Culture is overrated

Both purveyors and consumers of culture, narrowly understood as high art, often assign demiurgic powers to it. Culture, they say, is the world’s only hope.

In support, they quote Dostoyevsky, whose Prince Myshkin insists that “beauty will save the world”. Our champions of high culture then translate that promise into a simple, and false, syllogism: beauty will save the world – culture is beautiful – therefore, culture will save the world.

That’s not what Dostoyevsky or any intelligent man could have possibly meant. Myshkin’s statement was either subtle philosophy or arrant nonsense, and it becomes the second when simplistically understood.

Beauty, along with truth and goodness, is part of the ‘transcendental’ triad that many thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas, regarded as the inseparable ontological properties of being.

They all agreed that a deficit in one part would also lead to a diminution in the other two. Hence, replace ‘beauty’ with ‘ugliness’, and mankind also loses truth and virtue, bringing about a global blood-sodden chaos. In that sense, beauty may indeed save the world, just as its lack may spell the world’s destruction.

However, narrowing the meaning of beauty to culture (and the meaning of culture to art) is wrong on any number of levels you care to name: aesthetic, philosophical, social, anthropological, political and so on.

Nevertheless the saving power of culture constantly crops up in all sorts of questions asked by people anxious to detect a link where none exists. How is it possible, they wonder, that two of Europe’s most cultured nations, Russia and Germany, produced the two most evil regimes in history?

Look at what they’ve given the world, they say: [a roll call of great names follows]. How could the same nation that produced Bach and Goethe also produce Hitler and Himmler? Replace the first two names with Tchaikovsky and Pushkin, the last two with Lenin and Stalin, and you’ll hear the same why-oh-why question posed over and over again.

Invariably, people who ask such questions themselves fall into one or both of the same groups I mentioned earlier, purveyors or consumers of art. Far from every member of these groups can genuinely feel the saving grace of art, yet those who can find it hard to understand why others don’t feel the same way.

Similarly, believers who are in communion with God and live their lives accordingly fail to see why others bypass this obvious route to private and public goodness. This is less of a fallacy because such believers can at least cite historical evidence of religion having that effect at times. Their opponents, however, cite evidence to the contrary, and a lively debate ensues.

But at least there’s something to argue about. When it comes to culture, no one can show any instances of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky preventing people from murdering one another in all sorts of imaginative ways and apocalyptic numbers.

So whenever our literati bemoan that those two gentlemen and their colleagues failed to mitigate their nations’ beastliness, I always reply: “Why, would you have expected them to?”

The kind of art that can raise a man a rung or two closer to God is produced for few by fewer. Lump those two groups together, and you’ll still only get an infinitesimally tiny fraction of one per cent of the population.

Even when looking at a pre-selected group, say audiences at classical concerts, I often wonder how many of them really feel elevated and purified by the music. Judging by the enthusiasm with which they applaud charlatans reducing musical performance to a circus act, not very many. Let’s say 10 per cent if we are feeling generous.

If asked, they’ll all say they enjoy music. Of course they do. But that’s not what music is for. You may enjoy a good meal followed by flatulent excretions and a post-prandial snooze. You may enjoy driving fast or dancing slowly. Why, some people even claim they enjoy pop pandemonia, and one has to take them at their word.

But Bach and Beethoven aren’t there to be enjoyed. Their music cracks ajar the door beyond which lies salvation in Dostoyevsky’s sense of the word. However many subjects a Bach fugue has, three are always present if not always perceived: beauty, truth, virtue. Three in one, and one as three. So by all means do let’s talk about this when delving into philosophical or theological depths. But please leave art out of any sociological context.

Yes, some sublime poetry was written during the early years of Bolshevism, and some serious philosophy during the Third Reich. And yes, great German conductors still led great orchestras in masterly renditions of Beethoven symphonies throughout the Nazi years, even as Allied bombs rained on Berlin.

But that’s like saying that the sun sometimes shone when the Bolsheviks were machinegunning peasants or the Nazis were gassing Jews. One had nothing to do with the other. And no, art neither prevents evil from happening nor redeems it after it has been perpetrated.

What could reduce the amount of evil in the world is a social arrangement allowing the same spirit that flows into art to break banks and engulf society as a whole. For that to happen, all or at least most members of society must be raised in a way that leads them to beauty, truth and virtue – even if they remain deaf to Mozart and Schubert.

Not everyone can be taught to appreciate Bach’s counterpoint or Homer’s hexameters, but everyone can be taught to respect others, obey just laws, protest against unjust ones, and be able to tell the difference. Everyone can be taught not to be selfish and always remember that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not one’s own person.

I’m not saying that everyone can heed such lessons, but perhaps enough people will to make the world a slightly more civilised place. It’s not down to any temporal institution to erase original sin, thereby saving the world. That prerogative is reserved for a higher authority. But human institutions should still be able to do a better job than they are doing now.

The distinction between culture and civilisation isn’t deeply entrenched in Anglophone thought, coming as it does mostly from 18th century German philosophy. Although that isn’t my favourite period, the distinction is valid and useful.

While Western culture thrives on esoteric exclusivity, a civilisation can’t last unless it includes all, or at least most, members of society. Some may drive it, some may sleep in the back seat, but they all must be inside. Culture is merely a part of civilisation, and not the most important part at that.

In fact, one could even say that, unlike civilisation, culture is divisive. Cultural elitism (not unlike that which you can sometimes detect in this space) builds a social moat between people, with no drawbridge provided. But civilisation can fill that moat with, well, beauty, truth and goodness – leaving culture for the delectation of the very few.    

5 thoughts on “Culture is overrated”

  1. High culture is a red herring, because it no longer exists. Nothing remotely resembling Bach’s counterpoint or Homer’s hexameters has been produced for many, many years. We live in a Dark Age, in which savages award other savages Turner Prizes and Tchaikovsky Prizes without anything ever being produced by any of the savages but rubbish and hot air.

    Will our civilisation follow our high culture into extinction? I expect so, and I expect it to happen pretty soon.

    By the way, the unwashed masses may be incapable of understanding Bach’s counterpoint, but at least they used to be given the chance, in the days when every village organist had a bit of Bach in his repertory and most villagers went to church and heard him. And they heard good lucid prose from the English Bible too. The Church used to provide a bridge between culture and civilisation.

    Also by the way, the nearest thing I know to Homer’s incomparably great hexameters for those who know Latin but not Greek is Catullus LXII (“Vesper adest iuvenes…”). Virgil’s hexameters are good in their way, but far too spondaic to be plausibly Homeric.

    1. Actually, I may disagree with you on one point, and do so by citing just one name: James MacMillan. I’m convinced that centuries from now he will sit next to Bach in the history of music. James, a pious Catholic, imbues the modern idiom with the eternal spirit, producing the most astounding music written in my lifetime. Among other brilliant things, he has written two sublime Passions, with a small choir within a large atonal one singing the Evangelist part in Gregorian chant. Like Bach, he writes simpler vocal pieces for the amateur choir at his local church to sing every week. His productivity also matches Bach’s, and just about every piece is a masterpiece, vocal or instrumental.

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