsically accessible, in the sense that it is musically complex and behaves as an addiction good / acquired taste.

Another possibility for the “leaving cultural capital on the table” paradox, and one I find far more plausible, is that music serves as a signal of social membership. In this conception expressing interest in classical or opera would strike most people as a stuck-up affectation whereas consuming pop music of the appropriate kind reaffirms solidarity with the sub-group. This is basically the model described in qualitative work on cultural capital and the working class. Failure to adopt a positive stigma would thus parallel the actual adoption of negative stigma. For instance,  Fryer and Levitt’s explanation for distinctively black names is basically that they are costly (and therefore credible) signaling of group solidarity. In the same way, adopting a taste for classical music or opera would be seen in many social circles, including those of many affluent people, as a pretentious affectation that implies disloyalty to the group.

[The title of this post means “for us, we prefer the greater drunkenness of joyful songs.” Click through to hear it in context. (the song starts at 3:23). Or buy an earlier recording for a buck.]


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