In Culture Counts, Scruton takes us back to basics. “Culture”, as used by anthropologists, he explains, means “those customs and artefacts which are shared, and the sharing of which brings social cohesion”. More broadly, ethnologists would say culture includes “all intellectual, emotional and behavioural features that are transmitted through learning and social interaction, rather than through genetic endowment”. Such uses of the word are close to the structuralist definition – not surprisingly, since the discipline was, in part, created by Claude L�vi-Strauss, an anthropologist.
But Scruton is discussing the word in its other sense, “the literary, artistic and philosophical inheritance that has been taught in departments of humanities both in Europe and America, and which has recently been subject to contemptuous dismissal (especially in America) as the product of ‘dead white European males’”. He tells me: “Mine is a nor-mative use of the word. I’m using it to identify those things that are about knowledge in the realm of the human heart.”
The sense of the word is thus value-laden, and it is this that provokes the “contemptuous dismissal” from people who think we can simply shrug off our past and its values. But that dismissal – and our prolonged crises over multi-culturalism, inspired by the rise of Islamism – threatens us with the loss of our culture. The western world could become a civilisation devoid of culture: exactly what, in 1922, Oswald Spengler forecast in his book The Decline of the West. For Spengler, we were about to find ourselves in the depraved, cultureless condition of the late Roman empire. And for Scruton?
“There can be such a civilisation without culture,” Scruton says. “We have an enormous accumulation of technical know-how and scientific knowledge, but we are very thin on practical knowledge – what to do and how to feel. The loss of a culture means the loss of that knowledge, and that’s what I think we are advancing towards. There is a highly sophisticated grasp of all kinds of technical know-how and the science that estab-lishes it, but little sense of how the human being finds fulfilment in those things, or where to look for it.”
A world without culture would be one fixated on “immediate excitement and pleasure”. Sound familiar?
“There are two important factors that are causing this to happen to us. The first is mass communications, which flood all the channels in which culture might grow with a stream of endless noise, so that it becomes difficult to separate out things that are worth attending to from things that are not. That, combined with the democratisation of everything, means the type of criticism that is vital for separating out the valuable from the trivial becomes very difficult to maintain. That’s the principal thing we have lost through the egalitarian reforms in education and through current political correctness.”
Scruton regards the high culture of the west as more genuinely multicultural than that of politically correct politicians or of all other cultures. No other culture, he point out, so eagerly absorbs or pays homage to alien cultures. “When”, he writes, “has any eastern culture paid to western culture the kind of tribute that Benjamin Britten paid, in Curlew River, to the culture of Japan, or Rudyard Kipling, in Kim, to the culture of India?” Furthermore, high culture is, by definition, a universal undertaking: it is about the condition of being human. It can thus be a far better form of international understanding than the culture of the anthropologists or the masses. “We can understand the Chinese through the Confucian odes in a way that we can’t understand foot-binding. The great thing about high culture is that it’s open to interpretation from outside itself. By its very nature, it is an attempt to communicate with mankind as such.”
However, another philosopher, AC Grayling, points out that the belief that high culture is being degraded by low is present in every civilisation in every age. “There is always that pressure downwards. We all get tired, and we all need to flop down in front of a rerun of Frasier – we don’t necessarily want a high-intellectual conversation.” Grayling is sceptical of the view that high culture is in decline. “Look at London. It’s buzzing with high culture; it’s very healthy.” But Grayling does not attempt to rebut the core of Scruton’s argument, which is, primarily, about the need to protect the traditio of judgment and evaluation.
Hari Kunzru, however, does. Kunzru is the award-winning novelist – his new book, My Revolutions, is out next month – who rejected the John Llewellyn Rhys prize because it was sponsored by The Mail on Sunday, a paper that, he believed, was hostile towards black and Asian British people. For him, the very phrase “high culture” carries unacceptable political overtones. “My sense of high culture is that it’s whatever culture happens to be enjoyed by the elite. It’s a term with a hidden political content that opens the way for culture to further political ends, so the elite can say, ‘We are the possessors of this and we feel it is good for you; and we have the right to educate you and mould your taste.’ Taste is often a very politicised thing.”
What, then, is the source of his own judgment? “It’s what I care about and wish to make a case for. I wouldn’t necessarily claim that, because I like it, it is in some way ‘high’. My own taste is fairly mixed, and would include certain things that are considered high culture and others that are not.” Isn’t this in danger of becoming an entirely self-centred method of judgment? “If we are talking about what might be good music or bad music, then I am very happy to allow value judgment and expertise. I will listen more to somebody who cares deeply about and has made a study of the subject than to somebody who hasn’t. The reason I bristle at the notion of high culture is that it seems to bring with it something that is purely political.”
As ever with Scruton’s thought, people think they disagree with him more than they, in fact, do – for what is the “value judgment and expertise” in music to which Kunzru is happy to defer if it is not a tradition of transmissible knowledge of the effect of sounds on the human heart? Perhaps the anxiety Scruton provokes is all to do with postcolonial queasiness about any celebration of the legacy of the west. But, ultimately, such celebration is only a way of saying: this is who we are and this is where we live. To destroy “high” culture – meaning the art that has survived the test of time – is to render us incapable of knowing ourselves.