Narrative feature

In praise of cultural elitism

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

At present we have a series of ‘culture wars’ over a wide range of issues — race, gender, sexuality, power and privilege. But the one culture war we don’t have any more is over culture.

Yes, we fight about the ideological messages of literary texts, but not about matters of personal taste. We scrutinise and interrogate works of art for their latent — or blatant — sexism and racism. Often what matters is what the work in question says about marginalised groups — not what it says about us as cultured individuals.

It hasn’t always been so. There was a time when we judged people, labelled them, loved them or hated them because of their taste in literature, art and even pop music.

Louis Menand, professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard, argues that the great American critic Lionel Trilling was writing for an audience who believed that your taste in literature, music and painting told people something about you and your values. According to Menand, Trilling’s audience really did believe that there was something wrong with you if you preferred Theodore Dreiser to Henry James. And in the UK, F.R. Leavis and his disciples took a similar line.

Who today would dare to suggest that if you prefer Sally Rooney to Iris Murdoch, or Nick Hornby to Philip Roth, there is something wrong with you? That you could be dismissed as a person lacking in seriousness and substance. Answer: no one. But is that really such a good thing?

The importance of a person’s taste wasn’t just a peculiar feature of high culture, but of British pop culture as well. Leavis people had Scrutiny as their bible of taste, while from the 1970s until the mid-1980s thinking pop people had the NME. It was a time when what bands you loved didn’t say something about you, they said everything about you.

And your choices had consequences. In the 1970s to admit to a love of Abba was a form of social suicide. I went and saw them live at Wembley in 1979, and never told anyone for years. In the age of punk it wasn’t clever or funny to say you loved Deep Purple or Pink Floyd. You could not be friends with people who had a passion for the early work of Jethro Tull or late King Crimson.

Both in pop and high culture there was a clerisy of critics who patrolled matters of taste and woe betide those who challenged the canon and dissented from a mandatory love of the Velvet Underground and Joy Division, or Samuel Beckett and Thomas Pynchon. You thought that Alan Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad was boring or John Cage pretentious? Die, scum!

Critics then had a whole vocabulary by which your taste was ranked and so were you. In pop culture you were either hip or you were condemned as an old hippie. For the high-culture crowd, people were defined as highbrow, lowbrow or middlebrow.

But then, in the 1980s, along came postmodernism and its assault on cultural hierarchy and the modernist belief in high seriousness. We lost the line between high and low, good and bad, art and entertainment. If postmodernism provided the theory, social media provided the technology for the democratisation of opinion. Culture after 2000 had its very own populist uprising against the metropolitan elite of taste. Professional critics have been culled from newspapers and magazines ever since.

And for many this was a good and progressive thing because art and culture had become more open, inclusive, tolerant. Art that was difficult or demanding was dismissed as elitist. And expressing harsh judgments about other people’s taste was now denounced as snobbery.

When it comes to matters of taste, what we have now is a collective taste truce. You like X. I don’t like X. I like Y. You don’t like Y. I give it five stars, you give no stars. That’s fine. Everyone to his/her own opinion.

In theory that’s OK. But in practice we have become so tolerant of other people’s tastes that taste doesn’t really matter. Who cares what you think about the latest Rushdie novel or the new Tarantino film? It’s just your opinion and if your opinion doesn’t have any consequences, it just floats off into the black hole of infinite blah-blah-blah. We need stigma, shame and bug-eyed H.M. Bateman disbelief at what we say about certain books, films and music.

But what about all this talk we hear about ‘guilty pleasures’ — the love of certain records or films a person suspects aren’t any good? The idea of guilty pleasures is actually redundant, a nervous tic from a time when taste mattered. The fact is that nobody feels guilty or ashamed of their taste any more. On the contrary. People love to flaunt their bad taste as if a passion for Love Island or early Led Zeppelin were something daring or divinely decadent. And we’re not allowed to make judgments about other people’s taste; that’s being snobbish, condescending or judgmental.

People once fell out over books, plays and movies the way they now fall out over Brexit. As a teenager, I remember a dinner party at my parents’ house when Germaine Greer said that Jean-Paul Sartre was a ‘second-rate philosopher’ and another guest, the American novelist Chandler Brossard, replied, ‘I think it’s time to go home now,’ and left in disgust.

Kenneth Tynan said he didn’t think he could be friends with someone who didn’t like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. I once dated a woman who said that my indifference to the video installations of Bill Viola made her wonder if we were suitable for each other.

I like that degree of unreasonable passion. The intensity of our feelings for certain works of art should make us intolerant of or at least infuriated with each other. It’s the price we pay for having a cultural life that matters. Attack my taste, by all means: call me a pseud, dismiss me as dumb, dump me and tell me I deserve to die for liking Toto’s ‘Africa’. In short, make war on my taste. That tells me you care about what I think and love.

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