Whatever happened to culture? By “culture” I mean what Matthew Arnold meant in Culture and Anarchy, his essay of 1867, where he described it as the pursuit of “the best that has been thought and said,” with the assumption that this also included the best that had been painted, composed, and now, in the modern age, filmed. Arnold thought that culture “had its origin in the love of perfection,” and that, properly pursued, would not only lead to “an expansion of human nature” but release us from our “inaptitude for seeing more than one side of a thing, with our intense energetic absorption in the particular pursuit we happen to be following.” Arnold did not think the acquisition of culture, though clearly an elite enterprise, was the exclusive province of the wealthy, for he recognized that some people more than others had what he called a “bent” for it. 

When I ask what happened to culture, I am asking how it has come about that the great subjects of culture—philosophy, art, music, literature, film—today no longer seem, so to say, up for discussion, at least not in their contemporary aspects. Ask a cultivated person who his or her favorite living painters are, or classical composers, or novelists and poets, and you are not likely to get a ready answer, or any answer at all. I have no satisfactory answers to these questions myself. I know no contemporary painters whose work I love in the way I love the paintings of Raphael, Vermeer, Gustave Caillebotte. I know no modern composers I care to hear after the now long-dead Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky. The last modern poet I admire is Philip Larkin, who died in 1985. I eagerly await the next book of no living novelist, and I haven’t been to a play in the past decade. As is I suspect the case with many other people who strive to live the cultivated life, in recent years I have been living almost entirely on the culture of the past. 

Swings in culture are not easily accounted for, especially not those high points in national cultures. Consider the extraordinary rise of Elizabethan drama between 1558 and 1642, featuring Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson; the great years of Renaissance painting and sculpture; or the golden age of Dutch painting spanning much of the 17th century. In Austrian and German music there was the unsurpassed run from J.S. Bach through Beethoven, with Haydn, Handel, and Mozart in between. In France the novel blazed from Balzac through Flaubert, Stendhal, and Zola, culminating in Marcel Proust, while French impressionist painting paved the way for much visual art that was to follow.  Perhaps most extraordinary of all was the great efflorescence in Russian literature in the 19th century, beginning with Pushkin, cresting with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev, and ending with Anton Chekhov, Isaac Babel, and Osip Mandelstam—this in a country whose leaders, be they czars or Communist commissars, treated their own people as if they were a conquered nation. 

Culture can take grand swings, from richness to near barren paucity. We seem just now to be living in the latter, an age of cultural barrenness, a sad slump, with no known great figures at work in any of the arts, and with little in the way of high expectations for the immediate future. How has this come about?

In the middle of the past century, culture was the featured item on the menu of intellectual life. Arguments were staged, books written, about the divisions between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow culture. Separating high culture from what was felt to be the infection of middlebrow art was the main occupation of many critics, Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, and Hilton Kramer among them. These and other critics served as gatekeepers, refusing entry into the blessed circle of highbrow status to J.D. Salinger, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and others. 

Some might argue that these gatekeepers locked the passageway too readily. For highbrow critics of that day, the New Yorker, with James Thurber, E.B. White, and A.J. Liebling among its contributors, was thought hopelessly middlebrow. And so it remained, until Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, doubtless lured by high fees and a vastly larger audience, jumped ship and became New Yorker writers and Harold Rosenberg became the magazine’s regular art critic. 

Through intellectual force alone, Greenberg and Rosenberg put abstract expressionism on the cultural map. Passions were aroused over the standing of novelists of the day. Was Saul Bellow a great novelist or instead an essayist in novelist’s clothing? How good, really, was Philip Roth? I recall a friend claiming he didn’t wish ever to speak with anyone who didn’t think well of Bernard Malamud’s A New Life. Culture was at the center of intellectual life.

As recently as the 1980s, culture was still very much in fashion. Topic Number One among the middle- and upper-middle classes was the movies. One not only had to see all the notable movies of the day and to have opinions about them, but one had also to know the opinions about them of Pauline Kael, John Simon, Andrew Sarris, and other movie critics. The two best-known people in Chicago were the city’s two movie critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.  Museum attendance was up. Book clubs, private and public, flourished. During these years Luciano Pavarotti was the world’s highest paid entertainer.

