Friday, March 30, 2007

And Now, Why I Disagree with Cultural Conservatives

I've tried to explain where I disagree with the left-leaning academic take on culture. My critiques tend to be the same as those of 'cultural conservatives'. Essentially, I think that the art world is a bit too interested in transgressing cultural boundaries that are all-but-nonexistent anymore, and not interested enough in creating or maintaining boundaries of artistic merit. So why do I agree with cultural conservatives about the problems, but not the solutions?

Since I can't parse The Closing of the American Mind here, maybe it's best to link to a few interviews with leading cultural conservative Roger Kimball and explain where I agree and disagree with him. For the record, I quite admire his work. I'm also going to comment on cultural conservatism more generally.

A lot of my gripes with Kimball are petty. For instance, we clearly disagree about John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty Kimball finds to be "one of the most toxic books of political philosophy ever written". I admire Mill greatly, and, in general, works that I find to be silly or misguided, Kimball seems to find "toxic" or "destructive".

However, this isn't entirely pedantic. What it points to is teleology- a teleology is a narrative of human history as moving towards a particular goal. Often liberals see human societies as, through much struggle, becoming progressively liberated or egalitarian. On the other hand, conservatives from Plato until now have tended to see human societies as being in decline. Frequently, they write rather alarmist narratives about this decline. Kimball says: "High culture is a great and humanizing resource–and it is, moreover, a resource that is everywhere imperiled today." Imperiled by what he calls the barbarism inside us. It's not surprising that Kimball is a devout Catholic. The Christian teleology ends with the decline and fall of human societies and finally the Rapture.

In the first place, I'm not convinced that "cultural decline" isn't a matter of changing fashions, and therefore wonder if the pendulum couldn't be ready to swing the other way as soon as people get sick of being so shallow and stupid. I agree with Kimball that: "There has been a steady loss of cultural capital as one educational institution after the next -- schools, colleges, museums, and so forth -- waters down its offerings in the name of diversity or populism." In fact, this is a recurrent gripe on this blog as well. But I see this as being market-driven, and suspect that neglected, but growing segments of the 'market' are getting really sick of the vapidity of their own lives. Life was fun, fun, fun 'till Daddy took the meaning away.

But, if culture really is in decline, or imperiled, it's decay cannot be reversed as much as halted. In fact, Plato's Republic is a program to halt the decay of society. Authoritarianism tends to rely on these stop-gap measures, fingers in the dyke, so to speak. Many conservatives push for a renewed reverence towards the past, but see this as inherently antagonistic with an appreciation of the present. I'm not sure it is. I don't buy the idea of a 'culture war' at all, and wonder why conservatives have to filter all human experiences through the model of conflict. Why does society constantly have to be 'defended' in conservative writing?

And I'm not a believer in teleologies. I don't see decline or liberation so much as continual change. What I want is a renewed engagement with great works of art of the past and present- not a necrophiliac reverence for "tradition" or "High Culture" in itself.

I will say that I completely agree with Kimball is in this statement, which he expounds elsewhere: "The issue, it is worth stressing, is not the orientation of the politics–Left vs. Right–it is rather the politicization of intellectual life tout court. That is, the task is not to replace or balance the left-wing orientation of academic life with a right-wing ideology but rather to de-politicize academic, i.e., to champion intellectual, not political, standards."

But I'm not sure how Kimball's own work accomplishes this. His journal, The New Criterion, at its best, champions intellectual standards. But, all-too-often, it beats the right-wing drum. And his books use High Culture as a cudgel to beat the left with. Often it's hard for me to tell if a work of art getting criticized in the journal is being trashed for being lousy, or if it's just too 'left-leaning'. He says the New Criterion lauds art that is true and beautiful, which it often does. He also says: "Like the original Criterion, The New Criterion is modernist in its cultural stance and conservative in its politics." So, liberal aesthetes need not apply? If the goal is to depoliticize culture, why should his journal be anything in its politics?

I think where I really disagree with cultural conservatives is that I don't see the decline of culture as the result of a long attack by the radical left. Conservatives blame academics for not defending high culture, although they tend to exaggerate a bit there, and the media for being trashy, but they think that this is the end result of some sort of 'cultural relativism' instead of good old capitalism. So the kids at the mall who have no connection to any ennobling culture? Well, we can blame Heidegger for that!

