Opinion: High Brow, Stooping Low

The hordes are at the gates of Rome, the accumulated culture of humanity is in danger of being discarded like a fast food wrapper. The sub-text of much of the defence of “high standards” which is being fought in every aspect of our culture has this apocalyptic flavour to it. Wherever you look, the self -appointed guardians of our intellectual well-being are busily launching campaigns to safeguard the commanding heights of western culture against the much-discussed process of “dumbing down”.

In his influential essay in this newspaper during the recent Edinburgh Festival, John Tusa, the general manager of the Barbican Centre in London, railed against arts critics for failing in our duty to defend cultural standards. Arts journalists are guilty, he argued, of cultural relativism, of a cowardly refusal to use the language of “judgment and evaluation.” We are, he suggested, so obsessed with issues of “gender, culture, race, inclusion and exclusion”, not to mention “class -that reassuringly grand, out-dated, sociological Marxist simplification”, that we simply cannot say whether an artwork is good or bad. In short, modern arts critics are, in the words of Claire Fox, Tusa’s strange bedfellow as publisher of LM Magazine, the middle -class controversialist’s house journal, “politically correct, cultural relativists”.

Apart from the fact that it always seems to be the wealthy who deny the existence of class, there is something profoundly disingenuous, and fundamentally elitist, about Tusa’s argument. He may deride the “very old pot of elitism versus populism”, but he is one of the chief cooks stirring it. In counterpoising his own defence of supposed high standards in art to the falling standards brought about by the relativism of others, he is inevitably taking us back to the sterile debate about “high” and “low” culture.

The major problem with this argument is that it is based upon a false premise, that the audience is being dumbed down and must be saved from itself. While there is a process of dumbing down taking place in our culture, it is both massively exaggerated (note the hysteria over supposedly “easy exams” in our schools) and resisted by an increasingly sophisticated audience.

Television has, undoubtedly, been thorugh a process of shaking out the insufferably highbrow; “quality” newspapers are, as one wag has observed, not dumbing down so much as “thickening up” with absurd confessional lifestyle journalism. Nevertheless, whether it is in the thriving sales of the new cheap editions of the literary classics or the increasing popularity of classical music, there is a resistance from within the audience – and from within a more culturally confident working-class in particular – to a dumbing down process which is not of its choosing.

Only a cultural Thatcherite would suggest that TV shows such as Men Behaving Badly or the new-style lifestyle columns are the simple responses from the BBC and newspaper editors to audience demands.

The decisions to commission such rubbish (I am not, you may infer, a cultural relativist) come from an elite. That is to say, from people who have supposedly attained the high cultural standards which Tusa et al wish to uphold. The blame for the dumbing down which has taken place lies with this privileged group of commissioning editors, and, of course, with advertisers, rather than with the audience or critics (who should consider themselves to be, first and foremost, part of the audience and champions of their interests).

Critics, like any profession, are a mixed bunch, but to suggest, as Tusa does, that we no longer “have the guts to stand up a and say that something is no good” is not only gross exaggeration, it is plainly silly.

One need only consider this paper’s much-debated star rating system during the Edinburgh Festival to realise that artistic evaluation is still a hot issue. The attendant reviews, which generally meet the audience’s expectation that they will be told what is good, bad or indifferent, indicate that the language of critical judgment is far from dead.

As for the audience, it is becoming more sophisticated by the generation. People are more confident now than ever before to pick and mix from what one commentator has called the “cultural smorgasbord.” If people want, over the course of a week, to see a Quentin Tarantino movie, listen to Mahler, go to a football match and read a Jane Austen novel, they both can and do. While the “high culture/low culture” debate continues among the so-called chattering classes, too busy chattering to go and see anything, for the rest of us it was all over long ago. The audience has broken all the old rules about which cultural choices are compatible with which (there is nothing surprising about the modern CD collection which includes both Bach and The Clash).

People are also increasingly aware of the inter-relationships between historical and political developments and changes within our culture; they see the big picture, the much maligned “grand narrative”.

Which brings us nicely on to the subject of post-modernism. This fashionable but, nonetheless, puerile and self-referential ideology bears much of the responsibility for the cultural relativism which does exist. Tusa gets closest to identifying the problem when he attacks “the humbug of the defence of irony.” It is an “ironically correct” post-modernism, which considers itself unaccountable to criticism, rather than a waning political correctness, which is truly undermining standards in some areas of the arts.

In the visual arts, for example, the word “contemporary” is increasingly becoming a euphemism for post-modern. As audiences are discovering, the lifeless deconstructionism of such art works is a million miles from the dynamic discordance of Modernist works. The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London has become the cathedral of British post-modernism (even its much -publicised appointment of a gay, fox-hunting Tory as its new chief looked suspiciously like a post-modern gesture), with the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow as its highest church. Who can forget (who would want to remember?) the CCA’s exhibition of “dead placards”, campaign slogans lying on the ground denoting the death of political activism in the Nineties? The half a million who marched for the British miners in 1992, the participants in the French General Strike in 1995, the young revolutionaries who overthrew the Indonesian dictator Suharto last year, not to mention the less class-focussed struggles such as the GM food guerillas and the road protesters, all clearly had not been going to the right art galleries.

It is in post-modernism, where, unlike in abstract modernism, art works actually have no meaning, that the real cultural relativism lies.

The sort of prescriptive political correctness which puts tokenistic political concerns before aesthetic considerations is, of course, undesirable. It is also relatively rare.

While Michael Billington, the long-serving theatre critic of the Guardian, rightly bemoans the fact that Strindberg is, apparently, rarely performed in the United States because of his perceived misogyny, such nonsense rarely prevails elsewhere.

Let us not, however, confuse a stultifying and philistine political correctness with a progressive sense of politics in art, as Tusa seems to do.

Good critics are perfectly capable of praising the aesthetic merits of politically reactionary art works and of criticising the aesthetic shortcomings of progressive ones. As long as aesthetics remain paramount, the progressive critic is perfectly entitled to raise issues of class prejudice, racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, particularly with regard to modern works where the stock defence is precisely “irony”.

The “”falling standards” debate is, one hopes, the last gasp of cultural elitism. It creates false bogies in order to defend “high standards” (for which read “high culture”) from a supposedly “dumbed down” (for which read “stupid”) audience. Yet the audience is resisting the dumbing down process. It is thirsty for ideas, it has an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the inter-play between cultural forms and the content of art works. So what is it that Tusa and Co are scared of?

Tusa raises the bogey of populism, but a crucial distinction must be drawn between populism in culture and the popularisation of culture.

The malignant cultural vulgarisation of populism, although still potent, is decreasing in influence. There is an increasing popularisation of the arts, through a process of cultural education and self-education, which should be welcomed unreservedly.

If the hordes are indeed at the gates of Rome, it is because they know that there is something inside which is worth having, not because they want to destroy the city and nick the curtains. Critics should not be helping to guard the gates. Rather we should be leading the charge.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 21 September 1999

© Mark Brown


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