Essays: Culture and Roger Scruton |
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Culture and Roger Scruton

by Bryan Appleyard

The Sunday Times, 15th July 2007

I am indebted to Gum, “the global content division of Saatchi & Saatchi”, for giving me a good laugh. Gum is the creator of CultGeist (at, which is, apparently, “an ever-evolving global network of 3,000 emerging creatives”. It explores the four Cs: culture, content, communication and commerce. But the greatest of the four is culture. “Before being able to understand the ways in the [sic] 4C’s [sic] converge, it is imperative to understand the zeitgeist of the C we know best – CULTURE. We live it, we breathe [sic] and we create it.”

Of all the different ways of saying “Give us your money”, this is surely one of the funniest. And, because of its inane juggling of the word “culture”, it is also one of the most resonant. The Gum guys clearly love this word, and they clearly have some dim intuition that it means something; but, equally clearly, they have no idea what that might be. I think, with the aid of Roger Scruton’s brilliant new book, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, I can help. Back in the innocent 1990s, a colleague and I accidentally suggested – we were only speculating wildly – to this newspaper that it should start an arts-based magazine called The Culture. The idea was partly influenced by the small-circulation but huge-impact magazine Modern Review, whose driving force was the idea that pop or low culture should be treated with as much reverence and respect as high culture. And the outcome was Culture (the “The” has now gone), the publication you are holding now.

I’m not claiming originality for our approach. In the 1960s, in The Times, Bernard Levin used to switch effortlessly between high and low culture; and, subsequently, the unique selling proposition of Clive James when he was television critic of The Observer was the erudition and style he brought to his reviews of series such as Dallas. In both cases, the intention was not simply to mock, but to define low cultural phenomena as exactly as one might Don Giovanni or Hamlet.

But what was different in the 1990s was the appearance of a generation to whom the idea of blending high and low came as naturally as breathing. They had absorbed the idea from media studies or any of the humanities courses that had been invaded by the French. Structuralism and then deconstruction were ideas that had emerged from the French universities. They could be applied to almost any discipline and, although they were impenetrably complex in detail, they delivered a simple message to the students: that all human artefacts could be deciphered through the same critical procedures. As a result, there was as much to be learnt about the world from a can of beans as there was from Wordsworth’s Prelude. To deny it was to assert old “imperial hierarchies of meaning” that had, the students were told, been utterly discredited.

This went way beyond anything intended by Levin or James. They applied high-art standards to what had previously been seen as low art. James liked Randy Newman because of their common understanding of song through Verdi. That elevated Newman to the high-art pantheon, and that was the whole point. James was simply saying that high art did not necessarily dwell exclusively in the old categories. Who could disagree? But the structuralists abandoned the terms “high” and “low” completely, and in doing so, they in effect tossed out the term “art”. That left a gaping hole. What word could be used to describe all this stuff? A big tent was needed to encompass this mountain of beans, poems, clothes, operas, pop songs, graffiti and game shows. The tent, the word that plugged the gap, was “culture”.

The Culture section was an inspired invention. It was copied by other newspapers, such as The Independent on Sunday and the International Herald Tribune, and there is The Culture Show on BBC2. The word, I now realise, works because it means something not just to rather poorly educated students, but also to the more traditionally educated.

“Culture”, after all, used to mean opera, theatre and all the other high arts. This new culture tent was very big indeed. But it was also riven with contradiction.

Enter Scruton, a philosopher with a genius for clarifying issues that vested interests often don’t want clarified. As the illiterate babble from Saatchi & Saatchi demonstrates, the big-tent version of culture is in serious danger of becoming meaningless. In Culture Counts, Scruton takes us back to basics. “Culture”, as used by anthropologists, he explains, means “those customs and artefacts which are shared, and the sharing of which brings social cohesion”. More broadly, ethnologists would say culture includes “all intellectual, emotional and behavioural features that are transmitted through learning and social interaction, rather than through genetic endowment”. Such uses of the word are close to the structuralist definition – not surprisingly, since the discipline was, in part, created by Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist.

But Scruton is discussing the word in its other sense, “the literary, artistic and philosophical inheritance that has been taught in departments of humanities both in Europe and America, and which has recently been subject to contemptuous dismissal (especially in America) as the product of ‘dead white European males’”. He tells me: “Mine is a normative use of the word. I’m using it to identify those things that are about knowledge in the realm of the human heart.”

