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.


By Alexandra Stara

Sir, I am in complete agreement with you criticism of the lazy cultural relativism and flabby so-called tolerance that we experience today, which is patronising and ultimately destructive to everyone, including the people it purports to support. By dumbing down something, you do not make it more 'open' or 'democratic' or 'accessible', you kill it and defeat the purpose. Our culture and education should aspire to educate everyone properly so they are able to enjoy or at least understand and have an informed opinion on opera, though they may ultimately still dislike it, not to diminish or destroy opera because not enough people get it. It is exactly the same as with education, higher and otherwise, where the lowest common denominator prevails and thus destroys the possibility of anyone actually improving themselves, including, I repeat, those unfairly disadvantaged for whom, allegedly, such 'anti-elitist' measures are taken. Give everyone the chance to get higher, don't lower the 'higher' so everyone has an illusion of having got there!

I disagree however, with your use of the terms 'sacred' and 'off-limits' in this short text (though I do look forward to reading your book to understand your argument better). What I believe is at stake is achievable standards through aspiration and commitment, while these terms are prohibitive of such. Nothing in the field I believe we are discussing here should be 'off-limits', which suggests that something is axiomatically right and cannot be criticised or rethought. Such suggestions, I fear, are what have got people rebelling and going to the other extreme. My view is that we should be arguing for discrimination based on value, which is not a matter of mere opinion or whim, but something accessed through education in the broadest sense, as cultivation. This would mean that everyone could, potentially, question or re-intepret the meaning or relevance of this or that piece of art (so nothing 'off limits' or 'sacred'), but they should not be welcome to do so from a position of ignorance or to pander to ignorance, as is the case at the moment, in the name of some narrow-minded political agenda or an ill-conceived sense of 'widening participation'. If you want the latter, give people who have never been before tickets to a classical concert, don't 'pimp' the concert with pop songs. And teach children at school what culture really means, whether it is about the piano, the gamelan or the sitar.

By Leonard Atherton

It is good to see this note from Angus Kennedy.
For art music to survive (and to be understood), I feel that the term 'classical music' needs to be only used in conjunction with the art music of the Classical Period.
Entertainment music should be stated as such and people should be aware of the definition of entertainment.
Within the 'world music' scene, there is much 'new music', some of which is artistic and some is decidedly for entertainment. Music is a very flexible communication tool.
An art experience should be different (not 'better' or 'worse') than one of entertainment. We need both in our lives but if we do not understand what constitutes a valid work of art, we are likely to miss the reception the composer (or other artist) intended. By entertainment ads misleading potential new listeners with such unfortunate examples as 'out-of-tune' glass shattering sopranos as representing art music is not encouraging.
May Kennedy's words be heeded and put into practice............ starting with the young.

By Stephen Fisk

I probably ought to read Kennedy's book before making this comment, but I want to suggest a couple of distinctions may be relevant.

For one thing we need to separate public and personal discrimination. Kennedy may be right that the task of the art critic has changed and can now only be pursued with a lot less confidence. The art critic's role is to present views characterised by a degree of expertise, and on the whole we no longer seek such guidance. But perhaps we still form our own opinions about the quality of art. OK, books and symphonic music can be downloaded at the click of a button, but we make our own choices about which items to click on. Presumably some form of judgement affects those choices. I am one of those, mentioned in passing by Alexandra Stara, who do not like opera. To me it is a strange mix of second rate music and third rate drama. I prefer to spend an hour or two listening to the songs and chamber music of Schubert. But I accept this may not be a popular view.

My second distinction is between opinions that are held in a way that is understood by the person holding them and opinions that guide our preferences and actions while remaining largely unconscious. It is possible that the appreciation of art and music is enhanced when we can articulated our opinions in words, but on the other hand perhaps we enjoy them more when we become so immersed in them that we suspend thoughts and judgements. My internet research objective for the next day or two will be to look for evidence on this issue.

By Jonathan Chiswe...

