a way forward for high culture

(This is actually a post for Labor Day, although the connection to labor and working-class culture may not be immediately obvious.)

People sometimes say: “This artifact or text is worth your effort and attention. It is less accessible than some other works; it may take more effort to understand and appreciate. But it will make you a better person, or help you improve the world, or give you insight.”

This type of claim requires a justification because it is a proposal for how other people should allocate their time and effort. The justification can be an explicit argument that the work in question is valuable. Or it can be an interpretation, explanation, or reaction to the work that helps people to understand it. Understanding enables appreciation. Like any justification, it can fail because it was not a worthy claim in the first place, or because the reasons were weak, or because they fell on infertile soil.

To say that a given work deserves unusual effort puts that item in a special category. Even if you make such a claim in an informal and unpretentious way, you are suggesting a value-judgment and implying a rough ranking from better to worse.

We could have a culture in which many people frequently exchanged such claims, coming from diverse perspectives and advocating a wide range of cultural products. People would then allocate some of their time and effort to relatively challenging works because they had been persuaded that these items have special value. “High culture” would be the list of all the works that significant numbers of people appreciated in these ways.

And we do have that kind of culture. People exchange claims about value. Subcultures can be found that love almost any challenging form of culture you can think of. However, the dialogue about which works are especially worthy is constantly challenged–or even threatened–by several factors:

  • The massive supply of culture that is profitable because it is addictive and easy to enjoy. (Believe me, I am addicted as anyone is.)
  • A certain reluctance to accept that some works can be more worthy than others. This attitude has shaken the confidence of people, such as humanities professors, who might otherwise be more active proponents of challenging culture.
  • The kind of defense of high culture that assumes it must be a traditional Eurocentric canon and that students should recognize a list of canonical authors without actually struggling with their works. In my own area of specialization, K-12 civic education, state standards often present long lists of names. Students are supposed to identify the word “locke” with a long-dead man who happened to believe in individual rights, as if that were a worthy learning objective. The backlash is inevitable.
  • The dominant role that colleges and universities play in generating and consuming culture. Higher education has limitations: it serves mostly young adults, it has been assigned an economic function, and it is run by people (like me) who chose an academic path instead of another worthy vocation. Meanwhile, unions and other working-class organizations, religious denominations, small publishing houses and magazines, and other independent sources seem relatively weak.

In “Culture as Counterculture” (New Criterion, Sept. 2021), Adam Kirsch explains how we got to where we are.  I would start a bit earlier than he does and would propose a future phase, but steps 3 to 7 in the following summary match his account:

  1. In aristocratic cultures, popularity indicates a lack of quality. Aristocrats gladly prefer to own unpopular things.
  2. In democratic cultures, popular tastes gain influence and even authority.
  3. As European cultures begin to democratize in the 1800s, people like Matthew Arnold, John Stewart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others–I would add the Uruguayan essayist Jose Enrique Rodo or the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore–argue that all citizens should have access to “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold). They hope that a classically educated public will govern better.
  4. In the 1900s, industries and governments become increasingly effective at distributing mass-produced cultural products whose markets dwarf those for traditional high culture. Leftist critics like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald argue that mass audiences are being exploited and denied access to better works, which people would prefer if they had real access to them.
  5. In the mid-1900s, many students are still required to study canonical works in schools, under the influence of Arnold and other Victorians. A common motif in youth-oriented pop culture becomes the rejection of that canon. “My heart’s beating rhythm / And my soul keeps singing the blues / Roll over Beethoven / Tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
  6. In the wake of that revolt, some highly sophisticated critics argue in favor of pop culture and against status hierarchies. Kirsch’s example is Susan Sontag ‘s 1966 essay collection.
  7. Mass-produced, for-profit popular culture keeps expanding while the market for traditional high culture continues to shrink. Sontag decides that pop culture is mainly individualistic and consumerist; she should have resisted it, but the battle is now lost. Genres like classical music are now countercultural niches, not even worth making fun of.

Today’s surviving proponents of high culture seem somewhat diverse philosophically. They include intellectual successors of Macdonald and Sontag, who still want students to read Kafka or the Bhagavad Gita to counteract consumerist capitalism, plus conservatives who want them to read Locke and Jefferson–or at least to know those names–in order to preserve traditional values. Their choice of texts overlaps more than you might think, but the whole group is small and ineffectual, vastly outnumbered by people who don’t see much value to the humanities in any form.

Or perhaps there are still several “high culture countercultures.” Perry Link writes, “Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair …” Some of my fellow Americans read classical Chinese verse in the original calligraphy. Likewise, the best poetry being written in English today may take the form of rap lyrics, and some people have highly discriminating, deeply informed knowledge of rap. One could add students of the Talmud or Islamic jurisprudence, jazz aficionados, serious fans of midcentury modernism, and more.

Still, even if we combined all the diverse countercultures devoted to demanding forms of excellence, they would be badly outnumbered.

I believe we can move from step 7 to another phase, when claims of excellence are more influential again. To get there, we will need “business models” (defined broadly) for creating, sharing, and evaluating excellent and demanding forms of culture outside the monopoly of the university. Federal subsidies could help, but I would not put all my eggs in a governmental basket. The goal is not just to make fine culture available–there is already more online than you could see or hear in a lifetime–but to help it to compete for attention in marketplaces like Spotify or Amazon.

Meanwhile, there is cultural work to do. We need more–and more diverse–people to make confident, compelling arguments that specific works will reward the hard work needed to understand them. Some artifacts and texts are better than others: that is the claim. A good life incorporates some of the best works. They do not all come from any particular genre, cultural context, or tradition. One of life’s great joys is finding new forms of excellence where you didn’t expect them. Yet we are surrounded by insidiously addictive but highly profitable mediocrity, and it is up to us to do better.

See also: separating populism from anti-intellectualism; the library of Albert Shanker; “a different Shakespeare from the one I love”; the state of the classics in 2050; and the future of classics.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.