A question of discriminationThink, wrote the cultural critic Eunice Lipton, “about Michelangelo, van Gogh, Rodin, Picasso, Pollock. Could these artists be lesbians, Asian Americans, Native Americans?” Her point was that if they had been any of these things, they would not have been recognised as “artist-geniuses” (her term); and this by implication shows that the notion of high culture in the western tradition embodies everything that is exclusive of other cultures and elitist within its own. To writers such as Lipton, quality is not a distinguishing feature of the objects and activities which the term “high culture” standardly denotes. The art critic Robert Hughes explains why: “Quality, the argument goes, is a plot. It is the result of a conspiracy of white males to marginalise the work of other races and cultures. To invoke its presence in works of art is somehow inherently repressive.” Can people of left-liberal political sympathies believe that high culture has special and superior value which justifies state support for theatre and grand opera, but not for pop concerts or darts competitions? On the face of it the answer is surely “Yes”; even if, after the characteristic British manner, left-leaning votaries of high culture – of opera, Shakespeare, Rembrandt exhibitions, Beethoven concerts, contemporary art and dance, “serious” literature whether contemporary or classical – occasionally mask their interest under an appearance of irony, given the risk that such interests run of being branded affected or pretentious. Undoubtedly, aspects of high culture lend themselves to such branding, especially when access to them becomes restricted by cost to a privileged stratum of society, as with all but the worst seats at the opera; for wealth and taste are not automatic bedfellows, and some go to the opera not so much to see it as to be seen at it. But pretension aside, the very idea of people who enjoy Renaissance painting or classical music irritates those who place all consumption of high culture in the same basket, if not as the affectation of the conceited (the low-brow rightwing complaint, opposed to what it brands as Islington trendiness in such things as the championing of contemporary art and music) then as the recreation of the privileged (the anti-highbrow leftwing complaint, opposed to the spending of public money on the Royal Opera House instead of on grants to ethnic dance groups in deprived areas) – both of which in their different ways explain why questions of culture have a political edge. To see this more clearly in connection with the relation between liberal-left sentiments and high culture, put the original question another way. Is there a difference in intrinsic artistic merit between a Rembrandt and an Australian aboriginal painting? Suddenly other thoughts press. If a European or American says “Yes” to this too, is he or she being guilty of ethnocentrism, of privileging the culturally parochial productions of Dead White Western Men, and thus of cultural, racial and gender bias? Or bring the question closer to home: if one says that Iris Murdoch’s novels are literature and Agatha Christie’s novels are not, is one making an unjust and unjustifiable comparison on the grounds that to presume to rank these authors is in fact to rank their readers in a way that is snobbish in one direction and condescending in the other: for if the latter’s readers enjoy her work, and find the former’s novels a trial to read, who has the right to say they are choosing the worse? In Matthew Arnold’s definition, culture is “the best that has been said and thought” – and, it should be added, done – in respect of all that matters in intellectual and artistic life. The term’s second and broader anthropological meaning is very different; it neutrally embraces everything about the way things are done in a society, among which its most highbrow interests are only a small part. These latter have accordingly come to be called “high” culture to differentiate what is most valued and esteemed by those supposed to be in a position to judge; and the term is therefore expressly discriminatory. The question therefore becomes: does an enjoyment of high culture involve a justifiable form of discrimination? I think most would still think that the answer is “Yes”, but it no longer suffices to say so without comment. Since the 1960s the politics of culture have been embodied in the debate about standards and relativism. This debate, acerbic and ill-tempered, is one corner of the larger contemporary battle over “political correctness”, whose primary concerns are gender, ethnicity, oppressive language, “cultural imperialism” and elitism. The PC battle has made it harder for people of leftwing and liberal views to be votaries of high culture without feeling the need to defend the preference. One good result of that, at least, is that it obliges them to think more carefully when they do so. The larger PC argument is a triangular one, between the political Right and two versions of the Left. The Right attacks