An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (ISBN 1-890318-47-7) makes an argument for high culture and aesthetics as a civilizing force. The author, Roger Scruton, is a philosopher, a conservative writer, and a critic of postmodern ideas in philosophy, the humanities and the social sciences. His stated purpose, in the preface to the American edition was to explain what culture is and why it matters. That overstates his point, which is that the critical appreciation of the humanities is being displaced by a less critical, postmodern cultural studies of popular culture. The displacement has occurred in colleges and Universities, and in the arts and entertainment industries. It is manifested by the destruction of critical standards, the chaos of postmodern art and literature, and the fragmentation of culture. The core of the argument is that literature and the arts, like religion, express social emotions and play a vital part in maintaining an ethical culture.
The book is short, at 158 pages, and clearly written. It span several topics – the concept of culture, the influence of culture on ideas and emotions, the history of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, the ethical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a theory of aesthetics, and the idea of cultural studies.
His starting concepts are Johann Gottfried Herder’s definition of culture as the flow of moral energy that holds society intact, and Wilhelm von Humbolt’s idea of culture as something that is learned as a social inheritance, subject to critical scrutiny, and consciously imparted to succeeding generations. The first concept, when applied in a critical way, leads to the anthropologist’s idea of common culture, the attitudes and social emotions of an identified set of people – a tribe. Within a common culture, human beings are able to make judgments about social behaviour. The ethical principles embedded in the common culture are founded in collective experience and tradition, and maintain the peace and happiness of the whole tribe. Culture is vital to human identity. In spite of variations – wide variations – it is not accidental, random or spontaneous. It is founded in a real core of human needs. It is an intellectual and emotional web, involving historical attitudes and prejudices under the strain of current needs and impulses.
The idea of culture as inheritance leads to the idea that the literature and art of a culture can be studied critically, and that culture is a form of specialized knowledge. This leads to the idea of high culture. Both sets of concepts describe something that is absorbed by human beings, shaping our sense of identity, our sense of belonging to a particular group of human beings – family, gender, tribe, class, profession, nation – our distinctiveness from the rest of the world through membership in the group, and our identity in the group. Both sets of concepts describe something that influences our social emotions – our sense of what is attractive, what is beautiful, what is good, what is fair.
The common culture and the high culture of Western Europe were historically grounded in a religious view of life. The art and literature of Western Europe reflects the shared ideals and history of the whole society, not the ideals and interests of any particular class. It represents the ethical vision of the common culture. The common culture began to break down during the era known in the history of ideas as the Enlightenment, and to economic historians as the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless people still learn social emotions that influence their sense of who they are, how they should feel and act, their social identity. The culture that allows for the expression and transmission of social identity is a public or civic culture. Scruton suggests that the dominant influence is actually popular culture, which is the end product of industrialization and globalization, and particularly the entertainment and media industry interacting with the common culture. It is a fluid concept, describing the culture that everyone is exposed to, and that most people inhabit unconsciously.
The Enlightenment is generally viewed as the liberation of humanity from the restrictions of an aristocratic and religious view of life. In Scruton’s book on modern philosophy, he suggested it was a trivial event in the history of philosophy, but a significant event in the history of ideas and culture. The collapse of the old world-view has been described both as the death of God, and the disenchantment of the world, the loss of a fundamentally ethical view of life based in the religious beliefs held by most members of society before the Enlightenment. Scruton argues that the popular idea that the Enlightenment liberated mankind from traditional morality is an ideological construct and a figment of the Romanticimagination. He argues that the Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural project to rescue the ethical view of life by the heroic work of the imagination.
He describes the Romantic movement as the cultural expression of a yearning for the old order, manifested in a strong commitment to the feelings, particularly feelings about nature, erotic love, and discovering the hidden force at the heart of the world. Romanticism, as it became disconnected from rational principles, criticism and ethics, became an increasingly destructive force. Imagination became fantasy. The ethical ideal of heroic striving became sentimentalized as the agony of the lonely artist. At the same time, the rise of the entertainment industry created competition to create and sell art and literature for consumption. Before the Enlightenment, art was related to religious values of the common culture. After the Enlightenment, the artist’s work was increasingly seen as the product of a personal creative process, and an expression of the artist’s creative self. The imagination was put in the service of the needs of the self, and imagination and art became a commodity. In this way of thinking, there is a difference between real imaginative work and the cynical manipulation of feelings.
