The cultured life

Culture is one of those words – like marriage, society, science, family and gender – that we use a lot these days. And like those words, if you stopped the argument where it’s being used, it’s unlikely that everyone using it would share the same definition. I’m sure this has been the case for at least a generation now, but I’ve slowly come to the realization that, the longer this situation persists, the less likely it is that, in some not-so-distant future, we’ll ever again be able to come to a shared definition of these words.

This is not a future I hope to see.

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein recently published an essay, “The Cultured Life,” in The Weekly Standard, an American conservative magazine. Publishing essays on culture is something that conservative magazines do regularly, mostly in an attempt to try and corral their readers around roughly the same definition of the word. It’s a quaint ritual, but more and more, reading these essays has come to feel like perusing articles on record label design in the antique photograph magazines I used to read when I collected old music on 78rpm records.

He begins the essay with a reminiscence of teaching a course called Advanced Prose Style, and a quiz that he gave his students – “15 or so would-be – or as we say today, wannabe – novelists and poets” – to gauge, by his standards, their cultural literacy. The list contained names and events like Sergei Diaghilev, Francis Poulenc, Mark Rothko, Alexander Herzen, the 1913 Armory Show, John Cage, the Spanish Civil War, George Balanchine and Jean Cocteau, and Epstein says that his students, mostly in their very early twenties, didn’t do particularly well.

Everyone loves a quiz, so of course I scanned the list and felt rather proud of myself that I was able to identify all but one of the names. (I had to look up Alexander Herzen, a writer and the “father of Russian socialism,” who, even according to his Wikipedia entry, was “almost forgotten” by his death in 1870.)

Of course, I’m almost 53 years old, and I’m not sure I could have scored so highly on Epstein’s quiz when I was in my early twenties. (Epstein admits that he probably wouldn’t have done much better himself.) I do know that I would have known nearly every name or event on the list by the time I was thirty, which really says more about how I spent my 20s.

I’m old enough now (pathetically, this is a phrase I use to start a lot of sentences lately) that I can still remember when aspiring to be a cultured person – in the sense that Epstein means in his essay – meant spending a lot of time acquiring knowledge about a broad range of the arts, from painting and sculpture to theatre, ballet and opera to classical music and jazz (only recently admitted to the pantheon in the late ‘70s, alongside art films by the likes of Bergman, Fellini and Ozu,) as well as novels, poetry and philosophy.

I was well suited to acquiring this knowledge; I dropped out of college with a vague ambition to be a journalist, added photography to my creative ambitions not long after, worked for a couple of years in a record store and made it into my 30s without the usual responsibilities – family, a mortgage, anything like a “career plan” – that would distract anyone else from days on end spent as a cultural forager. It required considerable effort, much of it around trying to overcome boredom or even aversion to the cultural products I consumed, gathered from essays and lists and primarily from those people who Epstein calls “gatekeepers,” whose task it was to “make certain that no inferior works were allowed to pass themselves off as the real thing.” Critics, as they were once known.

There were only two reasons to go through all this trouble. One was to endure unequal portions of tedium and edification in order to sift and compare and develop an opinion. In other words, to become, either officially or recreationally, a critic. Which is fine: everyone has an opinion, and we’re all, at least with regards the things we feel passionately about, critics, casting judgment and inferring that the world might be at least a little bit improved if our opinions could be somehow made binding laws.

But what Epstein is talking about is something particular – the acquisition of opinions and the assumption of standards within what was once called, without irony, high art or high culture, which stood very much apart from popular or “low” culture and (especially) the middlebrow, a much-maligned plateau of indeterminate size that sat between the vast vulgarity of the popular and the venerable edifice of high art.

The middlebrow was a strange place, where a few products of pop culture could migrate once they’d developed grudging critical respect (jazz passed through here on its way to high culture) or where high art sometimes devolved when it became unexpectedly popular with the middle classes. The symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and operatic arias have flown low into the flatlands of the middlebrow for brief periods, before once again lofting upwards again.

It’s worth recalling that this three-tiered taxonomy would have made no sense to anyone alive 200 years ago, when novels and opera were regarded as populist and even trashy, and theatre was often vulgar, or at least regarded as a vulgar profession, and probably an immoral one. In any case, all of these art forms were enjoyed up and down the class ladder by anyone with money for admission or sufficient literacy.

There’s no reason to assume that our stratified understanding of culture will persist – or if it even endures today. The middlebrow has effectively disappeared and high art has become so gnomic and irrelevant that Epstein devotes several paragraphs near the climax of his essay to what’s really an obituary: Visual art “scarcely exists,” poetry is “degraded to an intramural sport,” “audiences for traditional classical music performance dwindle” and American theatre “seems moribund, if not flat-out deceased.”

Epstein recalls the novelist John O’Hara predicting in 1959 that “the novel will be dead … in less than 100 years”; he says this seems like “a sound prediction.” This is, “culturally, an age of tedium.”

He puts part of the blame on technology (of course,) and its preference for “information over knowledge.” Which is easy to do, but I can’t help but envy young people who can quickly and easily gather up the threads of a long-gone artistic moment with an afternoon’s web searching – something that would have taken me weeks or even months in the age of library holds, special orders and rep cinema schedules. My opinions were hard won and often difficult to budge from with time, age or new information.

At the end of his essay, Epstein says that he admired intellectuals like British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott who, when asked what they thought about England entering the European Union, said “I don’t see why I should be required to have an opinion about that.” If this is a position to be envied, I can’t see why someone who’s able to range quickly and freely through hundreds or even thousands of years of culture with nothing but their own taste and enthusiasm to guide them won’t cultivate the same discernment, and save immense time and effort by only forming opinions about things they consider important, or respond to with strong feelings.

But getting back to Epstein’s list, I can’t help but think that many of the entries are there mostly for context, as bullet points in a historical appreciation and not as high points of art or inspiration. Looking at it myself, my reactions range from a stirring of interest (Rothko’s paintings, Balanchine’s choreography) to wry amusement (Cage’s music, Cocteau in general) to dark bafflement (the Spanish Civil War – why couldn’t they both lose?) to angry boredom (Russian socialism.) These are opinions that I’ve had years to develop, starting from real curiosity and tempered by experience and a life’s work of coming to understand my own taste, but none of them elicit real enthusiasm, and I honestly wish we could all come to a place where we happily and confidently reserve our energies for those rare things that stir real joy, interest or passion.

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