Bryan Appleyard reviewing Roger Scruton’s recent book Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged for today’s edition of The Sunday Times , gives a good account of what is at stake when we discuss “high” and “low” culture in the 21st century.
Back in the innocent 1990s, a colleague and I accidentally suggested – we were only speculating wildly – to this newspaper that it should start an arts-based magazine called The Culture. The idea was partly influenced by the small-circulation but huge-impact magazine Modern Review, whose driving force was the idea that pop or low culture should be treated with as much reverence and respect as high culture. And the outcome was Culture (the “The” has now gone), the publication you are holding now.
I’m not claiming originality for our approach. In the 1960s, in The Times, Bernard Levin used to switch effortlessly between high and low culture; and, subsequently, the unique selling proposition of Clive James when he was television critic of The Observer was the erudition and style he brought to his reviews of series such as Dallas. In both cases, the intention was not simply to mock, but to define low cultural phenomena as exactly as one might Don Giovanni or Hamlet.
But what was different in the 1990s was the appearance of a generation to whom the idea of blending high and low came as naturally as breathing. They had absorbed the idea from media studies or any of the humanities courses that had been invaded by the French. Structuralism and then deconstruction were ideas that had emerged from the French universities. They could be applied to almost any discipline and, although they were impenetrably complex in detail, they delivered a simple message to the students: that all human artefactscould be deciphered through the same critical procedures…
It would appear that Scruton feels that the loss of faith in “high culture” of the west has done great damage.
Scruton regards the high culture of the west as more genuinely multicultural than that of politically correct politicians or of all other cultures. No other culture, he point out, so eagerly absorbs or pays homage to alien cultures. “When”, he writes, “has any eastern culture paid to western culture the kind of tribute that Benjamin Britten paid, in Curlew River, to the culture of Japan, or Rudyard Kipling, in Kim, to the culture of India?” Furthermore, high culture is, by definition, a universal undertaking: it is about the condition of being human. It can thus be a far better form of international understanding than the culture of the anthropologists or the masses. “We can understand the Chinese through the Confucian odes in a way that we can’t understand foot-binding. The great thing about high culture is that it’s open to interpretation from outside itself. By its very nature, it is an attempt to communicate with mankind as such.”
While Appleyard fairly points out that not everyone fully agrees with Scruton, he does probably correctly finger the most basic reason for disagreements, and he also gives a good reason for its not being taken all that seriously:
Perhaps the anxiety Scruton provokes is all to do with postcolonial queasiness about any celebration of the legacy of the west. But, ultimately, such celebration is only a way of saying: this is who we are and this is where we live. To destroy “high” culture – meaning the art that has survived the test of time – is to render us incapable of knowing ourselves.