a leftwing orientation which aims to valorise all cultural activities, no matter whose they are, privileging no endeavour, and no gender or ethnicity, above any other, in the interests of giving everything and everyone a place in the sun. A different leftwing orientation, agreeing with this determination to universalise justice and mutual respect, sees with dismay that the multicultural egalitarians have made themselves easy targets for rightwingers by being guilty themselves of a kind of oppression, hounding those who fail to adopt scrupulously undiscriminatory attitudes and language in pursuit of their otherwise admirable aims. A good deal of silliness and name-calling has resulted, especially in America, where what have mattered most to the combatants are, on the left, the multicultural imperatives, while on the right this is seen, in alarmist and sometimes hysterical fashion, as a threat to the political and moral fabric of the nation. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom summarised the Right’s view by saying that the Left’s principal belief is that all truth is relative and all cultures of equal value, and that the Left’s opposition to the attitudes and language involved in racism, sexism and the privileging of western culture, amount to attacks on free speech. Observers of this fracas can be forgiven for wishing a plague on both houses, because the occasional shrill absurdities of one side are more than well matched by the other form of “PC” – what Robert Hughes called “Patriotic Correctness” – which a well-funded and well-organised rightwing lobby in the US has concerted, not just against these occasional absurdities, but in opposition to a largely imaginary Marxist-lesbian-multicultural “antifamily” coalition allegedly taking over America’s universities and spending millions of National Endowment for the Arts dollars on obscenity and irreligion. Vociferous lobbying from this quarter nearly persuaded the US Congress to close the National Endowment of the Arts, citing among other things the fact that it had given money to the artist Andres Serrano, who made the controversial Piss Christ, consisting of a crucifix immersed in a jar of his own urine. In one corner of this fight lies the question of high culture in literature and the arts, automatically defended by the Right – who, it is clear, sometimes do not know what they are talking about, since much in high culture is profoundly subversive of what they cherish: think of the anticlerical Voltaire, the adulteresses Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, Madame Butterfly living in sin with Pinkerton, the liar Odysseus, the communistic New Testament, and endless examples besides, which, if they knew of it, would certainly affright America’s gun-and-family-loving right. Nevertheless they defend high culture by reflex; it is they who raised an outcry when a rumour was started that Shakespeare was to be dropped from school syllabuses and the literature curricula of universities such as Stanford – the rumour was false, and almost certainly a canard of the Right itself, who by the same token vigorously defend the notion that culture is fundamentally a matter of the canonical great books (and by extension great art and great music) of the western tradition. Their defence, whatever its sincerity, of high culture poses a somewhat awkward problem for those on the left who do not wish to be seen, like them, as elitist, Eurocentric, or committed to aesthetic notions which appear to demote by comparison the value of arts and literatures in non-western cultures, or indeed in demotic western traditions either – chiefly folk and working-class cultures. But there is an important difference between questions of the intrinsic value of literary or artistic works in any culture and their social significance to the people who produce them. A cairn of stones, or a figurine of a goat or a goddess might have religious meaning for a community, and be venerated by it, without having or pretending to have artistic merit. But an attentive eye can see the difference between a rough carving and a fine one, whatever its social or religious significance. The latter typically shows more observation and care, and evinces more skill or painstakingness in the working; in short, manifests the marks of quality. A difference in social or religious significance does not affect, still less negate, differences in quality. Those concerned to respect the productions of other cultures are apt not to distinguish these things, thinking that social significance is enough to confer artistic merit, and therefore refusing to allow comparisons on the mistaken ground that doing so implies disrespect. Take, for example, crucifixes as objects of veneration and subjects of art. Most representations of Christ on the cross are repugnant things, depicting as they do a blood-covered dead or dying body nailed to an execution scaffold. Anyone would be thought bizarre who liked to have on his walls depictions of hanged criminals or corpses sagging from