Let me tell you what a snob is. But first, let’s talk about what a snob is not.
A snob is not a critic. Nobody likes a critic, of course, and some people deal with criticism by ruling it out of order. (By the way, in the great war of opinions, it is an implicit surrender to huff about people enjoying things.) All of us – even those not unduly sensitive about such things – have been annoyed and occasionally angered by other people’s criticism. But criticism is not snobbery. You can’t invite people to experience art and then expect them not to judge it.
A snob is not someone who refuses to like what other people like. A snob is not someone who refuses to like what you like.
A snob is not someone who thinks that popular art is bad, or even that it is vulgar. A snob is not someone who prefers what we vaguely call culture – Shakespeare, Beethoven, and all the rest – and insists on its superiority.
A snob is not someone who holds – however stubbornly, pedantically, or harshly – to inalterable standards of Real Art.
So what is a snob? A snob is the sort of person who might deliver the gibe Whittaker Chambers fancied he would receive: “How can anyone take seriously a man who says flatly that his life has been influenced by Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables?”
It is not that I have a high opinion of Les Miserables. Having never read the book, I have no opinion at all (this is the perfect objectivity that comes of abject ignorance). But the point I am trying to make is remarkably, though obliquely, illustrated by Chambers’ defense of his life having been influenced by Les Miserables: “I can only answer that, behind its colossal failings, its melodrama, its windy philosophizing, its clots of useless knowledge, its overblown rhetoric and repellent posturings, which offend me, like everybody else, on almost every page, Les Miserables is a great act of the human spirit.”
Chambers saw the artistic failings of the book as clearly as any critic (or snob!). But he also saw the great triumph of its humanness. Art is more than craftsmanship; art is intensely human. Art that is truly great – probably even art that is merely popular – forges its achievement through reaching something elementally human. Maybe it moves the heart or reaches the intellect; maybe it only plays on the nerves. Craftsmanship helps the human achievement, but it isn’t necessary. Bad art can play the nerves and the emotions powerfully, and usually does so shamelessly. Criticize it freely. But understand it.
The hallmark of a snob is that he forgets the humanity of art. He forgets that all great art is an act of the human spirit. He forgets that even bad art is an expression of human nature. A great deal of popular art is bad art, but you don’t have to overlook that to see its humanity. And yet the snob doesn’t see. The snob can’t imagine that there is any reason, besides poor taste, for the popularity of inferior works.
Because a snob is someone who doesn’t understand that the most important part of art is not its artistry but its humanity.