Or, even more frequently, we can blame ''The 60s'', as if America in the 1950s was a high point of culture that was destroyed by all those 60s poets, artists, and writers.

I mean, the simple fact is that we now have a mass media that equates creative greatness with easy pleasure, constantly asserting that High Culture is simply "pretentious" or "elitist', and it does so for nakedly capitalist reasons. The dumbest buy the mostest. But, for some reason, instead of blaming mass culture or late capitalism for killing off High Culture (in other words, for doing exactly what Marx said they would do back in 1848), conservatives would rather point the finger at academic radicals (who are always less numerous than claimed) for not doing enough, once again, to halt the decline or to "preserve" high culture.

But preservation is best suited for artifacts. I'd rather have people engage with the great and ennobling works of culture than worship them. Enthusiasm should be active. I would say that the differences between myself and cultural conservatives boil down to the following:
1) I don't think culture moves in a single teleological direction- either towards decline or liberation,
2) I agree with Marx that capitalism is the main force of opposition towards cultural traditions,
3) I don't buy the model of cultural war and I don't think the left is actually anti-culture. To be honest, I think that lefty academics who worry about the "dumbing down" of the culture and conservatives who worry about the "progressive vulgarisation" of the culture are really talking about the same thing, and their attempts to politicize this problem are just an example of totally missing the point.
4) This problem- a widespread belief that any attempt to give daily life meaning or to improve culture in any way is a sign of 'arrogance', and the underlying cynical supposition that daily life and culture simply can't have any meaning or be in any way enlightening or ennobling- is absolutely endemic to mass media and consumer culture, and yet- and here's my main area of disagreement- is nothing but a fad. A disbelief in meaning is, itself, meaningless.

In other words, when people get sick of their lives having no meaning or transcendence, when they get tired of being fed a steady diet of nothing, when they question their binge and purge lifestyles, all of this will pass into history. But the opening of the American spiritual eye will be the work of artists, not conservatives. And it will come when the artists turn to the 'classics' and discover that there is a lot there to chew on, and celebrate, and engage with. Remember Allen Ginsberg masturbating to William Blake- a story that scandalized the readers of the Paris Review- this is living faith in the power of great art; not the sort of passive superstitious belief in the classics that most cultural conservatives encourage, with Kimball perhaps excluded.

Faith is active and engaged conversation with higher things. Superstition is doing certain things in certain ways in conformity with established wisdom. Mass culture amounts to cultural obedience- the choice of no choice- and superstition. We need a revolution in the accepted scales of human existence.

This will be the key to the next Renaissance- a turning away from the cynical binge and purge culture. And it will likely scandalize the cultural conservatives who are too gloomy and afraid of change to recognize that cultural renaissances can only come from artists, not from preservers and mummifiers. In fact, those people will never see it coming.

6 comments:

The Pagan Temple said...

The strength of the rising class and it's increasing affluence bears a part of the blame for the decline in culture. Unfortunately, their cultural proclivities never rose in proportion to their rise of affluence.

Personally, though, I'm a fan of much of popular culture, and I think it has steadily improved from what it was in say the sixties and seventies. Not to say it qualifies as art according to the accepted meaning of that term, just that it has improved.

Of course, you have some people, like the late John Lennon, who can derive artistic meaning out of a corn flakes commercial. Maybe there are some of us like him, and myself, who like the idea of bridging the gap.

Rufus said...

I try to laud those examples of transcendent pop culture too, but they seem harder to come by. I will say that Children of Men, which we watched last night was both a great action film and a breathtaking work of art. And my praise for Madonna or Christina Aguilera or the Flaming Lips when they record truly great pop songs is embarassingly gushing. But there are only so many times you can walk down the sidewalk and hear passing cars blasting shitty 'rap rock' without wondering if this isn't a low period for the arts. Actually, your mention of John Lennon sort of proves my point that the 60s was a high point for art, and not a low point.

That said, I fully expect the eventual Renaissance that I was talking about to bridge the gap between high and low art.

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