Doug Kaplan sits on a couch in the living room of his house on Garnett. Two of his roommates Super Smash it out on the TV in front of us, peppering our conversation with angry shouts. Ezra Raez munches on a bowl of rice. Everyone in the room, myself included, is involved with WNUR, Northwestern’s radio station, in some capacity. The question I’m asking: Are we just a bunch of snobs?
Kaplan turns his gaze from the onscreen battle to me.
“I’m trying to find art in music,” he says. “If that makes me a music snob, then fuck everybody else.”
“Why is it suddenly a bad thing to try and get really smart about something?” he asks. “Are you going to call the person who writes a book about all sorts of Supreme Court rulings a ‘law snob?’ No. You’re going to call him a professor. It’s time for a word revision. Instead of dissing us, you should celebrate us.”
What would that word revision be? I ask.
“Rock scholar,” Kaplan says. Then: “No, that doesn’t have a good ring to it.”
Sometimes I feel like a snob–about music, about beer, about movies. Medill professors tell me that you’ll stop reading if I assume things about you, but I’m going to anyway. I have an inkling that sometimes you worry you may be a snob too.
And for good reason. A quick College ACB search of “snob” yields dozens of results–accusing people of being beer snobs, weed snobs, sorority snobs, children-of-rich-parents snobs. If someone hasn’t accused you of being a snob to your face… well, there’s always ACB. That being the case, I’ve never been one to trust angry rants cloaked in anonymity.
But surely, at this bank-breaking, liberal arts degree touting institution we are to call our alma mater, flush with kids from top-notch high schools, there must be snobs somewhere. Online accusations aside, if snobs exist, then at least some of them have to be here, right? The way we use the word is changing, and you no longer have to be a WASP-y trust fund baby to be accused.
Which leads one to ask whether “snob” is the right word at all. Perhaps you’re an expert, an aficionado, a guru, a connoisseur. I decided to search for Northwestern’s snobs – to find out who they are, what they want, and to determine whether or not they’re really all that different from the rest of us.
Joanna Powell has been riding horses since she was seven, back when she lived in San Francisco.
“I don’t like children,” says Powell, now a member of Northwestern’s equestrian team. “I’m not big into babies. But horses, there’s something about a horse that’s comforting. Horses make more sense. They have a sense of humor. They’re more dependable than people.”
Despite this claim, Powell is totally engaging to talk to and in no way makes me feel bad for being born human. She expresses with quick moves of her hands as she tells me about the horses she’s ridden in the past–Scooby and Daisy, to name a couple–and the off-color personalities and quirky hi-jinks that she remembers them for. We’re talking in Crowe Café, over the loud grind of coffee beans.
She remembers when her mother first asked if she wanted to ride. At seven, she was obsessed with animals and wanted to be a veterinarian. Powell describes being able to feel her face light up when her mother suggested the idea. She moves her hands to her cheeks–which have gone rosy with this memory–for emphasis.
Competition is inherent in the life of an equestrian, but Powell says that’s mostly an auxiliary component to what she really likes to do, developing relationships with horses.
“When you’re younger, horseback riding teaches you how to be confident,” says Powell. “You’re short. You’re seven. You’re in charge of making this huge animal do what you want. It’s an amazing feeling. You have the right to get what you want and to be in control.”
In the process, Powell has found that she and her fellow riders have a lot in common too. Riders, she says, share a determination to better handle horses. They also share common values–among them, an unwillingness to be “wimpy”–that they developed as children through conquering their initial fears of riding.
We discuss this politely at first, using code words like “shared values,” “common childhoods” and “committed parenting.” Then Powell gets candid.
“It is definitely a sport that will attract the people who have the extra funds to support it,” she says after a few false starts. “So you do end up with a lot of people who come from very privileged backgrounds, because they can afford it, because it is an expensive sport.”
Prohibitively expensive, as it turns out.
“Lessons on the team are $40 an hour, and I ride at least once a week,” says Powell. “Then you add in breaches and boots and helmets and however many times you fall you have to replace your helmet, and then your feet grow and you have to buy new boots… It’s not as democratic as basketball, [where] you have a basketball and a hoop and a park, boom you’re done.”
She’s grateful for the opportunity–and knows it’s not one available to everybody.
“It comes back to the parents who let you commit the time to something you love. My parents would pick me up from school and drive me an hour, and the lesson could be an hour and a half, two hours, then an hour drive back. If I had parents who weren’t willing to spoil me, and if they weren’t willing to make a financial commitment to it, I would’ve stopped riding when I was like 9.”
We both know that, in this instance, “willing” also implies “able.”
The folks at The Northwestern Art Review walk a tight line. Kari Rayner, publisher of the art criticism magazine, says they face a battle that members of art communities the world over face every day. It’s a battle between accessibility and originality, between palatability and boldness.
She’s soft-spoken, which makes transcribing our interview a real pain. We’re in the Norris cafeteria, sitting next to that obnoxiously loud group of theater kids in the southwest corner. Like Powell, Rayner occasionally uses her hands for emphasis. Unlike Powell, she wrings them when she’s not.
NAR has been around for about three years, and its staff simultaneously strives for the blessings of the art community while trying to make art and criticism more democratic. There are barriers to this aim, primarily the academic, dense writing styles customarily associated with critical writing, something that Rayner, who grew up wanting to be an artist, knows her way around.
“In order to be taken seriously as a group, as a scholarly organization, we need to use language that is up to par with what is expected of a scholarly art-historical journal, which is not going to be accessible to everyone,” Rayner says.
