Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. . . . To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. . . . Not to discriminate . . is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening (Pater 1868, 574).
"Discrimination," every campus sloganeer tells us, is a bad firing, un-American, subversive, and elitist. But the whole point of a university education used to be to teach discrimination, to get students to discriminate between good art and bad, good writing and bad, sound science and bad (Slavitt 1996, 134)
This paper presents an essay on the dangers of the populist tendency to aim education at the lowest common denominator; to teach misplaced egalitarianism in the service of unmerited self-esteem; or to encourage attitudes toward aesthetic appreciation that, by failing to discriminate, grant equal but undeserved artistic stature to all works of art and entertainment. The essay addresses these issues using a style of discourse developed elsewhere and justified at length under the heading Subjective Personal Introspection or SPI (Holbrook 1995a, 1995b). This approach emphasizes a sharing of the author's impressions and self-reflections in a manner that might be characterized as "autoethnography" or as "participant observation in one's own life as a consumer." The central theme in the present application of SPI concerns the interrelated roles of aesthetic consumption and education as illustrated by three vignettes. These vignettes address aesthetic responses pertinent to the author's own experiences as a musician (Father White), the teaching of musical appreciation in a recent film (Mr. Holland), and related phenomena characterizing the work of an artistically eminent singer (Nancy LaMott). In pursuing the application of SPI to these themes, the present essay also illustrates an approach based on the semiological analysis of symbolic consumer behavior, as discussed at length in the recent work on The Semiotics of Consumption by Holbrook and Hirschman (1993; cf. Wattel 1995).
Before beginning, I should perhaps pause briefly to put the approach referred to as Subjective Personal Introspection (SPI) into its historical, conceptual, methodological, and teleological context (see also Hirschman and Holbrook 1992). In general, as advocated and justified by Holbrook (1995a, 1995b), SPI draws on a postpositivistic, interpretivistic, or "postmodern" (in the sense of pluralistic) view of the social sciences (Hirschman and Holbrook 1992; Lutz 1989; Sherry 1991). Specifically, SPI makes use of rhetorical techniques for encouraging intersubjective consensus among the members of a community of scientists or scholars by borrowing from persuasive devices often associated with the humanities, such as story telling, anecdotes, metaphors, and other forms of narrative. The application of these interpretivistic tools was first illustrated in consumer research by what Holbrook (1986, 1987, 1988a, 1988b) later called his "ACR Triology" (Holbrook 1995a, 1995b). As shown in these extended examples, SPI involves engaging in participant observation of one's own life as a consumer. In this sense, it attempts to probe the depths of the human condition as experienced from the author's point of view. Further, its form of expression generally takes the shape of a self-reflective, impressionistic essay rather than, say, a laboratory experiment, an empirical survey, or a systematic ethnography. In other words, SPI emphasizes a humanistic concern for expression rather than a (neo)positivistic focus on hypothesis testing (Hirschman 1985, 1986). Besides the aforementioned "ACR Trilogy," examples of SPI in consumer research have appeared in the work of, among others, Hirschman (1991) and Gould (1991).
Obviously, an approach that departs so far from the conventional rules of ordinary (neo)positivistic investigation has won its fair share of critical comment from the perspectives of both the standard (neo)positivistic philosophy of science (Calder and Tybout 1987) and the conventional view of ethnography (Wallendorf and Brucks 1993). Holbrook and others have responded at length to such critiques from both the (neo)positivistic side (Holbrook 1995a, 1995b; Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy 1988) and the ethnographic side (Gould 1995; Holbrook 1995a). Fundamentally, such defenses hinge on the insensitivity of traditional (neo)positivistic or ethnographic methods to potential insights gained from more interpretivistic approaches drawn from the humanities - or, to put it more colloquially, the inability of the more cut-and-dried methods to plumb the depths of the human condition. The intention behind the present essay is not to engage this debate at even greater length by offering still one more formal defense of SPI but rather to illustrate the general approach by means of what I take to be one fruitful application of Subjective Personal Introspection to a consideration of "The Dangers of Educational and Cultural Populism." I, therefore, turn to an account of my three related vignettes before concluding with some suggestions concerning their implications for those concerned with the social critique of public policy and with issues relevant to consumer affairs.
FATHER WHITE AND THE PROBLEMS OF AESTHETIC INSENSITIVITY
For a number of years during the 1970s, I played as a volunteer in a jazz-rock band that used to provide the music for the early Sunday Morning service of our local Episcopal Church at West End Avenue and 81st Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The minister of this parish - let's call it Heavenly Angels Church and let's call him Father White - was a distinguished and devoted British gentleman who (as confirmed by innumerable conversations) had no knowledge of jazz, of rock, or of any other musical genres beyond those embodied by the standard 1940 Hymnal. His tastes ran in the direction of "Fight the Good Fight With All Our Might" or, perhaps, "Onward Christian Soldiers." It probably showed divine dedication to his calling that Father White managed to tolerate our brand of rock-tinged jazz even a little bit.
