Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lowbrow Nobility

I'm an academic, I defend high culture, but I think we must also propose other, different paths. Given the disorientation of the contemporary world, what we have to do is restore people's dignity and faith in action. Not just faith in the knowledge and the enjoyment of great works. High culture helps create an individual, but so does the fact that individuals are actors who construct their own world. Teaching must not stand still or fly in the face of television and the like. Teaching has to provide the tools for individuals to become creators, not just of art or literature but of everything. High culture, humanism, must work alongside other ways, but if we take it to be the central one we will have problems. In the society of entertainment, it's more difficult for the masses to participate in this cultural ferment. For people without the necessary education, reading Ulysses today is difficult – though not impossible. We can live, and live well, in a dignified manner, without knowing the classics.

We are in agreement on our diagnosis of the society of the spectacle originating with the collapse of aesthetic hierarchies. But here we have to step back a little and observe that the society of the spectacle is not the only culprit. It began with the highest culture: the avant-garde. It's there that the real attack occurs against academic art, the "beautiful". Duchamp was not part of the society of the spectacle, yet he was the one who opened the door to the idea that we could put anything in an exhibition and that it would be called "art". The seeds of the collapse of aesthetics and high culture are within high culture itself.

In the end, the society of the spectacle hasn't changed aesthetic hierarchies much. What has it done? Modern twentieth-century society has created something unheard of in history: an "art of the masses". Take cinema for example. A film is a work aimed at everyone, regardless of their cultural baggage; you don't have to have read the classics to appreciate it. The cinema hasn't changed aesthetics; it's created something different. It has created an art of entertainment that can give us mediocre pieces of work but magnificent things too. Increasingly, average movies, works that are neither great art nor bad, produce emotions and make people think.

The entire debate between Gilles Lipovetsky and Mario Vargas Llosa is interesting, but this part in particular makes me think of something Brian Leiter was struck by in reading Nietzsche, the suggestion that true "greatness" is impossible in democratic, egalitarian circumstances where altruistic concerns tend to trump the extremely self-centered drives and passions so often found in profoundly creative people.