Part 2: Cults of Superiority 

In my previous post in this ‘Pole Dancing: An Art Historian’s Perspective’ I discussed the Aesthetics of Acceptable Sexy. I explained the theoretical definitions of Fine Art / Erotic Art and pornography, and examined the philosophical thought behind these definitions, and why they are separated on a social and cultural level.

One thing became clear in this discussion; that the proponents of Fine Art sought to ‘elevate’ a work’s status in order to legitimise it as Art, whereas work that was too sensual or ‘urged the viewer to action’ (such as arousal), according to Kant’s philosophy, was seen as a lower cultural product as a result, and therefore unworthy of being recognised as Art.

So, this brings us to my next discussion. High culture vs Kitsch / low culture. What are these definitions and why do they pertain to Art, and therefore pole dancing? Why, as a society, are we so obsessed with separating culture into what we consider refined taste in opposition to what is considered lowbrow?

What is High Culture and what is Kitsch? 

High Culture: Highly refined artistic or intellectual achievement, and the appreciation of this. A cultural sophistication.

Kitsch: Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality. Often popularly mass-produced and considered primarily decorative or ornamental.

Comparing these definitions to what I discussed previously, you can begin to see how they can compare to those definitions of Fine and Erotic Art compared to pornography that I discussed in the previous post. Once again, the definitions depend upon a notion of:

1) the perceived quality of the production of the work.

2) the way in which the work engages the viewer.

Our idea of High Culture is reflected in the creative products that we class as Fine Art, or the activities that are seen as more refined, or ‘posh’. Perhaps more accurately, it is those things that stimulate an ‘Ooooh, get you’ when mentioned. They are the ballet, sculpture, exhibitions, and even… shopping at Waitrose or holidaying to Centre Parcs (wink).

Kitsch, on the other hand, is what is enjoyed by ‘the masses’. It is soap operas, paintings of dogs or pretty country scenes, tacky trinkets, and holidays to Butlins. They are the ‘guilty pleasures’, or the things your snooty aunt ‘wouldn’t be seen dead doing’.

The reason we uphold these definitions? To labels ourselves and prescribe our self-identity. Either with what we associate with, or more importantly, what we don’t associate with. These definitions are interesting because they are defined by their relation to class and education. They are also inherently elitist and this is why…

Cults of Superiority

The areas of culture that we count as High Culture are traditionally associated with creative output or other pursuits that are either:

1) Only easily accessible to the wealthier factions of society.

2) Only understood by those who have afforded and received the relevant education.

In order to ‘get’ Fine Art you need to have first of all been exposed to it from a young age. This means expensive trips to major cities in order to visit the right museums, or having access to engaged and relevant education either at school or at home. Seeing as the majority of public schools (at least in the UK) don’t particularly value arts education then you are likely to be rich and privileged if you regularly enjoy aspects of High Culture. Of course, there are those who come from a less privileged background who educate themselves on these aspects of culture, but they do so despite their circumstances, not because of them.

What is known as Kitsch or ‘lowbrow culture’ are those things usually enjoyed by the poor. They are associated with more accessible forms of art or entertainment, and are therefore considered less refined, or even ‘tasteless’.

These attitudes are steeped in cultural snobbery, or as Bourdieu terms it, ‘Cultural Superiority’. Individuals, in an effort to raise their social status, will reject those modes of entertainment that they consider Kitsch, and embrace that which they consider High Culture. You see it all the time, people boasting about how they ‘haven’t even heard of the Kardashians’, ‘don’t even know what AF stands for’ or ‘have never watched an episode of X-factor’ or the like. They are asserting their intelligence by defining their cultural tastes against what they are not. Their rejection of popular culture is a self-congratulatory act of identity formation. As Bordieu states, ‘those who are satisfied by purified pleasures are assured cultural superiority; cultural consumption thus fulfils the function of legitimising social difference.’

We are constantly policing our own identity. Choosing what we wear, what we do and what we post on social media, in order to accurately reflect how we want others to perceive us. Our choice in embracing or rejecting certain modes of culture is not immune to this.

‘Cults of Superiority’ doesn’t exclusively refer to those who choose to associate primarily with High Culture. You also have those deliberately rejecting the accepted version of High Culture, and embracing what is considered Kitsch or low culture, perhaps with irony, perhaps without. In rejecting ‘High Culture’ they are affirming an identity of theirs that highlights their rebellious nature or open-mindedness.

Either way, there are multiple ‘cults’ and each is asserting their perceived superiority, sometimes by ‘othering’ the different groups in order to set them apart. For example, this is why some music fans who stick exclusively to a small number of genres will b*tch and moan about other genres. Metal fans who roll their eyes at those ‘dreadful, uneducated pop fans’ are asserting their cult’s superiority over another. Others will embrace metal music whilst also loving a Disney soundtrack, in order to assert their self-identity as someone who is counter-culture, but quirky and nerdy enough to love some Disney at the same time.