an electric chair, even if the victim in question had done him a good turn; but Christianity being what it is, depictions of an executed man represent one of the chief icons of its faith. Sometimes, in the work of great artists, the figure of the crucified Christ can have dignity, pathos or beauty, despite rather than because of its sanguinary character. But if one tossed a crucifix into a rubbish bin on the aesthetic grounds that it was a crude and displeasing lump of extruded plastic of the kind sold in Catholic shops, one would be sure to offend someone. Defenders of multiculturalism who are sensitive about giving that kind of offence are keen to promote the adoption of undiscriminatory language and attitudes in order to avoid it. Their motives are admirable. But adopting undiscriminatory attitudes and language does not mean having undiscriminating tastes and standards. This is the key: a sense of the quality of any work, of fineness of observation, of skill in production, of wit, insight, and psychological acuity, of inventiveness and discernment, is not the special endowment of any class, or ethnicity, or of either gender. A capacity to see these qualities in human cultural productions, especially a developed or (which is the same thing) critical capacity, does not automatically amount to an offensive and exclusive cultural snobbery. It simply means a heightened awareness, and a concomitantly increased enjoyment of what it encounters when it encounters quality; and when quality is at issue, the capacity in question tends to be general and inclusive. This last point is demonstrated by the multiple roots and catholic embrace of western culture, which is very far from being monolithic despite currently being the only culture that blames itself for excluding and disvaluing other cultures. The example of literature is apt to mislead in this regard, because literature is more annexed to a particular place and people than other art forms, given that something is always lost in translation. But almost all other art forms are capable of transcending barriers, and appreciators of the high culture of their own tradition are for that very reason well placed to appreciate that of other traditions. Consider the enjoyment of Chinese porcelains, textiles and ink paintings in the west, and the Chinese passion for Dickens and European and American music in return. Consider western relish for Mughal miniatures, Indian dance, African carving, and Japanese netsuke. Consider the excellent practitioners of western classical music who come from China and Japan; and consider the admiration felt by western visitors to the exquisite Forbidden City treasures displayed in the National Museum in Taipei. The belief that high aesthetic standards are somehow culturally exclusive is readily refuted by the existence of the institution, which any reflective society has to have for the sake of its own cultural health: a serious museum. A truly great museum, such as the British Museum or the Louvre, is a beacon offering light and insight to the society it serves. If one wished to learn about Roman antiquity, Chinese bronzes, cuneiform brick inscriptions, near-eastern seals, sculptures on the south west palace of Sennacherib, Gandharan figures, pre-telescopic astronomy, German Renaissance prints, early Islamic glass stamps, medieval embroidery, Burmese lacquer, Iznik pottery, excavations in the metropolis of the Kingdom of Alwa, Javanese magic coins, music in Peru, Attic red-painted ware, Egyptian funerary practices, or any other of the riches in its purview, one need only visit the British Museum. There are of course those who see in the museum not a magnificent institution containing one of the world’s great collections, together with a first-class staff of scholars to interpret its rich holdings, but a monument to imperial robbery and insensitivity, as controversy over the Elgin Marbles is standardly invoked to show. But the fact is that the British Museum and institutions like it express by their existence an important truth: that a mature culture is one which wishes to know more about other cultures, and which values the best examples of what it has of them, and which is better able to appreciate them because it has standards and insights developed in appreciation of its own. It was the African figures in the Louvre that inspired Picasso. That one fact alone could serve to remind us how porous high culture is, in both directions, and how symbiotic the existence of all cultures is, especially in the globalised world. When receptive sensibilities engage with the artefacts of the past and other civilisations, they are nourished by them and learn from them, not least how to be discerning. “It is only the dullness of the eye that makes any two things seem alike,” Walter Pater said, and the idea of the uniqueness, particularity and value of things carries over from objects to the circumstances of life. In that way art and education civilise those who, intelligently addressed, respond intelligently: an interaction