Sitting in the Literature Department listening to a presentation on Coleridge today, I realized that most of what I've posted recently about "taste" is still very much at odds with academic thought. Certainly, there is still some sense that there are great works of art; however, to admit so openly is seen as a bit gauche, and variations on historicism still reign in the lit departments. Much of this is comparable to what we call "history from below" in our field. The idea historians came to back in the 1960s (earlier in France) was that historiography which deals with Kings and great generals is very limited and that we need to study average people to understand society. The result was a lot of studies of peasants, many of which are actually quite good.
A similar thing happened to lit departments a bit later- what is often called the New Historicism works either by relentlessly historicizing great works of literature, or by reviving things like comic books and diaries that we don't often think of as literature because, in doing so, we reveal formerly marginalized voices. Both techniques are great for historians, but what I've noticed is that lit crit writing almost never discusses preferences, or tastes, or even the quality of art. It's almost seen as boorish. And when I ask lit crit people about this, I always get the same response: "But, who can really say what is 'great literature'?"
Instead, most academic writing on the subject uses cultural texts in a referential way, as symbols for something else. So I have a good idea what Coleridge tells us about the British slave trade, which is of course very important historically, and haven't heard much in years about his actual craft, which is seen as somehow unimportant. The idea that great art is of its time and place, and yet transcends its time and place is pretty much alien in most literature departments that I've studied in. This is why I study history.
So, when I talk about the "clerisy' as I see them, I should point out that I haven't encountered them in the four universities that I've studied in. The idea of great works of art and great artists is something I haven't heard entertained. What's depressing about all of this is that I had hoped the 'culture wars' would lead to a wider appreciation of art, taking in all of the great works of art from around the world, and in turn a much larger definition of 'erudition'. Not cutting out the 'dead white males', but adding every great work of art from every culture and enriching the canon greatly. And yet, this seems to have happened in artistic circles, but not academic ones. I'd like to hear that I'm wrong about that actually and that I've just had very bad experiences with literature courses. But, I have to admit that I feel a sense of overall disappointment when I read academic journals on the subject.
A confession: I'm not actually fond of much academic writing.