Crowds and Culture

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This spring I spent two weeks in Italy. According to guidebooks and friends, April was ideal: after the rains, before the summer heat and the tourist season. That sounded plausible; but in the event, it rained every day, and the churches, museums, markets, gardens, ruins, and temples were thronged with tourists. Disappointment makes one philosophical. Since it’s hard to philosophize for very long about the weather, I soon began to reflect on the crowds.

I had prepared for the trip by reading Twilight in Italy and Sea and Sardinia by D. H. Lawrence and Old Calabria by Norman Douglas. Lovely books all and written, apparently, just before the Flood. Trains and boats were crowded in these books, but with Italians (the authors traveled second or third class), not tourists. Cultural sites and picturesque scenery were not, as now, overrun. Only artists and the upper or upper-middle classes either wanted to or could afford to visit, and as a result, those who came found what they were looking for. Unlike me.

In 1930 Ortega y Gasset published The Revolt of the Masses, whose opening pages announced a momentous phenomenon, which he called “plenitude” but might have called “crowdedness.” For the first time in Europe, Ortega wrote:

Towns are full of people, houses full of tenants, hotels full of guests, trains full of travelers, cafes full of customers, parks full of promenaders, consulting-rooms of famous doctors full of patients, theaters full of spectators, and beaches full of bathers. What previously was, in general, no problem, now begins to be an everyday one, namely, to find room.

Ortega was ambivalent about all this. No one, he admitted, could begrudge the people more pleasures or better medical care. But culture was another matter. He thought that while formerly most travelers were prepared, by training or inheritance, to appreciate art and historic places, the new crowds were not. The latter had come to assert themselves rather than submit themselves, or else – most often, in fact – for no definite purpose. The masses “have decided to advance to the foreground of social life, to occupy the places, to use the instruments, and to enjoy the pleasures hitherto reserved for the few.” Though this sounds unexceptionable, “it is evident that these places were never intended for the multitude, for their dimensions are too limited, and the crowd is continuously overflowing … “

I must confess to similar retrograde feelings, especially about tour groups. Swarms of Spanish and Swedish high-school students pinned my companion and me against the wall at the summit of St. Peter’s. Everywhere we turned in the Boboli Gardens, we encountered chattering clumps of Italian junior-high-school students. We dashed from room to room in the Pitti Palace, trying to stay ahead of a German group with a very loud (and very pedestrian) guide. The mosaics at Sicily’s Piazza Armerina were splendid even in the rain – but only because the many groups present were mostly sheltering in the gift shop and cafeteria. And so on, everywhere.

All this may sound so commonplace, so predictable, so taken-for-granted a travel hazard that there’s not much point complaining about it. Actually, I’m not sure, on reflection, that I want to complain. Perhaps the crowd is even a cause for – guarded – celebration, for a muffled cheer. In theory, after all, the cultural landmarks of Europe are everyone’s heritage. Better a single confused, brief, distant glimpse of them than yet another generation of ignorance for half the population or more. Many of the crowd will have come for no reason they can articulate; but for others, out of a daily round of routine labor and consumption, the trip may be a shy, wistful homage to the higher life. And even if barren for the traveler, the trip may have a residual effect, may water a seed, blow on a spark, transmit a message to a child, neighbor, co-worker.

In any case, isn’t the increasing activity of the masses – even if painfully inept at first – virtually the definition of political progress? To a democrat and egalitarian, can this publicizing of culture, this subversion of elite privilege, be anything but good? And isn’t this large-scale economic and cultural democratization what has made possible my own pilgrimage, the child and grandchild of poor, uneducated southern Italian immigrants?

True … and yet. Something’s not right. It’s not a happy match; the places themselves are, in a sense, frustrated. A half-empty theater or sports stadium is a waste; when they’re full, both performers and audience are exhilarated. But the Farnese Gardens, the Cappella Palatina, the Greek temples of Sicily can only work their magic on a few visitors at a time. And no doubt they would prefer some visitors to others: erudite old friends and ardent neophytes rather than the dutiful, the acquisitive, the ignorant, or the naively curious.

It doesn’t matter, I tell myself; such distinctions are politically invidious, even when made by great monuments (or their imagined spirits). The well-prepared are disproportionately the socio-economically advantaged. Even if it were feasible, as of course it’s not, would I really want to penalize the disadvantaged, to compound injustice by restricting their access to “the best places, the relatively refined creations of human culture” (Ortega)?

Well no, I guess not. Anyway, my purpose here is not to propose a policy, which is a complicated and detailed matter, but merely to sort out my feelings. Am I glad or not that those crowds were there; or better, why am I ambivalent about them? I’m glad that – to put it crudely – the masses are being made aware of culture. But I’m sorry that this awareness is first awakened through the medium of advertising and therefore perceives culture, at least at first, as an object of consumption. Whether active (i.e., reading their guidebook) or passive, few tourists seemed to recognize (I’m speculating, I admit) that there might be any other qualification for being where they were – in the holy places of European culture – than having paid.

I’ve quoted Ortega’s complaint that the “places hitherto reserved for the few” are now being occupied by “the multitude.” Ortega was a Nietzschean conservative and had his own, non-partisan idea of who such places ought to be reserved for:

The most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.

This seems to me a valid, indeed a crucial, distinction. Ortega’s mistake – what made him a conservative – was his assumption that this distinction between high-quality and low-quality human beings, between creative and critical people on the one hand and passive consumers and conformists on the other, was a metaphysical distinction, was just a fact of human nature. He never considered that increasing the number of the responsible, the cultivated, the noble from generation to generation might be possible through a supreme effort of democratic pedagogy. He went, that is, only part of the way with William Morris and Oscar Wilde toward the loftiest conception of socialism yet devised.

If such a pedagogy is feasible – alas, not in our lifetime the experiment, gentle readers, and probably not in our grandchildren’s – there may be just as many visitors on an average day then as now to the great artistic shrines and historic places, or even more. But they won’t be crowds.



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George Scialabba