High Culture, Not High Demand
‘How many Americans pay attention to serious contemporary literature, art, or music?’
Kindle and Spotify give us a degree of access to “the best which has been thought and said” that a Medici or a Rockefeller couldn’t have bought at any price, while simultaneously reminding us that almost no one cares.
For instance, if you search for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on Spotify, the most popular recording of the most popular piece in the classical repertoire is the one made in 1984 by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic. The first movement has been streamed about 1.5 million times, the third about half a million (which tells a story in itself). By contrast, the hit song “Driver’s License,” by the teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo, was released in January 2021 and by the end of May it had been streamed 800 million times. . . .
Of course, Spotify and Kindle are imperfect measures of the true currency of any work. But they confirm the impression that people devoted to high culture must already have: that they are members of a very small minority. Just how small is impossible to say with any confidence. How many Americans pay attention to serious contemporary literature, art, or music? An estimate of one-half of one percent of the population—1.6 million people—would surely be on the high side.