08 October 2012
Another discussion on Twitter inspires another post, this time based on Hannah Betts’s article which, for me, raises the question: why did the left abandon high culture? In the immediate postwar period the Atlee government promoted opera and the like on the basis that “nothing was too good for the working man”. This top-down view was then abandoned by Labour in favour of the bottom-up conviction that art and creativity in general came from the people and that high art was, somehow, tainted with elitism. This was then accompanied by post- imperial guilt – all these great books and so on were produced by Dead White Males (mostly) on the backs of slaves and the conquered – and, later, by a wave of French cultural criticism which ranged from the worthless – Kristeva, Foucault – to the interesting but unnecessarily impenetrable – Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard. Since it is blindingly obvious to me that there is nothing necessarily left or right about the western canon and also that it is one of the greatest, most humane, most egalitarian and most enduring achievements of our species, all this needs unpicking.
I should first point out that this is a discussion of attitudes out there in the real world, it is not a critique of thinkers who are, in many cases, not worth our time.
That said, following Edward Said, it became commonplace to set, say, Jane Austen against the slave trade in the Caribbean. Well, it’s a perspective but what does it mean? Does it reduce her greatness? I really cannot see how. To say she was morally wrong to benefit from slave-based wealth is a truism, so did everybody else she knew, including the English poor. She may have inserted the slave issue into her work, but the fact that she didn’t says nothing against the great human truths she expressed. In any case, cruelty is everywhere in Austen and metaphor is the essence of art; she covered slavery and its overthrow in the relations between Elizabeth Bennett and the unspeakable Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Anyway, how many crimes in the present world are we failing to include in our work? To do anything one must draw a line somewhere.
To deny the western canon on ideological grounds is to deny access, not just to Shakespeare etc, but to everything.
This drawing of a line takes me to the next big and, again, to me obvious point. You have to start somewhere. To deny the western canon on ideological grounds is to deny access, not just to Shakespeare etc, but to everything. A Zulu must learn how to be a Zulu, a Japanese to be Japanese and an Indian an Indian before he or she can learn anything else. Those lucky enough to be brought up in wealthy western democracies can learn how to be themselves in the midst of the most humane and well-preserved cultural traditions in existence. From the moment they are born, these traditions are busily forming their imaginations and, to a great and noble extent, they have gone on to form the world’s. The left’s attack on these traditions was an attempt to make us liars to our own sensibilities.
They have succeeded and sensibilities are now being formed not by the western canon, but by cynical, profit-making trash. The left should perhaps consider how they have inspired some of the worst excesses of capitalism, partly by the false Brown-Blair boom but also by the idiocies of TOWIE/X-Factor
“Half-digested Barthes and Baudrillard have had more influence on television production than anyone else,” Rev Richard Coles remarked in the tweet discussion. Think on, lefties.
Then comes the rather sterile debate about high art and low art. This is sterile because it is so easily resolved. Of course, The Simpsons and Bob Dylan are high art that emerged from low art. That’s how culture works.The same is true of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcok, Howard Hawks – you get my drift. If geniuses happen to choose a form hitherto considered ‘low’, then, as night follows day, they will make it high. Look at the folk songs in Beethoven and Schubert.
This used to be a case put by high, dessicated right-wingers. I am not one of them. I may be high, I may even be a bit dessicated, but I am moving increasingly to the left. One of the reasons is the sickening cultural insouciance of the right. The left, in contrast, once said “nothing is too good for the working man”. It’s not patronising, it’s not condescending, it’s not elitism, it’s justice.
Now, for the last time, buy my damned book.