Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Being Cultured

Picture: Amazon
Angus Kennedy Being Cultured: In defence of discrimination Imprint Academic 2014 £14.95

Without discrimination - the judgment of quality - culture is impossible. But today culture is often judged on measures other than quality. It is judged on its contribution to GDP, its ability to attract the 'right' audience and its ability to contribute to a plethora of goals from social mobility to mental health. The very word 'discrimination' is often used pejoratively, to mean bigotry rather than discernment. This inspiring new book makes the case for discrimination as the basis of culture.

It is both vigorously polemical and seriously substantive. Kennedy is brutal and effective in identifying and criticism much that is philistine, backward and just plain daft in contemporary discussion of culture. But this isn't just another jeremiad; it advances a philosophically sophisticated defence of a particular conception of culture and makes a powerful positive case for becoming cultured (I think 'becoming' is a better word than 'being', in the book's own terms). 

Cultural judgment is not scientific, but it is not altogether arbitrary and personal either. We assess culture in the context of a cultural tradition, and Kennedy is sharply critical of the remorseless 'presentism' of contemporary culture:
Without a tradition classical music would not be classical but would be folk music. Epic poetry would be just campfire song. Tradition takes the ephemeral and local up into its system, hierarchy and rules and - contrary to much contemporary prejudice - in so doing allows for works of art to become unique, individual and different. It does this precisely by differentiating between them, by judging them: saying these are good enough to last, they have stood the test of time; but these are not. (p. 130)
Culture is not something created by artists and consumed by the people. It is something that we are all organically part of, in our role as critics and connoisseurs rather than passive consumers. Of course some people are better critics and better connoisseurs than others, just as some people are better artists than others. But we can all participate in a common culture by seeking to assess artistic quality in the context of a cultural tradition rather than rating our enjoyment on a one to ten scale. Aesthetic judgment is not about what I like; contra the trendy relativists, it is about articulating why you should like it too. It has a moral dimension, engaging in a social process of evaluating what is worthwhile. The process of becoming cultured is a process of learning our history and engaging with society, but it is also a process whereby we shape society by dint of our collective judgments. 

This argument is the substantive backbone of the book, but the first half is critique, and it is tremendous fun to read. He is one of the praiseworthy few to dissent from the chorus of adulation for the trendy new Rijksmuseum, noting that the juxtaposition of a sword next to a portrait of a man with a sword reduces the sword to a mere stage prop. Kennedy hints at the danger of 'contempt for both audience and objects' (p. 154). Indeed. I particularly enjoyed Kennedy's discussion of the hollowness of the cultural elite's focus on the 'audience'. He explains that the audience has become a stage-army to validate the work of cultural elites; they ostensibly value diversity, but diversity measured crudely (age, class, ethnicity - they measure only what they can see). But this devalues art itself, because rather than trying to entice an audience for the art, they seek to put on shows that will appeal to the 'right' audience mix (p. 83).

It's striking that despite the rhetorical commitment to diversity and debate, the cultural sector is homogeneous. Every museum, every theatre, every orchestra and every opera company - all proclaim their commitment to diversity and inclusion in almost exactly the same terms. Kennedy writes that, 
There is a certain level of intolerant self-regard and narcissism involved in the confidence of the arts establishment - their consultants, audience-development executives and marketing creatives - that their vision of a multi-cultural, postmodern, diverse society is one shared by everyone of sound mind. It can amount to an objectification of a certain taste - which should really have to argue its corner - in the name of a people who are always spoken for rather than giving voice." (p. 86)
That indeed is the irony. Cultural elites have usurped the people's role as aspirant critics and judges, and they have usurped us in the name of 'the people'.

This is a short book, but it covers a lot of ground without over-simplifying. I appreciated the breadth of sources, invoking thinkers from across the political spectrum and from varied philosophical traditions. It also draws widely for artistic examples, and is particularly strong on ancient art. In a book that covers so much ground and swims so hard against the current it's inevitable that I found points of disagreement, though most were minor and inessential. I'm not sure, for example, that artistic production is strongly correlated with human freedom. How much freedom was there in the Spanish court that nurtured Velazquez? Or even in Renaissance Florence for that matter. And why did France produce greater art than Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Britain enjoyed greater freedom? Today artists enjoy immense freedom, but we are not producing greater art than the Renaissance Florentines who were instructed exactly what to paint by religious patrons. Freedom is certainly necessary, but the discipline of being part of an artistic tradition is important too, and artistic constraint can sometimes spur great creativity.

I also thought that the chapter on scientistic ideas about culture focused too much on why their conclusions are undesirable rather than why they are wrong, but that is perhaps inevitable in a short book, and I hope it spurs a more rounded critique. The book opens up many fruitful lines of thought and many ideas that can be developed further. I commend it to you for its argument, which I find persuasive, and for its critique, which I find apposite. But above all this book is a spur to thinking further about the important issues it raises. 

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