High Culture: An Inquest

I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture–T. S. Eliot

The above sentence, written by Eliot in 1943, is the epigraph for a long piece by Joseph Epstein–my favorite essayist–that recently appeared in The Weekly Standard.  It’s title is “Whatever Happened to High Culture?” The sub-title is “An Inquest.”  It contains a series of thought-provoking notions that I’d like to address, in this and subsequent posts.

What is high culture?  Epstein defines it by what it is not, and by the people it is intended for. High culture is not Herman’s Hermits, Steve McQueen or The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  It’s not Stephen King or Doris Kearns Goodwin or Andy Warhol.  It’s not even Masterpiece Theater.  And whatever it is, it’s not for everybody.  As Epstein puts it, “High culture is, or at least once was, for an intellectual and artistic elite, which could not only appreciate what it was reading, hearing, or seeing, but also had a sophisticated appreciation of how great art is made.”  He goes on to decry its loss in our age of the “culture of spectacle,” citing the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.

I hold no brief for our popular culture.  The vast majority of the “art” hurled at us every day–music, books, movies, television programs–is, indeed, “spectacle,” part of an “entertainment culture in which . . . ‘having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion'” as Vargas Llosa says.  It “is dominated by ‘playful banality . . . in which the supreme value now is to amuse oneself and amuse others, over and above any form of knowledge or ideals.'”

But–that’s my opinion.  It just happens to coincide with Epstein’s and Vargas Llosa’s, two men who undoubtedly consider themselves among the dwindling “intellectual and artistic elite” who know high culture when they see it.  Those who decree what’s “better” or “worse” and “good” or “bad,” and expect others to agree with them do nothing for their cause.  Too many self-styled “elites” in other realms of our lives–political, religious, economic–still have far too much to say, and I for one am not sorry to see the “high culture” crowd go.    

 

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