Scruton values the study of high culture as a means of understanding of the evolution of culture as a defence against the dissolution of an ethical common culture. The study of high culture implies a process and logic, a system, known as aesthetics. His theory of aesthetics is based on the ethical philosophy of Kant, and the rational traditions of the Enlightenment. Art has meaning by using symbols within a tradition and common culture. Originality in art is the creation of new images creating new awareness of meaning within a tradition. Art imagines – it creates a symbolic, meaningful image. The art of high culture makes a statement of about meaning and beauty. The entertainment industry tends to produce repetitive and derivative images and stories that manipulate the emotions. Popular art is for consumption, which is why so much of it is unimaginative. Much of it is kitsch and melodrama. Scruton focusses on fantasy and sentimentality. Imagination is critical and objective. Fantasy is subjective, and involves the study of how to use the object for our own gratification. Pornography, for instance is the study of stories and photographs to generate a sexual response. The consumer of pornography relates to the image by using it for sexual excitement, without the inconvenience of dealing with a real person. Sentimentality is worse:
Sentimentality, like fantasy, is at war with reality. It consumes our finite emotional energies in self-regarding ways and numbs us to the world of other people. …. While pornography puts our sexual appetites on sale, sentimentality trades in love and virtue. But the effect is the same – to deprive these higher things of all reality by cynically denying them, or making them insubstantial, dream-like and schematic.
The cultivation of high culture has a fundamental ethical dimension:
A high culture may survive the religion that gave rise to it. But it cannot survive the triumph of fantasy, cynicism and sentimentality. … A common culture dignifies people by setting their desires and projects within an enduring context. It makes the spirit believable and the commitment sincere, by providing the words, gestures, rituals and beliefs which moralize our actions. A high culture attempts to keep these things alive, by giving imaginative reality to the long-term view of things …
Scruton is sympathetic to the modernist movement in the arts and literature, the critical vision of Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot, which was realistic, rather than sentimental. He has doubts about Eliot’s idea that high culture can create new values, religious values to replace values lost when Western culture lost its connection to a common religious tradition. This makes the modernist project difficult, arcane and ultimately elitist.
His assessment of the postmodern movement is that basically a negative movement, which is dissolving the common culture. Postmodernism follows in the footsteps of Romanticism with the same emphasis on subjectivity and the same quest for freedom from judgment. In the 19th century and 20th centuries it gave us the cult of the counter-cultural artist – the Bohemian, the beat poet, the hippie, true to art and love alone, to the point of suffering. It also spawned the cult of the intelligentsia and the tormented celebrity intellectual, in the style of Nietzsche, Sartre and Foucault. It underwrites the postures of persistent rebellion and fashionable nihilism. The last couple of chapters mount an attack on Foucault and Derrida and the pretensions of the current promoters of cultural studies.
He makes an interesting and clever move in the last chapter. He suggests that viewing high culture as resource to be cultivated to maintain the ethical vision of common culture is not a unique perspective of the elite classes of Western Europe, or an especially. It is a cross-cultural perspective, supported in the works of Confucius and the philosophies (rather than the religions) of the Orient.
Scruton is persuasive on many points. His starting assumption that culture socializes and teaches a system of judgment is clearly correct. He implies that people aren’t comfortable with judgment, and that a good deal of the philosophy and ideology of period after the Enlightenment is dedicated to helping people escape from cultural judgment and asserting themselves – which may have a great deal to with why so many people seem to have sleazy pop-culture rationalizations for self-serving, greedy, aggressive and manipulative behaviour. He make a good argument that the study of high culture is important to maintain an ethical public culture. He makes a good argument that the ideology of cultural studies is corrosive. It encourages fantasies of escaping from judgment and disengagement from objective values.
His discussions of aesthetics is good. It is informative and challenging. However his approach to high culture is, notwithstanding his arguments, austere and mysterious. He dismisses almost all of the art of popular culture, including all photography, cinema and electronic media, which seems to go too far. His attitude to popular art is essentially snobbish. His view of the process of creating art, in earlier times, is rather like the Christian theory of the Virgin Birth. The conception was a mystery, the gestation invisible and the whole process conveniently funded by the disinterested, patient and tolerant husband of Mary. It is a miracle. It would seem to me that art can be useful and valuable without having to be so pure or to meet such sublime critical standards.
It seems that he have have has lost sight of the less exalted crafts of decorative art, storytelling, play and creative engagement. Much of popular art is honest work for the artist, honest entertainment for the audience. A story can be just a story. Popular art can be acquired and consumed honestly and harmlessly. It can be just play, and there is nothing wrong with imaginative escape. His theory of the distinction between imagination and fantasy works sounds logical, but the distinction is more psychological and spiritual. Problems arise, I think, when popular art is manipulative and sentimental, when it pretends to be meaningful. The problem is that people can start to use fantasy, not as an escape from reality but as a means of filling social needs and manipulating reality. It seems to me that a full critical theory should recognize popular culture and judge it by proper standards.
To some degree, he has ignored the fact that pop culture, fluid, liberated and Romantic as it is, makes moral judgment possible, and teaches the techniques of instinctive moral judgment. Take for instance Batman Begins. The story presents the spiritual struggle of Bruce Wayne as he becomes a violent, private guardian of the public interest. There is a theme of decadence and fear of the masses, which seems to inspire the same fantasies for public order and security that were realized when the Fascists took power in Italy and Germany in the 1930’s. It is fact the same world that T.S. Eliot described in The Waste Land, viewed in the medium of graphic art and cinema. The decadence and corruption inspires fantasies of violence, but it also inspires a vision of moral action: “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”