Not all the art granted highbrow status in that day has held up. Who really wishes to have a Jackson Pollock painting in the house? In Art on Trial, Tom Wolfe suggested that museums of the future hang giant-sized copies of essays in support of abstract expressionism, with small copies of the actual paintings beside them, suggesting that without the essays, the paintings were without significance. Edward Shils remarked that Helen Frankenthaler knew she had completed a painting only when she had run out of paint. Who any longer cares about the gay anger in the plays of Edward Albee or the gay subtext in those of Tennessee Williams, the unrelieved dolor of Eugene O’Neill’s, or the vague Marxism behind Arthur Miller’s? Is anyone still truly awaiting the arrival of Samuel Beckett’s Godot? Susan Sontag, perhaps the most famous intellectual figure of her day, seems of little interest in ours. How did poetry, which in the work of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot attained such grandeur, and in that of Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, and Louise Bogan such elegance, become little more than an intramural sport, with poets now being read and written about chiefly by other poets?

Sometimes it seems as if contemporary institutions are collaborating to demote the importance of culture. First among them is the university. College is where most people initially acquired an interest in culture. Today the contemporary university, in its liberal arts side, seems itself to have foregone that interest. This began when academic feminists attacked the works of what they called “dead white European males,” and which the rest of us know as just about all significant Western art and thought. 

Where once university English, History and other departments featured classic works—“the best that is thought and said”— they now prefer gender and other exotic studies. If Shakespeare is taught, there is a good chance the emphasis will be on whether he was pansexual or on his role as a running dog of capitalism. Here are some titles of courses on offer for the coming year in the English Department of Northwestern University: “Lesbian Representation in Popular Culture,” “Frankenstein’s Hideous Progeny,” “Madwomen in the Attic—Insanity, Gender, and Authorship in British Fiction,” “Intro to Disability Studies in Literature,” “Medicine, Race, and Gender,” “Black Feminist Theory,” “LGBTQ Art and Activism in the United States.” Not, near as one can make out, a great book in sight. If one is in search of culture in the Arnoldian sense, one is unlikely to find much of it in the contemporary university. 

The university may also be responsible for a reduction in the breadth of one portion of culture by training would-be novelists and poets in their creative writing programs. In these programs, students tend to read one another their stories and poems and, in the trade phrase, “workshop,” or analyze, them. (“If there is one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war,” noted Kingsley Amis, “it’s Workshop.”) Creative writing programs have also kept writers and would-be writers in the classroom and out of the world of direct experience, with the result of narrowing their interests. One is hard-pressed to think of any first-rate writers, novelists or poets, who have come out of any of these university programs.

Politics, meanwhile, seems everywhere to have swamped culture. (“Politics,” Norman Mailer long ago wrote, “has entered the heart.”) It has not merely overwhelmed culture as a subject of interest but has infiltrated it through political identity and correctness. Politics may even be the enemy of contemporary culture. By its nature elitist, culture seeks out the best, irrespective of race, color, or creed. Contemporary politics puts diversity, inclusiveness, equity above quality, and respects only the divisions of race, color, and creed. So today, literary and other cultural awards and prizes, in a form of reparations, are preponderantly to be given to so-called excluded peoples. At the same time, it is now considered a cultural felony for anyone to write or take a subject for his or her painting or sculpture that is outside his or her own race or sexuality; “appropriation” is the pejorative word for doing so. A presentiment of this occurred as early as 1967, when William Styron published his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, and black critics castigated him for invading literary territory not his for the taking and daring to write in the voice of what is now known as an “enslaved person.” This has now been extended and deepened in every way. Where once it was the glory of the novelist—of Tolstoy, of Melville, of Willa Cather—to have all the world for his or her subject, now No Trespassing signs have been placed upon nearly all subjects outside the writer’s own ethnic, racial, and sexual identity. The loser here, of course, is literature and the culture generally.

An earlier generation of intellectuals was interested in politics only at the level of revolution, socialism, and anti-Communism. The defining interests of Partisan Review, the leading intellectual journal of its day, were modernism and Marxism. Partisan Review and other intellectual journals rarely descended to the subject of American party politics. “Tweedledum and Tweedledumber,” Dwight Macdonald called the Republicans and Democrats. (You will not have a difficult time guessing which was “Tweedledumber.”) Today, party politics is of all-consuming interest. A new class has emerged, the punditocracy, members of which, also known as public intellectuals, who are without any notable culture of their own, are defined chiefly by their politics, and sport their political opinions on endless panels on cable television.

The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s, magazines that were once thought to fall under the rubric of general interest, are now more and more political in character. The New Yorker, for example, was always liberal in spirit, publishing Rachel Carson and James Baldwin and running articles countering the official government line in the Vietnam War. But it never descended to the level of party politics until the turn of the new century, when it began attacking George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, laid off Barack Obama, and went into high dudgeon against Donald Trump. In doing so, the magazine has lost its cultural authority, the authority that comes with being above the ruck.

