Fred Siegel has a piece in the latest issue of Commentary in which he argues that “highbrows” are responsible for “[killing] culture.” It’s an intriguing thesis, and one not without merit as it applies to the United States. Unfortunately, though, the essay turns on the misguided contention that the pre-World War II European elite articulated an argument that was fundamentally the same as (or, at best, a direct precursor to) the postwar left’s attack on middle-American kitsch.
Though it comes in the last third of the essay, Siegel’s treatment of the postwar left is mostly on-target:
. . . with the advent of the youth movement of the 1960s, the elite attack took a new and odd turn. The shift in sensibility was first announced by the 31-year-old Susan Sontag in a 1964 Partisan Review essay entitled “ Notes on Camp .” The essay, which sent Sontag’s shares soaring on the intellectual stock exchange, dissolved the boundaries between high culture and mass culture in favor of a new sensibility she described as “camp.” Camp is playful, a rebuke of sorts to the cultural mandarins. More precisely, camp involves a new, more complex relation to what she called “the serious.” It allowed people to “be serious about the frivolous, [and] frivolous about the serious.” Sontag was saying it was all right for serious people to enjoy the kitsch of popular culture as long as they did it with the correct—superior and ironic—attitude.
But his disdain for the prewar literary right is not only factually muddy but perilous for the whole endeavor.
Two examples: Siegel attacks T. S. Eliot for supposedly mocking “The “hollow men” of the middle class, whom liberal intellectuals had been taught to despise by [his] poem of the same name.” This is a rather absurd line of attack, for several reasons: first, because Eliot’s poem indicts the elites in particular for their failure to safeguard culture; second, because Eliot’s politics were certainly to the right of center; and third, Eliot’s purpose is not ultimately to “despise” the hollow men, but to lament and even sympathize with their brokenness.
Several other swipes come at the expense of Jose Ortega y Gasset, admittedly a more difficult figure to defend. But he’s rather significantly misread, too: “[Ortega] mocked common sense and empiricism as the “idiot,” “plebeian,” and “demagogic” “criteriology of Sancho Panza.” It was, he argued, the tradition of the mob.” Not exactly. Ortega, it bears pointing out, was a liberal in the ideological sense of the term who did a stint as a representative in Spain’s republican government in its 1930s twilight; hardly a fascist. And, as these letters elucidate, Ortega’s categories went far beyond class, and the purpose of his writing was not to defend aristocracy against all comers, nor even to disparage the commonplace in and of itself.
More importantly: the medicine prescribed by the prewar thinkers mentioned above differs utterly from the solutions of the 1960s radicals. The majority of the European thinkers Siegel lists desperately sought a recovery of Christianity’s claims on public life, and their fears of a post-religious society’s descent into dehumanization map closely with what Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly called “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Even many prewar European elites who were left-wing make arguments of a very different caliber from the postwar American left. The former set sought the realization of a new standard of justice, not its dismissal in favor of personal autonomy. It was this fact, for example, that enabled Pope Benedict, in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, to subversively employ atheist Theodor Adorno’s speculations about restorative justice as an argument in favor of the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the body.
But perhaps the most significant problem for Siegel’s narrative is the method by which these prewar thinkers sought to accomplish their version of restoration or re-conversion. It was not by forcing every last family on the continent to buy a thousand-dollar Great Books set, or by radically upending the daily routine of every settled, married, bourgeois couple in the land, but by summoning and fostering a new kind of “creative minority” apart from society-at-large. The postwar left, in contrast, thought escape from the leveling effects of democracy could come primarily through cultural vandalism—by deconstructing, not reconstructing—and that everyone, more or less, was obliged to participate. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and various other forms of vulgarity became not only sacramental but more or less a categorical imperative for anyone who wanted to be considered free-thinking. Aside from a few truly unique, eccentric figures (Oscar Wilde? the Bloomsbury Group?) few on either the left or the right in prewar Europe had seriously pushed such activities as an avenue for the renewal of culture.
Unfortunately, Siegel seems to buy into the trope that “popular” inherently implies “virtuous” (and its cognate—that anything elite is automatically suspicious). But even if that’s the case at the moment (and it may not be—particularly given that Siegel pronounces, in his second paragraph, that much of today’s popular culture is “so debased as to obviate parody”), this logic isn’t durable in the long run. It’s hard to see why a generation of malformed cultural elites should lead us to shun the idea of a cultural elite altogether.
Ultimately, this assault on the gatekeepers is dangerous—more dangerous, in fact, than the snobbery it purports to reject, because it derives legitimacy not from how well it conveys or represents eternal human goods, but from whatever sells. Its source of value is, ironically, not nearly as humane. Siegel is surely correct that the guardians of high culture have failed America, and that to a significant extent their failure was not the result of crushing external forces but was a soberly chosen deconstruction of their own ethos. To the extent that higher forms of culture are still discernible, it is apparent that they are in need of major reform. But a conservatism which cannot articulate this, which is allergic to high culture’s guardians’ intrinsic claim to bear something higher, is not very conservative at all.
Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things.