Everyone wants to be different, and we are all a product of our environment and how we engage with that environment. There is nothing wrong with that! It is normal behaviour, and part of the process of understanding ourselves. As long as you are defining yourself by what you are, not being hateful towards what you are not, then by all means, continue. Buy a lifetime membership to the cult of your choice!

We use clothing as markers for our cult status

But seriously Peach, get to the pole already!!!

So, if we are all forming cults, and all asserting our cultural superiority, then it is natural for this to occur also in pole.

We have one overriding cult, that is the cult of the pole dancers, but within that we have sub-cults that may disagree or have differing opinions. Bordieu refers to this as ‘sectional interests’, which refers to opposing cultural attitudes within a single class. In this case, the different factions within pole dancing will each assert their ideas as ‘true’ and ‘right’ in order to assert their cultural superiority. So, academics and stripper polers you don’t get off scot-free here!

What are the pole dancing cults, and how do they assert their difference?

  • Pole Art & Fitness:
    • What are they? Lyrical, contemporary, gymastic or circus quality movement. Highly skilled displays of strength and technique. Innovation and taking pole to a new future of athletic possibility.
    • What are they not? Definitely not like those gross, slutty strippers, EW!
    • Where does it stand? These styles most closely align with concepts of High Culture, because they use the same language and framing as other aspects of elite cultural products.
  • Sensual & Stripper Style:
    • What are they? Floor work and flow that was born in the clubs. Entertainers, and fore-mothers of pole inventing the core moves that every poler learns. Entertainers, these shows are made for the audience.
    • What are they not? Definitely not those boring, sanitised BS fitness polers, EW! 
    • Where does it stand? These styles are more closely aligned to concepts of Kitsch, as they are associated with a style of dance that is commercially consumed and easily accessible, and is not respected as a result.

Luckily, we have a huge faction of the pole world that are accepting of all styles of pole dance, regardless of what they are doing personally. However, there are those steeped well within their individual cults who are quick to criticise, and just as a quick to turn to a lazy argument when it comes to defending pole dance.

For example, if you have ever used Mallakhamba or Chinese Circus Pole to defend pole dancing, you have been asserting your cult’s legitimacy by tying it to a concept of High Culture that works on the vilification of cultural products that do not fit into the elitist categories of dance. If you have ever called pole sport boring or predictable you are also guilty of asserting your cultural superiority by establishing a rebellious, nonconformist sense of self.

The problem with ‘sectional interests’ is that the reason they work to assert cultural superiority is by confusing the middle-man, i.e. those who might still be deciding what their attitudes are or how they want to present themselves. And this is why we all need to book up and work together a little bit! Those new dancers who are still indoctrinated to slut shaming and internalised misogyny are more likely to end up in the pole fitness cult because they don’t want to be labelled a whore. Those with a bit of counter-culture in their blood may end up with the strippers, talking about how cookie cutter and bland the tricksters are, because it makes them feel special and unique. We need to stand united, so we don’t force these people to find the comfiest cult that fits with their perception of themselves.

Yes, I’m talking to you now – those in the Art / Fitness / Sports etc cults

The reason I’m not addressing this to the stripper stylers is because although some may make disparaging remarks about the tricksters / gymnasts / fitness polers, it doesn’t actually do anything more than hurt their feelings a bit. When the cult of pole fitness asserts their cultural superiority they do much more than hurt some people’s feelings, they reinforce the dominant cultural message that women should only act in a certain way and not another. The SS crew’s cult espouses liberation, whereas the mainstream narrative that is often implicit in pole fitness publicity is the opposite, it is control… Controlling your sensuality, controlling your body and how it is portrayed.

If we want to overcome the stigma attached to pole dancing (which isn’t the right phrase, find out why in my post on why there is no stigma towards pole dancing), we need to form a united front. We need one big cult, and the superiority we are selling is the superiority of knowing you have conquered slut shaming, overcome prejudice, and opened up pole to everybody – man, woman, trans, thick, thin, able-bodied, disabled, slutty, modest, gay, straight, whatever! If the only way you can reaffirm your identity is through association with a cult of superiority that bases itself upon the rejection of a set of people, or in judging people and undermining them, then you need to reexamine why you are choosing to engage with that ideology. Is it because you really care about pole? Or is it a self-serving interest that works to reaffirm your identity and keep you feeling safe?

♥♥♥

What are your thoughts? Has this opened your eyes to concepts of high culture vs low culture? What cults are you in? Perhaps you have realised that some of your cults are a bit negative, what are you going to do about it? Let me know in the comments below!

Coming up in ‘Pole Dancing: An Art Historian’s Perspective’…

  • Nude vs Naked
  • Semiotics and the meaning making process
  • Institutional frameworks and civilising rituals

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