It is about time the child among us cries out to the emperor:"Why aren't you wearing any clothes?". For too long an uncomprehending public have had all kinds of rubbish foisted upon us in the name of art. And since the 'experts' who manage publicly funded galleries have given their blessing to whatever is most disturbing of all we have been taught to admire, we have felt powerless to object. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn. Clearly it is hard to define the limits of art. But if we simply give up the attempt, and agree that anything and everything can be labeled art, we collude in its destruction. Because without limits, we are left at the mercy of those with a vested interest in pushing whatever is new, or shocking, or outrageous, to persuade us to take it seriously. To abandon all standards is not to be open minded, only weak minded. I think the art establishment are usually wrong in this regard. They were wrong in judging the Impressionists, and now, they are making the opposite mistake for fear of being seen as reactionary and have got it wrong again. When the establishment becomes the avant guard, there is little left for artists to react against except all that was once held sacred, or of value. Is this the artistic expression of a culture in its death throes?

By Yair Meshoulam

Very interesting debate, You can watch a 10 minite video to see what I think the function of art is.
Yair Meshoulam SEH 1982-85, RCA 1986-88

By Michelle Walker

"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."

How outrageous that the culture of Persia, Arabia or the Andes might be 'elevated to the same level' as the culture of Western Europe. How outrageous that casual racism might masquerade as intelligent thinking.

"For the arts to survive they need to maintain a sense of being apart, of being to some degree off limits."

This sentence in and of itself has to be the most foolish, most misguided, most ill-informed attempt at articulating a valid opinion about the survival of the arts I have ever come across.

I am deeply saddened at how gravely Mr Kennedy's thinking undermines and devalues the very culture he claims to love and am surprised (ashamed) that Oxford Today feels his is the kind of thinking with which it wishes to associate itself and, by extension, the alumni community of Oxford.

Elitist? Us?

By Subarno Chattarji

I haven't read your book, Mr Kennedy, but your brief statement above is troubling. It is, as Michelle Walker points out, elitist and casually racist in its assumption that 'multiculturalism' is the cause of the indiscriminate expansion and availability of cultural products which are quite obviously not up to the mark as per certain Western civilizational standards: your phrase 'often elevated to the same level' is a dead give-away. That your argument is underpinned by an exclusive notion of culture is made clear when you write: '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’.' 'The beauty of our cultural tradition' as you argue is an European one and while that is a beautiful, rich, and intensely complex tradition which I admire greatly, it seems to me problematic that you wish to exclude class and empire from the making and history and comprehension of the tradition. Cultural essentialism and exclusivism are deeply problematic but, I suppose, from your point of view until one recovers that elite cultural domain one will be left to deal with the inferior works created by multicultural societies. I live in a non-European multicultural society and am grateful that I have access to the finest in my cultures as well as of the world both in real and virtual realms. I have no wish to recover, as some of my fellow citizens do, a clean, original, beautiful tradition as opposed to the cacophony and trash that is available. It might be better to leave discrimination to the individual than to have cultural czars tell the uncultured what is good for them.

By William Clark

Ms Walker, as I read Mr Kennedy his description of multi-culturalism as a "triumph" is sincere. Far from casual racism, his view is that the (welcome) availability of art from various cultures brings with it a greater challenge for criticism: good criticism now requires both depth *and breadth* of knowledge, which generally speaking we have been too lazy to acquire. The result—according to his view—is a lack of discrimination which brings the troubles discussed by Mr Kennedy, and it could even be argued that this fails to show these various cultures the respect they deserve by refusing to accept they have any genuine standards of "taste, discrimination, beauty and truth".

By S Lancelyn Green

For me the enjoyment of an artistic offering is provided by the skill of its creator in producing something that is cleverly constructed, and perfectly executed, whether this be in words, as in a play, book, or poem, or in music, choral composition, or artistic composition and brushwork. In all the performing arts the skills of the performer must be good enough to convey the intended experience, and of course some level of discrimination is required to establish whether these qualities are present. Even if all these aspects are right, however, there is still the need for the art to affect us and move us. This is surely at the heart of the matter, and although not all art will ever have the same effect on everyone, it is surely the case that the better educated we are in the field of the arts the more we stand to gain from them. Just my opinion, and by the way Opera is wonderful, but so is Schubert, as are a few well chosen words by Shaw or Shakespeare, if delivered with taste, discrimination, beauty, and truth.

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