Our music group called itself the "King James Version" or the "KJV" for short. It consisted mostly of nonreligious Jews and ex-Catholics, with just an occasional Episcopalian thrown in for good measure. The drummer, with whom I co-led the KJV, qualified as the only real professional musician in our midst. I played the role of inveterate amateur, desperately trying to sandwich the music in between my heavy responsibilities, first as a doctoral student and later as a marketing instructor at Columbia University a few blocks farther uptown.
Together, we co-leaders of the KJV chose its material, wrote the arrangements, and even composed a few quasi-sacred pieces. To round out the band's membership, we began by recruiting a competent flute player from the vestry of the church. She had no real jazz feeling, but, well-trained on technique, she could play literally anything that we could write down. Later, after she withdrew from the church to pursue other matters, we replaced her with another well-schooled flautist who possessed basically the same credentials - good reading ability but not much feeling for jazz and no improvisational skills whatsoever.
In the beginning, most of the remaining participants in the KJV could not actually play any musical instruments at all but, with patience from those of us who did the writing, could learn to execute simple multi-part vocal arrangements. They also took tums singing the solo leads. At first, this produced mostly embarrassing results. But, over time, we managed to find three different out-of-work actresses - all aspiring to roles in musical comedy on Broadway - who willingly condescended to hone their craft by performing with the KJV. Sometimes, their star-like glitter attracted other semi-professionals - such as an older jazz trumpet player who had actually worked in the real-life big bands of the 1940s and who materialized one day, trumpet in hand, probably in part because he happened to have a crush on Father White's elder daughter. Or a gifted flute player who was married to one of my best-ever MBA students and who, this time, did have some bona fide jazz roots. Or one of my colleagues whose father had played jazz piano professionally, who had studied music at his dad's elbow, who could sight read anything you could put in front of him, and who - wonder of wonders - could enthusiastically improvise complex and interesting solos, particularly on bossa novas, which were his specialty (ever since he had spent a few terms teaching in Brazil).
We asked this versatile piano player to focus on electronic keyboards because - in an embarrassment of riches - we were also blessed with two more pianists who mostly played the big, out-of-tune, sticky-keyed, grime-covered concert grand that graced the small chapel tucked away in a dark corner of the Heavenly Angels church building where we almost furtively conducted our early morning, alternative worship services. One of these supplementary pianists was a sensitive, young, gay man who approached his musical assignments in something like the way that Richard Simmons approaches his appearances on the David Letterman show - always ready to be hurt or wounded by the slightest hint that he had played the wrong notes in the wrong places (which he often had), but occasionally able to turn in a sparkling performance in which everything seemed to click. The other supplementary pianist was me.
Being musically redundant and wishing to capitalize on every scrap of available talent, I simply had to learn to play another instrument-namely, the instrument that any reader who is knowledgeable about bands and who has paid careful attention thus far will have noticed that we conspicuously lacked - specifically, the bass. So I bought myself a Fender Precision Bass. And by dint of endless hours spent practicing scales and fills when I should have been trying to write journal articles, I managed to learn enough notes, to acquire enough tricks, and to build enough calluses to permit me to lay down a sort of jazzy soft-rock beat that fit fairly well with most of the music we tried to perform.
These performances typically rested on the premise of reworking the familiar chestnuts from the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal. Hence, at the request of the first flautist, we played a rollicking, jazz-waltz version of "Holy, Holy, Holy," with her chirping away on a tinny but gratifyingly complex obbligato part that we wrote for her. Similarly, to please the insecure Richard Simmons clone (a dyed-in-the-wool Greer Garson fan), we blasted out some high-intensity and irreverent variations on "Children of the Heavenly King," featuring my five-year-old son tinkling insistently on a triangle and the drummer's wife knocking the jingles off a tambourine.
When we were not performing nearly sacrilegious variations on the old standbys 'from the Episcopalian hymnal - "Praise to the Lord," "Fairest Lord Jesus," "What Child Is This?," and so on - we did our best to adapt our favorite gospel songs like "Amazing Grace," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," or "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as well as some of the popular music of the day that struck us as having vaguely spiritual overtones. Thus did we come to perform such tunes as "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," and "Let It Be." In the same vein, we dared to play our version of the first big solo hit by the young Michael Jackson. This song was a rather sweet and touching paean to friendship. Unfortunately, it was also about a rat named "Ben" - a good rat to be sure (as opposed to the bad rat called "Willard"), but a rat nonetheless. Despite the clearly explicit message of love and caring expressed by "Ben," some of the Heavenly Angels found it distressing to hear its rodent-associated lyrics sung during Holy Communion.
Father White - by this time, with his delicate British sensibilities no doubt offended to the core - must have shared in this disapprobation and doubtless agreed with the reservations loudly voiced by some members of his heavenly and angelic congregation. But Father White faced a major logistical and liturgical dilemma. The truth was that, on most early Sunday mornings, the 20 to 25 participants in the KJV (counting their spouses, children, and significant others) vastly outnumbered the regular parishioners …