As for that ruck, defined as a crowd of ordinary or undistinguished persons, at a time when everyone is lined up politically, and when it is now not permissible to be apolitical, it is difficult to point to men or women of true culture. Jacques Barzun once seemed such a person; so too, did Lionel Trilling, Ralph Ellison, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Willa Cather. One cannot think of people of their stature and general distinction today. Might it be that the current Zeitgeist has snuffed out all possibilities for such distinction, has killed the very idea of high cultural distinction, and with it the ideal of the man or woman of culture?

At the center of that Zeitgeist is the advent of the smartphone, the tablet, the computer, and all the other hardware of the digital world. Proust called reading “the noblest distraction”; the digital world—with its email, podcasts, chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest—is the greatest distraction tout court. Many are the benefits of the digital world, but the advancement of culture or of the cultural life is not among them. Culture requires repose, the digital world is about restlessness. The ultimate aim of the cultural life is the attainment of perspective, the deepening of knowledge, the acquisition (hope against hope) of wisdom; that of the digital world is information, little more. As a habit, digital culture, in its relentlessness, resembles nothing so much as smoking cigarettes. Some people, first thing upon waking, last thing before retiring, check their email, which they also check 30 or so times a day. (I, sad to report, am myself one of them.) In an essay called “The Life, Death—And Afterlife—of Literary Fiction,” Will Blythe, a former editor at Esquire, writes:

Can you read anything at all from start to finish, ie. an essay or a short story, without your mind being sliced apart by some digital switchblade? Without your seeking distraction as a form of entertainment, or entertainment as a form of distraction? Or is all of this just ordinary life in the internet era, with your every thought and feeling and perception being diverted or fractured or dissolved or reiterated endlessly with utter normality in a digitalized world to which nearly all of us are fixated, or might we say, addicted? Did you ever even know a different world? . . .

As you read, is your smart phone or computer or iPad simultaneously acquiring notifications, texts and emails, along with promotions, advertisements and daily venues of news, opinions and games such as Wordle and Spelling Bee, an altogether constant onslaught of information, incessantly demanding that you spend every waking hour of every day focused on this unrelenting digitality that keeps showing up on the screen in front of you, that screen with which you likely indulge in more back-and-forth than you generally do in person with an actual human being, like, say, your husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, lover, boss, employee?

Meanwhile, between the divisiveness of politics and the agitations of the Internet, life everywhere seems contentious, jumpy, unanchored, unhinged. Will contemporary literature, visual art, serious music, film ever retain its former primacy among those who prefer to think themselves thoughtful and wish to live the cultural life? How can this primacy be regained, the interest in serious culture re-established?

What, really, have we lost if we have lost the cultural ideal? The truly cultured have always been a minority, and a minuscule one at that, in any society at any time. But they have represented an ideal, the ideal of culture itself, and this ideal, when strong, can have ramifications that seep deep into the society that adopts it. 

Think, for example, of England, where until recent decades, the ideal of culture was firmly planted. Under the flag of this ideal, the English were able to produce exceptional political figures, among them Disraeli, Gladstone, Churchill, Macmillan, Gaitskell, and others. The public school and university systems were set up to educate their students along the lines of the cultural ideal, and they turned out an impressive number of philosophers, historians, literary critics, and writers, not to speak of the many men who were equipped at an early age to run an empire. But then, England, too, somehow lost its passion for this ideal, with the consequence that it is no longer the small but great country it once was but now seems instead the land of those aged knights of the doleful countenance, Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Elton John. 

In allowing the ideal of culture to slip away, a country locks itself into the present and soon accepts mediocrity as all that is on offer. Isn’t this where we in America find ourselves just now? The question is, how do we elevate ourselves above the vulgarities of the present to achieve a more varied, richer, in every way more splendid life? No easy answer is available. All we can do is our best to resist the temptations of the age, the descent into the political, the attraction of constant distraction offered by the Internet. One can call out the fraudulence of the many dubious ideas being thrown up by both the left and the right of our day. One can remind others of the grandeur of the cultural achievements of other times, which produced satisfactions deeper than any we who are now without a clear cultural ideal are likely to know. Will this be sufficient? Can we rise above the political? Might we be able to …Excuse me, but my smartphone is ringing. It’s from an old high-school friend. He’ll want to argue about Donald Trump. I had better take the call.

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