By Angus Kennedy (Christ Church, 1986)
It has never been easier to experience culture in all its forms. Not just the ability to download a symphony or a novel at a click, but the number of exhibitions, performances and films on offer — let alone the weight of cultural reviews and listings — is staggering. New galleries and arts venues have sprung up everywhere in recent years and culture is heralded by many as having almost magical powers: to regenerate the economy and cities, to make the sad happy, and to integrate the excluded. The triumph of multi-culturalism too means the art, literature and music of so many more civilisations than Western Europe are readily accessible and often elevated to the same level.
Where, though, is the generation of critics equal to this brave new cultural epoch? Almost no one seems to talk in the terms on which aesthetic judgement relies: taste, discrimination, beauty and truth. We certainly do talk a lot about the arts but rather in terms of how accessible they are, how diverse, how shocking to old-fashioned attitudes, how very relevant to people’s lives or contemporary issues. We are much less sure of ourselves when it comes to talking about whether or not this painting or that book is any good or not — where ‘good’ is still understood to mean something more than just how I might feel about it today, or as in the sense of being good for something as books might be claimed to be useful for therapy.
It can seem that we have become alienated to the beauty of our cultural tradition — decrying it as snobbish, rarefied and elitist, if not imperialist — and, in our rush to bring high culture down to earth, we have jettisoned any sense of it being ‘off limits’. We refuse to discriminate. Instead there are no limits, no more sacred ground: anything goes. Just one recent example is the English National Opera’s announcement that they are branching out into musicals and the all-day restaurant business; that opera is somehow no longer enough.
For the arts to survive they need to maintain a sense of being apart, of being to some degree off limits. This special sense is preserved through the exercise of our taste and discrimination. Much as it may go against the grain to single out a work of art as more beautiful than another, if we fail to make that effort, then our cultural world becomes a relatively undistinguished one. In which we are not only indifferent to the claims of the arts upon us but even seek to avoid them by celebrating the absence of limits as some form of liberation.
Against this trend I think we have to insist on our ability as individuals to make aesthetic judgements and on the necessity of so doing in order to create meaningful relationships between each other. Standards of taste bring us together as much as they distinguish between us. Certainly lazy cultural relativism or a flabby tolerance towards anything new and shocking, let alone forcing the arts into an instrumentalist straitjacket, will not help us to forge any common understanding and love of the arts.
Angus Kennedy's new book Being Cultured: In Defence of Discrimination is available now.