Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Culture, etc.

Alas, this probably doesn't interest anyone but me. Also, most of this is still vague in my mind, and so will read as vague. However, I have to follow this train of thought to the end of the line. So...

I. Culture is Not Democratic. Lasting cultural tastes are not determined in ways that are truly populist.

1. Let's start with a very simple statement: The film Wild Strawberries, by Ingmar Bergman, is a superior film to Home Alone. Leaving aside matters of individual taste, I assume that this statement would be relatively uncontroversial amongst movie buffs. And, yet, if culture is democratic, Home Alone would be a better film than Wild Strawberries is simply by virtue of the fact that more people have seen Home Alone. In fact, it might be safe to say that Home Alone is 100 times better than Bergman's Wild Strawberries. So, why is it that we know this not to be the case?

2. Tastes are not equal; there are cultivated and uncultivated tastes. In a sense, this is as obvious as it is arrogant. To give an example that is unlikely to be taken as 'elitist', the first horror film I ever watched was the William Shatner classic Kingdom of the Spiders. Upon seeing the film, I was convinced it was utterly terrifying; a masterpiece even. I was seven years old. After watching fifty more horror films, I was less convinced that Kingdom of the Spiders was a great film. At age 32, I've seen hundreds, and probably thousands of horror films, and I am convinced that Kingdom of the Spiders is lousy.

I am now convinced that Halloween is a masterpiece of the genre. Not only that, but I can explain the artistry of the film shot-by-shot. My opinion is educated in the sense that I have a wide knowledge of the genre of film that I did not have when I saw my first horror film. In fact, I would say that my opinion is more cultivated than that of the horror tyro.

This seems like a silly example, and yet, Premiere Magazine recently suggested that film critics might want to write reviews that are more in line with the tastes of the general public. The problem with this idea is that it assumes that the average film tyro knows as much about film as Roger Ebert simply by virtue of having an opinion. In a democracy, all votes are counted equally. In culture, all opinions are not equal.

3. We therefore have to come up to the level of great works of art. Great art is not immediately accesible, but instead rewards repeated readings. This is why we return to these works of art, and the basis of cultivation is in elevating our tastes through repeated exposure to elevating works of art or culture. This applies as much to Hamlet, as to Psalms, as to Wild Strawberries.

4. The Arts need Cultivated People to appreciate them. This brings us Matthew Arnold's idea of a 'clerisy'- an educated elite that preserves and appreciates the greatest works of art for the next generation; the stewards of culture. The same elite applies to other cultural institutions. The Church needs a clergy to instruct the laity. Universities need senior scholars to instruct junior scholars. The 'elitism' of this position is based in the idea of advanced knowledge.

5. This is at odds with all of the instincts of democracy. Democracy is rooted in the idea that everyone should have a 'voice' that is equal to that of everyone else. A political scientist who has very well researched information leading him to vote for a candidate has the same vote as a pathological racist who votes based on his delusional biases. This is acceptable based on a common foundation of public education. Yet, beyond this common foundation, all men are considered equal. All tastes are equal. In political rule, this model seems to work. However, we should remember that well-educated and intelligent Germans voted Nazi at one time.

II. Attempts to democratize culture are doomed to irrelevance.

1. Again, this makes sense in the example above. If Home Alone truly was a masterpiece, its appreciation would be guaranteed long into the future. And yet, it is already totally irrelevant. True masterpieces endure in ways that popular schlock does not.

2. The same holds true in the 'marketplace of ideas'. The marketplace of ideas often seems to follow fads, trends, mass delusions, and simple bigotries. And yet, the ideas of John Locke, for example, have survived in the same way that Wild Strawberries has; both are rich enough to reward multiple and repeated readings.

3. This explains, at least in some way, the long-term irrelevance of the Internet. The Internet levels all opinions by reducing them to the same scale. This is ideal for the Television generation, and yet, terrible for culture because it can only sort Internet writing according to popularity. Value is neutral. I think the reason that we have so many Internet equivalents of Home Alone and no Internet equivalents of Wild Strawberries is simply that the net is structurally unable to reward repeated readings. It encourages the transitory, the easily-understood, and ultimately the shallow simply in the way it is updated and added to and even the ways it is used. It provides a quick fix of a few scattered, interesting ideas, and yet somehow denies the possibility of lasting ideas.

III. If Culture is truly able to elevate the mind and soul of the Individual, Are Attempts to Democratize Culture Dangerous to the Individual?

I have no idea.


gregvw said...

If I had to identify a single greatest problem with statements like all X are created equal it is that the notion of equality has basically nothing to do with what is going on. It is one thing to say that all adult citizens should have the same rights, but to say something like "all tastes are equal" doesn't make any sense to me.

Hiromi said...

I have one quibble, and it's neither new nor original -- you say that two of the signs of "great" art is that it is subject to repeated readings, and is the subject of study, right? But who determines what gets studied and carried forward? Those with power, right?

Rufus said...

Hiromi: Well, not exactly. My point was that the people who determine what gets studied and carried forward are ideally those with a certain level of expertise or erudition. That level would give them a certain authority, but I think it's a bit crude, if not reactionary, to reduce that authority simply to power, or to say that it is a pretense for power.

I don't think it's immune to power. Especially since cultivation implies a certain amount of disposable income and free time. But, the ideal answer to that is to make the 'clerisy' as egalitarian as possible. This is also why I've been arguing that higher education needs to be a lot cheaper, if not free. But, no, I do believe that there is objectively great art and that its appreciation is not simply a function of power.

Rufus said...

Greg: There is a subjective aspect to taste, but I don't believe it's as great as it's often made out to be. Actually, I think it applies more to preference. For example, I think it's legitimate for a film buff to say: "I don't personally care for The Godfather". But, I don't really think it's legitimate to say: "The Godfather is a poorly-constructed film that is lacking in any artistic merit."

Or, to give another example, most of the classical music buffs that I know adore Mozart's Requiem. I can imagine that some don't care for it. But, it's not really a legitimate educated opinion to say that it's of poor technical quality.

gregvw said...

Well, that's an interesting example, because if you listen (not even all that carefully), you can hear where in the plot, the genius died and his otherwise-unheard-of pupils tried to fill in the gaps.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I know. But it's still a personal favorite because there are moments of genius in there that, if I hear a live performance, make all of the hairs on my body stand up.