one can see any day of the week in museums, galleries, bookshops and concert halls. These considerations should be enough to dispel the impression that valuing the high culture of the west is somehow tantamount to disparaging other cultures by comparison. The remaining problem is the belief – more accurately, a usually unstated instinct – held by some on the left that cultural aspiration is itself a form of betrayal, either of working-class roots or the battle for equal respect in one’s own society. This view is at curious odds with an important phase in the history of lefwing politics in the west, for there were many among those whom the left championed – the disadvantaged – who discovered books and the arts for themselves, a heroic army of men and women who refused the state of ignorance and by self-cultivation put themselves in a position to help the rest of the educationally and culturally disenfranchised from whose ranks they had come, at last thereby winning the argument that no one should be discriminated against in this most fundamental of ways. The children of bourgeois parents, with educational opportunities commensurate with the kind of home environments where cultural familiarity is readily absorbed, might sometimes fail to appreciate the extraordinary delight felt by the self-taught when first stumbling across Ruskin or Marx, Beethoven or Rembrandt. One imagines the eager glance of an intelligent eye, unblinkered by conventional education, seeing the value in things without having been told to expect them there – and therefore seeing them truly. Ruskin was a great influence on MPs in the early Labour party, almost all of them men from working-class backgrounds who were substantially, if not wholly, self-educated. An Oldham millworker who became Lord Privy Seal, JR Clynes, encountered Ruskin when young, having bought The Seven Lamps of Architecture for a shilling he could ill afford. “For many weeks,” he later wrote, “I read and re-read this one book, and so illumining was the love I held for it that, before I had perused it the third time, its every subtlety of meaning was as much my own intimate possession as a young lover’s memory of his virgin kiss.” It did not matter that the subject in that case was architecture. One book leads to another, breeding a consciousness of debate, of ideas unfolding into further ideas, inviting agreement or controversy, raising questions which further books are needed to answer. Working people in this way learned of their oppression and their rights, and formed new hopes accordingly. Women learned about their own bodies, and how to control their fertility. A worker in the Swindon railway factory taught himself Greek and Latin and thereafter published translations of Ovid, Pindar, Sappho, Plato, Menander and Horace; this was Alfred Williams. But after 1945 the culture of self-improvement declined, partly because of increased formal schooling, partly because of television and other distractions, and partly because increasingly rapid changes in cultural fashion have made self-taught classicism look conservative. In any case, it was always an avocation for a minority, and remained so even as the working class grew in prosperity and political confidence, taking with it a long ingrained mistrust of high culture and a natural loyalty to its own tastes, transfigured by the new medium of television (itself subserved by the tabloids) into a now familiar and characteristic demotic view of the world. But although the masses do not choose to be interested in high culture, it is not undemocratic to promote it at the public expense. Nor should one regard it as somehow inimical to the interests of the majority on the grounds that it is elitist and exclusive. The autodidact’s tale is just one example of how, on the contrary, it is neither of these things, being readily permeable to anyone who acquires an interest in it. The paternalist remit of the BBC’s great Lord Reith was premised on just this view; he thought that if you took horses to water, many of them would find how good it is to drink. Although the paternalism is no longer acceptable, he was otherwise right. It cannot be expected that high culture will soon, if ever, become a majority interest. But as populations increase, so do the numbers in minorities. As a result, more people than ever before in history now enjoy literature and the arts. Exhibitions are crowded, concerts fully booked, literary festivals multiply, which means that in absolute terms more people have the pleasure and insight that cultural avocations bring. Most would agree that instead of opposing or deriding such avocations, the right thing to do is to make them even more accessible. Viewed from that angle, quarrels over PC-ness, putative canons of Great Books and Art, and multiculturalism, are a mere distraction, and no one on the left should therefore think that a taste for high culture – which means, in short, a taste for the best things in all arts – is anything but as conducive to the general good as it is to their own.