High culture: still around?


What education is about, the assumption was, is the attainment of culture. By culture was meant an understanding of life and what is most important in it. This understanding is obtained through experience, observation, insight, and the ability to get outside oneself to view the world from a larger than merely personal perspective. Culture at this depth comprised a compound of a sense of the past, an understanding of what morality was about, and intelligence. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa notes that “culture has always signified a combination of factors and disciplines that, according to a broad social consensus, are what define it: a recognition of a shared heritage of ideas, values, works of art, a store of historical, religious, and philosophical knowledge in constant evolution, and the exploration of new artistic and literary forms and of research in all areas of knowledge.” 

Quote from an important essay in The Weekly Standard of 2nd November 2015:

Whatever Happened to High Culture?


The essay nicely sums-up the place of the notion of ‘high culture’ in our contemporary world, a notion often provoking scorn, envy, and full-blown hatred by the masses who have been liberated by modern democracy, emancipatory movements, and the increasing porosity of public space in terms of media coverage. What had begun as an attempt to make education, political influence, human rights and culture accessible to millions of people who had been excluded from all this in former periods, ended-up as the great levellers of content, value and quality, helped by a rampant materialism and uncontrolled, exploitative capitalism. We know all of that… but that does not mean that nothing can be done about it. Therefore, this essay offers some perspectives which could engender ideas.

Another quote:

The study of the past is the main portal through which culture is acquired; and once through that portal, the art of the past—visual, musical, above all literary—is the chief route to culture. Study of the great art of the past, the imbuing of tradition, was also thought the most certain way to ensure that there will be important art in the present and in the future. 

The best of the culture of the past, i.e. passed through that pulverizing filter: time, which is: numerous testing in terms of meaning and value, offers means of comparison – not in terms of outward form but of content and meaning. This is not a purely rational process but an engagement in which our whole being is involved, working through subjective experience to arrive at some objective truth – which, in spite of Derrida, Foucault and Bourdieu – always existed and will always continue to exist. Proof? The peril that invervenes into our lives when ignored.

What role plays ‘progress’ in the arts?

Unlike in science, in culture there is not a clear line of progress. Progress has little to do with culture. The history of culture is one of highs and lows, mountains and gulleys. The greatness of Greek culture was followed by the relative barrenness of culture in the Roman Empire followed by the darkness of the Middle Ages followed by the uphill climb of Renaissance Italy thence to the French and Scottish Enlightenments, and so on, two steps forward, one step back, sometimes one step forward, two steps back. Today, people in a position to know would argue, we are in a deep cultural gulley. 

Here, the author misses-out the greatness of Roman architecture, where all of the Romans’ creativity and sense of beauty seems to have gone into, and their sculpture which achieved a remarkable insight in the nature of reality. Also not everything of the Middle Ages was ‘dark’, as the witness of the gothic cathedrals demonstrates.

The force of culture is cumulative, its vehicle of transmission is tradition. The great essay on this subject is T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which Eliot remarks, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” In the same essay, Eliot wrote: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” In this reading, “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” Culture comprises connections and interconnections between past and present, and these in turn comprise the future of culture.

Literary critic Harold Bloom has developed the concept of ‘misreading’, not a failed reading, but one in which a poet asserts his artistic voice by confronting, struggling with, and ultimately overcoming the influence of a predecessor. This relationship differs from Eliot’s description and can be considered an added insight into the complex relationships between artists and their cultural heritage. Hostility towards tradition is mostly born from insecurity towards the great achievements of the past, which accompanies any attempt to emulate their quality level. Both love and appreciation of the past and struggle against its influence form part and parcel of the creative act, a process through which the artist will find his individual voice, his personal interpretation of any given material, of any inherited language. Joseph Straus’ “Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal Tradition” (1990) deals with this process as discovered in the works of Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern – although the first two can hardly be called ‘modernist’.

People continue to churn out vast quantities of art—novels, plays, poems, musical compositions, painting, sculpture—but nothing very much seems at stake in any of their productions. 

This can hardly be more than a subjective generalization: how can we know what is being created in our own time in its entirety? But it may signal a general trend, with which I can only agree – as for music, even what is considered ‘the best’ new music, as demonstrated by numerous performances and positive reviews, is rather bland when compared with the radiance of the best of the past. Of course this cannot be held against it, since in every period much is produced that is bad, mediocre, and irrelevant, which disappeares after some time from sight. Also, the filter of time can uncover qualities which were less visible in the context of the work’s first appearance. But this filter can only function where a value framework is in place, called ‘tradition’, within which comparisons of experience can be made. It seems that nowadays such value frameworks are eroding, and thus, there may no longer be the perspective of the historical filter, which may result in the disappearance of valuable works created today and with them, the cultural inheritance that gave them their meaning. Which is a strong invitation to defend and rebuild value frameworks, as much as is possible – not merely for the culture vultures, but also for the innocent generations to come.

Do we need art, culture? And if so, why? We could assume there is still, here and there, a hunger for deeply engaging artistic experience – ….the hunger we all have to understand our own experiences and lives by seeing things anew through the eyes of others.

One of the reasons of high culture loosing ground may be the attitude of some of its flame-bearers to make the young feel flawed, inferior, mentally handicapped, which is hardly a way to inspire curiosity and love for the very thing that is supposed to educate them. The author betrays his pleasure in making students feel small and inadequate in this passage:

For many years I taught an undergraduate course in prose style to would-be writers. At one point in the course I used to present my students with a list of 15 or so items that included such names and events as the Peloponnesian War, Leon Trotsky, Serge Diaghilev, the 1913 Armory Show, the Spanish Civil War, Nicolas Chamfort, Boris Chaliapin, C. P. Cavafy, the Dreyfus Affair, and a few others. I asked how many knew who or what these items were. A few among them knew one or two of the names and events listed. I said that, at 20 years old, I myself could not have done better than they. I then added that, if one wanted to pass oneself off as a cultured person one had to know such things and a great deal more. My sense is that these students were, as I hoped they would be, as I myself as an undergraduate was, properly cowed by their own ignorance.

“…… properly cowed by their own ignorance.” Whom was he addressing in that instance? A bunch of football hooligans? But even they could be tamed by the prospect of mental growth, and if not so, they should not be there. Love invites voluntary surrender, and high culture should not be locked-up in an authoritarian school class context but should feel like windows opening on a fresh morning in spring.

The essay ends on a pessimistic note:

The diminishing minority still interested in acquiring the benefits of high culture will have to search for it exclusively in the culture of the past. No longer a continuing enterprise, high culture itself will become dead-ended, a curiosity, little more, and thus over time likely to die out. Life will go on. Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber. Round the world the vast majority might possibly feel that something grand is missing, though they shan’t have a clue to what it might be. 

Yes, all this would be the case if you leave out the attempts to restore something of what has been left of high culture: painters painting figuratively – and some, masterly; architects building in classical forms, a bit timidly but yet; composers writing more traditionally; and no doubt writers plumbing some depths hitherto considered irrelevant. But these creators hardly find an echo in the media, their effect being restricted to audiences directly confronted with their products. So be it…. waiting for a change of climate.


© John Borstlap / 2015

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