Strangers in the land of Elite: Further Reflections on Elitism

There is an invisible barrier that stands between the mediocre and the elite.  The barrier cannot be seen, and is made not of bricks and mortar, but of tuts and frowns.  It is higher than man can scale, for who can surmount the point at which one can perceive one’s own nose?

Let me take, for an example, a recent trip to the Royal Opera House where the performance embodied all that is elite in music, theatre, design and dance. It comprised of a sequence of three dramatically contrasting ballets each related in some way to the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton who created the first two works and arranged for the third to be staged. A glorious triptych presented by a cast of artistic virtuosi.

A group of friends, each one embroiled in the arts, taking their seats for an evening of delight; enjoying every moment with sheer elation. Our hearts leapt, our pulses raced and our breath was stilled by the passion of the dance; we even let out a giggle or two at the hilarity of a particularly comic scene – to our immediate regret.

For this, my darlings, was the ballet. It does not do to enjoy oneself; nor to titter at the amusing choreography. Were this Shakespeare, rapturous chortlings would have accompanied every pun and comic operas often descend into almost competitive jollity. This calculated merriment, it seems, is essential in order to prove exactly how au fait one is with the work in question.* But here, our genuine enjoyment was met with looks of disdain.

The crux came during the interval, when a fabulous young woman, with a regional accent (shocking, I know), offered to help me with my dress. “Oh no” she said, “I’m not supposed to talk to you, am I? No one ever talks to each other here.” She was at the Royal Opera House because she enjoys the elite and was brave enough to face the elitism that this entails, but she could never feel welcome in this world.

There, in the toilets of the Royal Opera House, it occurred to me why the artistic elite is perceived as unpopular and inaccessible to the general public. It is not the price; we paid less than a cinema ticket. It is not the availability; we bought tickets only the week before. It is certainly not the content of the piece; I’ve seen more complex plots in an episode of Doctors. It is the barrier, constructed by elitism that excludes those deemed unsuitable from feeling welcome in the world of the elite.

The barrier is entirely distinct from the elite and usually, the uninvited guest, for it is this barrier that prevents the relationship between the author and the audience from flourishing. Moreover, it is those who create the barrier who suffer most for they are too busy looking down from their lofty state to enjoy the beauty that lies before them.

Katharine J Longworth

* In order to achieve this effect, one might also consider breaking into applause before the final note has sounded.


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