The sense of the word is thus value-laden, and it is this that provokes the “contemptuous dismissal” from people who think we can simply shrug off our past and its values. But that dismissal – and our prolonged crises over multi-culturalism, inspired by the rise of Islamism – threatens us with the loss of our culture. The western world could become a civilisation devoid of culture: exactly what, in 1922, Oswald Spengler forecast in his book The Decline of the West. For Spengler, we were about to find ourselves in the depraved, cultureless condition of the late Roman empire. And for Scruton?

“There can be such a civilisation without culture,” Scruton says. “We have an enormous accumulation of technical know-how and scientific knowledge, but we are very thin on practical knowledge – what to do and how to feel. The loss of a culture means the loss of that knowledge, and that’s what I think we are advancing towards. There is a highly sophisticated grasp of all kinds of technical know-how and the science that estab-lishes it, but little sense of how the human being finds fulfilment in those things, or where to look for it.”

A world without culture would be one fixated on “immediate excitement and pleasure”. Sound familiar?

“There are two important factors that are causing this to happen to us. The first is mass communications, which flood all the channels in which culture might grow with a stream of endless noise, so that it becomes difficult to separate out things that are worth attending to from things that are not. That, combined with the democratisation of everything, means the type of criticism that is vital for separating out the valuable from the trivial becomes very difficult to maintain. That’s the principal thing we have lost through the egalitarian reforms in education and through current political correctness.”

Scruton regards the high culture of the west as more genuinely multicultural than that of politically correct politicians or of all other cultures. No other culture, he point out, so eagerly absorbs or pays homage to alien cultures. “When”, he writes, “has any eastern culture paid to western culture the kind of tribute that Benjamin Britten paid, in Curlew River, to the culture of Japan, or Rudyard Kipling, in Kim, to the culture of India?” Furthermore, high culture is, by definition, a universal undertaking: it is about the condition of being human. It can thus be a far better form of international understanding than the culture of the anthropologists or the masses. “We can understand the Chinese through the Confucian odes in a way that we can’t understand foot-binding. The great thing about high culture is that it’s open to interpretation from outside itself. By its very nature, it is an attempt to communicate with mankind as such.”

However, another philosopher, AC Grayling, points out that the belief that high culture is being degraded by low is present in every civilisation in every age. “There is always that pressure downwards. We all get tired, and we all need to flop down in front of a rerun of Frasier – we don’t necessarily want a high-intellectual conversation.” Grayling is sceptical of the view that high culture is in decline. “Look at London. It’s buzzing with high culture; it’s very healthy.” But Grayling does not attempt to rebut the core of Scruton’s argument, which is, primarily, about the need to protect the traditio of judgment and evaluation.

Hari Kunzru, however, does. Kunzru is the award-winning novelist – his new book, My Revolutions, is out next month – who rejected the John Llewellyn Rhys prize because it was sponsored by The Mail on Sunday, a paper that, he believed, was hostile towards black and Asian British people. For him, the very phrase “high culture” carries unacceptable political overtones. “My sense of high culture is that it’s whatever culture happens to be enjoyed by the elite. It’s a term with a hidden political content that opens the way for culture to further political ends, so the elite can say, ‘We are the possessors of this and we feel it is good for you; and we have the right to educate you and mould your taste.’ Taste is often a very politicised thing.”

What, then, is the source of his own judgment? “It’s what I care about and wish to make a case for. I wouldn’t necessarily claim that, because I like it, it is in some way ‘high’. My own taste is fairly mixed, and would include certain things that are considered high culture and others that are not.” Isn’t this in danger of becoming an entirely self-centred method of judgment? “If we are talking about what might be good music or bad music, then I am very happy to allow value judgment and expertise. I will listen more to somebody who cares deeply about and has made a study of the subject than to somebody who hasn’t. The reason I bristle at the notion of high culture is that it seems to bring with it something that is purely political.”

As ever with Scruton’s thought, people think they disagree with him more than they, in fact, do – for what is the “value judgment and expertise” in music to which Kunzru is happy to defer if it is not a tradition of transmissible knowledge of the effect of sounds on the human heart? Perhaps the anxiety Scruton provokes is all to do with postcolonial queasiness about any celebration of the legacy of the west. But, ultimately, such celebration is only a way of saying: this is who we are and this is where we live. To destroy “high” culture – meaning the art that has survived the test of time – is to render us incapable of knowing ourselves.

The word “culture” was in need of Scruton’s brisk and exact housekeeping, and the responses, pro and anti, he will inspire. In spite of Saatchi & Saatchi’s best efforts, culture still works for me, and for this magazine, as a tent that is slightly bigger than art and somewhat smaller than anthropology, and at the centre of which is, as Scruton says, nothing more nor less than the human heart.