The art theory and art practice major says this isn’t a fight that all artists and critics are willing to rise up to.
“It’s not a widespread mentality–trying to make your art accessible to everyone,” says Rayner. “You have to compete with other artists in this art world that’s kind of cut throat in a lot of ways and very difficult to break into. You run a lot of risks if you try and make something too easily understood.”
Rayner doesn’t think that NAR’s staff are snobs, and like Kaplan, she identifies contradictions in how people approach the expertise of different specialists.
“You can be a cultural expert without lording it over somebody else,” says Rayner. “If you’re an expert in engineering – I don’t know anything about engineering – it’s the way in which you explain something to me, whether you’re being condescending to me about something electronic or mechanical. That’s what determines whether you’re a snob or not.”
Halfway through our conversation, we’re joined by Betsy Feuerstein, NAR’s Director of Communications. She admits that there are snobs in the art world. Somewhere.
“A lot of art critics are stuck in their ivory tower, or behind the flashy glass walls of the gallery,” Feuerstein says.
This, coupled with the seeming inaccessibility of contemporary art, creates a general unwillingness in some individuals to take part in art at all. To properly gauge the value of contemporary art, you need a knowledge of art history, as well as a firm grounding in contemporary politics and society, both of which are subjects of contemporary art critique and act as barriers of entry into the culture.
But, I ask, if contemporary art is meant to comment on the plights of the disenfranchised, shouldn’t the art at least be accessible to them?
“It’s such a dilemma,” says Feuerstein. “Does accessible mean likable? Because it’s not going to be likable to everyone.”
It seems to be a gap in expectations – between what many believe art should be, versus the reality of the current state of art.
“Some people will go into a museum expecting to see something that’s nice to look at and immediately understandable,” says Rayner. “If it’s not immediately understandable then it’s ‘something your 5-year-old could do.’ My dad has said that a million times: ‘you could do this,’ ‘my dog could do this,’ ‘anyone could do this.’ That’s not the point. They didn’t. It’s all about the idea.”
Could you be friends with someone who listens to Nickelback? I ask.
Kaplan takes a moment and focuses on the Smash battle in front of him.
“I could be friends with someone who liked Nickelback,” the Communication senior says, “but I couldn’t let them play it in the room. I don’t want to pollute my brain.”
The present WNUR collective has a good laugh at this.
“I suppose that when you take such high stock in music as art, the stuff that is so blatantly commercial and unoriginal and pathetic… you just can’t buy the music that’s so commercial.”
New, would-be DJs who arrive at WNUR go through rigorous training. The learning process involves apprenticing to another DJ for two quarters while attending weekly classes about different genres, eras and scenes. The station is dedicated to playing under-represented music, an endeavor that virtually requires this sort of education.
But sometimes under-represented bands make it: Wilco, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Walkmen, Wolf Parade, My Morning Jacket. Then their albums disappear from the WNUR library. On this point, Kaplan is unapologetic.
“I like Belle & Sebastian pretty well,” Kaplan says. “I like Wilco really well. The Beatles were probably the best rock band ever. I love a lot of stuff that I could never play on WNUR. And I’m fine with that, because that’s not our format.”
In 2009, WNUR’s stringent devotion to that format spurred Time Out Chicago to accuse the station’s DJs of mostly spinning “skronk” that “sounds like a toddler beating a guitar against an electrical transformer”-–much to the chagrin of WNUR staff, including Kaplan, who prefers retro funk, soul and psychedelia to free jazz and noise.
The format also acts as the raison d’être for the music education that WNUR DJs are constantly undergoing. In this vein, it is also the catalyst for any given DJ’s customized knowledge of underrepresented music–the source of a WNUR DJ’s real or imagined snobbery.
Raez, the rice-munching roommate, offers a hypothesis for why music snobbery is so egregious–because music is personal. No one likes being told that their music is “bad.” Not even Nickelback fans.
“We end up getting called music snobs because we take music really seriously,” Raez says. “If you play a sport a shit-ton, you’re going to be called a jock. If you’re in band, and you take it really seriously, you’re a band nerd. It’s just like anything else, you get really into something, people are going to look down on you.”
“Who gives a fuck,” Raez adds, with a hurt tone that leaves me unconvinced. “Whatever.”
No one I interviewed copped to being a snob–a title that they alternatingly used to describe people with inferiority complexes, insecurities, socioeconomic advantages and/or narrow perspectives. Now I wouldn’t know how I’d define a snob if you asked.
Kaplan doesn’t want to be known as a snob. He wants to be known for what he is–a voracious consumer of music history. Powell, as far as I can tell, loves horses, not hating those who don’t. And Rayner doesn’t need critics for friends–just people who are receptive to having conversations about art.
The thing we all hate about snobs–no matter how we define them, exactly–is that they write us off based on our interests, passions or tastes. Nickelback, Bieber, NASCAR, Dungeons & Dragons, Glee and Twilight fans can all attest to that. So can bros, rednecks, sluts and who knows, maybe even hipsters. The thing about Northwestern’s art critics, DJs and equestrians? They don’t like being written off for their interests, passions or tastes either. I find it hard to begrudge them that.
What’s missing, then, is an air of mutual respect–not between everyone, but between enough people to put the rest on edge. It’s a respect that says our time at Northwestern is limited, and try as we might, there are only so many areas that we can develop expertise in. It’s a respect that says “you do your thing babe, and I’ll do mine, and that’s all right.”
Let’s find that.