Culture’s Not Dead — It’s Alive and Well, No Matter What a Nobel Laureate Argues

We haven’t had a good death-of-the-novel argument in a while, but just when you thought it was safe to venture out onto the Internet again, Nobel laureate and literary curmudgeon Mario Vargas Llosa has gone one better with his new essay collection, Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. As Salon’s Laura Miller reports here, he believes that culture is dead.

Miller thinks he’s right, and provides a convenient summation of his arguments (the essay collection itself isn’t out until August). As well as Vargas Llosa, she cites notorious miserabilist Oswald Spengler, and — most notably — T.S. Eliot, who, Miller reminds us, “in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), predicted that we’d most likely proceed through a period of cultural ‘decay’ to arrive at a state in which we have no culture at all. Vargas Llosa thinks we’re already there.”

As well as being a genius, Eliot was a notorious snob and a political reactionary, so it’s no surprise that he draws a distinction between high and low culture, or what Vargas Llosa calls culture and entertainment. The notion that there is a line to be drawn somewhere between serious culture and pap for the masses is a persistent one, as old as the idea of culture itself. Even today, it’s a notion that people tend to accept without question: that there is some sort of fundamental difference between One Direction and One, between Kim Kardashian and Cate Blanchett, between Empire and King Lear.

Try to draw that line in one particular place, though, and things get… difficult. To agree that one thing is different from another thing, we need a criterion (or criteria) on which to judge them. But if we accept that there’s a division between high and low culture, what can we really say about it beyond that you just sort of know serious culture when you see it? Vargas Llosa apparently thinks he has the answer — “Like Eliot,” Miller writes, “Vargas Llosa also believes that true culture will always be at odds with democracy. Culture is the province of an ‘elite,’ people who have the education, sophistication and willingness to make and engage with challenging and profound art and ideas.”

I’ll wait for you to clean up the coffee you just spat all over your keyboard. OK, let’s continue. Intentionally or not, Vargas Llosa here gets at a better definition: that “true” culture aims to do more than entertain, while low, frivolous culture exists for the purpose of entertainment alone. That’s as good a definition as we have of the divide between “serious” and “non-serious” culture, and I submit that it’s not good enough — not good enough to structure a viable argument on, and certainly not good enough to make some sort of absolute judgment as to the relative merits of entire swathes of human creative endeavor.

Because, of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. How do you use a definition like that to make an objective assessment? The answer, of course, is that you don’t — and, crucially, you’ve never been able to. Miller suggests, “If by ‘culture,’ we mean a shared method for deciding and appreciating humanity’s best creations, then Vargas Llosa may be right to declare its death.” But if that’s what we mean by culture, I’d argue it’s never existed in the first place. The “shared method” has never really been shared; it’s been limited to a chosen few, a coterie of F.R. Leavis types who decide what’s good and what isn’t. There’s always been a disparity between what the sages of culture choose as being worthwhile and what the market chooses — and in this respect, the latter isn’t a function of capitalism so much as a function of popularity.

Let’s take Shakespeare. We can agree that Hamlet and King Lear and Macbeth are a serious business… but if you’d asked anyone in the early 1600s who’d headed to The Globe to see As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing whether what they’d witnessed would qualify as entertainment, I expect you’d get an enthusiastic “yes” and a hearty slap on the back for good measure. These days, though, Shakespeare is pretty much the definition of high culture. Does 400 years make a difference? Is there some point at which a rollicking comedy transmutes into serious culture? And if so, why? Is it a matter of historical significance? Does a play become more serious once its language becomes archaic?

In fact, I’d argue that it’s almost a matter of definition that what we consider high culture was at some point considered anything but. The nature of art is that it tends to shake up the establishment, and the establishment tends to respond by belittling the art in question as unserious. Look at The Beatles. Their records are part of the canon now (to a tedious extent, arguably), but on their release they were the very definition of something the establishment detested and dismissed as pointless fluff, so much so that an entire genre title — “pop music” — was invented to disparage it. The very name embodies perhaps the most accurate binary used to distinguish between high and low culture: that the latter is popular with the unwashed, uncultured masses who don’t know any better, while the former is appreciated by the rarified who who are well-informed and educated enough to appreciate its subtle beauty.

We see this sort of snobbery in pretty much every corner of culture. Take, for instance, the idea of “selling out,” which still permeates certain areas of the music industry. It’s human nature, I guess, to want something you feel you have discovered yourself to remain entirely yours, which perhaps explains why bands are almost inevitably regarded by people who consider themselves serious music fans to be less serious as they gain popularity. One cannot, of course, judge a work of art in a way that’s entirely devoid of context, and the popularity of a work of art to some extent defines its context. But still, there’s an undeniable element of snobbery in deciding that art’s merit diminishes in proportion to its popularity.

Vargas Llosa argues the opposite point — that, as Miller explains, “Like Debord, Vargas Llosa deplores a society in which we decide how good something is by how much people are willing to pay for it — or, in the case of books, by how many copies are sold. To succumb to this thinking is to allow the marketplace to take over an aspect of our humanity that should remain sacrosanct.” There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Debord here, I think. The Society of the Spectacle certainly discusses culture as a means of capitalist oppression, but in doing so, it doesn’t make any distinction between opera and reality TV. The spectacle isn’t low culture, or high culture — the spectacle is everything. It’s not going to be dismantled by ensuring that we go to the opera more.

In any case, the idea that market value equals artistic value is something of a strawman, considering that pretty much no one — and certainly no one who considers themselves to be a Serious Critic — has ever argued that something’s artistic worth is determined entirely by how much people are willing to pay for it. The one exception, of course, is the world of fine art — which, traditionally, has been the preserve of the “elite” of whom Vargas Llosa laments the decline. It’s here that the influence of capitalism is writ largest; the high end of the art market has long since abandoned the idea of artistic merit, and the value it puts on art is determined by a sort of unholy formula of buzz, prior value, and availability (the latter of which explains why dead artists command much higher prices than the living: there’s limited supply and unlimited demand).

All this, of course, also undermines the idea of objective merit, which is something that informs the creation of the canon in the first place. We all have pieces of art that we like and consider to be objectively better than others, but of course, exactly what those pieces are differs from person to person. I like arguing about culture, and I’ll happily argue with you over whether, say, Iggy Pop is a better lyricist than Taylor Swift — but if you find the same degree of meaning in “22” as I do in “Dirt,” who am I to tell you you’re wrong? Who is anyone, really? Merit is by its very nature a subjective judgement.

Miller concedes this point:

Unlike Vargas Llosa, I think the unstable combination of audience and artwork can spark transcendence in the unlikeliest places — one man’s trifling entertainment is another man’s revelation.

But then she goes on to argue that “if culture is something we can all believe in together, then, yup, that’s gone.” But culture has never been that. It’s not something we believe in together — because, of course, what is there that inspires universal belief? It’s something we make together. It’s the sum total of our literature, our music, our television, our films, our visual arts, our value system, out experiences, our lives. And today there’s exponentially more of this stuff than there ever was before. Culture isn’t dead — it may be so vast and sprawling that it can’t be viewed as an easily categorizable, monolithic entity anymore, but that only makes it all the more endlessly fascinating.