The Closing of the American Mind has turned twenty, which has spawned a number of retrospectives.

Not surprisingly, Mark Steyn’s is probably the most entertaining out of all of them.  Rather than address the book’s implications or its initial reception, Steyn defends Bloom where Bloom is hardest (for my generation) to defend.

On music.

The divide between ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture,’ argues Steyn, no longer exists.  But that’s only because ‘high culture’ as culture is no longer around.  The young people whom Bloom was describing twenty years ago have all grown up, or at least grown older.

I don’t really like the expression “popular culture.” It’s just “culture” now: there is no other. “High culture” is high mainly in the sense we keep it in the attic and dust it off and bring it downstairs every now and then. But don’t worry, not too often. “Classical music,” wrote Bloom, “is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archaeology. Thirty years ago [i.e., now fifty years ago], most middle-class families made some of the old European music a part of the home, partly because they liked it, partly because they thought it was good for the kids.” Not anymore. If you’d switched on TV at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999 you’d have seen President and Mrs. Clinton and the massed ranks of American dignitaries ushering in the so-called new millennium to the strains of Tom Jones singing “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour/ That’s when my love comes tumblin’ down.” Say what you like about JFK, but at least Mrs. Kennedy would have booked a cellist.

Steyn argues that the death of high culture is bad for low culture, too.  A whole range of references and jokes is no longer possible, because the audience doesn’t understand the references.  In addition, if high culture doesn’t exist, there’s no standard to compare ‘low culture’ to.  And that undercuts the whole ‘pop culture’ enterprise.

And once Mahler’s gone and Schubert’s gone, you can no longer make musical claims for rock and rap, so all you do is hail it for its authenticity and its energy and, as John Kerry did, its copious amounts of “anger.” Thus, the loss of a high-culture aesthetic eventually undermines your pop culture, too. Imagine if talking pictures hadn’t been invented in 1927, but eighty years later, in 2007. Do you think Hollywood studios today would conclude that they needed to hire house composers and full orchestras to accompany the drama with symphonic scores? Something we take for granted about the form of modern talking pictures—dialogue accompanied by orchestral music—arose from a particular kind of cultural aspiration that no longer exists.

Ironically, the death of ‘high culture’ can’t be overcome by individuals deciding to listen to classical music or look at works of art simply out of preference.

‘High culture’ will only be revived only if the prevailing worldview shifts so that the role of art is not restricted to ‘taste’ or ‘preference,’ but is understood as embedded in human nature.  And to this end we are hardly closer than twenty years ago.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

9 Comments

  1. This is suprisingly apropos for me right now, as I’m reading “All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes” by Ken Myers. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you have read it. I highly recommend it if you have not. He also references Bloom’s book saying that it should settle once and for all that cultural relativism should be put to death – too bad its healthier than ever in our culture.

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  2. […] Tomorrow night I’m going to the symphony. My brother’s orchestra is in lockout. Matt Anderson notes the death of high culture. […]

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  3. Steyn sounds a lot like Francis Shaeffer, who rightly suggested that secular modernism (and post-modernism) were killing art by destroying our concept of the ideal: of beauty, perfection, excellence and truth.

    A recent NYT article lamented the aging and graying of the supporters of the world’s great symphony orchestras. Young conductors are attempting to revive interest not by reviving interest in the classics, but by making concerts more fun and the music more popular.

    As you say, these trends will continue until there is a shift in our worldview.

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  4. Music of the past is, and always has been, a sort of specialty interest. The public at large has always been more interested in the music of the present than the music of the past. And while it’s very important not to lose our sense of history, it’s quite natural that the culture takes especial interest in the music of its own time.

    Problem is, the really great music is mostly in the past.

    And that’s bad news.

    It’s also inevitable, I think, from a music-theoretical standpoint.

    Music from Bach to Wagner can be interpreted as a single unified project, as each composer stretched tonality just a little bit further. After Wagner there was nowhere left to go. At least, no unified direction for music as a whole to go. The style of Bach led inexorably to the style of Mozart led inexorably to the style of Beethoven, but now each composer must pick his own starting place. He can write music in the style of eras past, or start in on his own musical project, or follow one of the splintered schools of modern music, but the one thing he can’t do is participate in the great magnificent project of tonality.

    I’ve always thought that the decay of music was a symptom of general cultural decay. Now I’m wondering if it might be the other way around. Cultural factors aside, it’s hard to see how a unified “high” musical culture could possibly persist more than a few hundred years after Bach published his Well-Tempered Clavier.

    And can a civilization persist without it’s music?

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  5. Matthew Lee Anderson November 16, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Brant,

    Haven’t read Myers’ book, though it’s now lodged on the wish list.

    Charlie,

    I missed the NY Times piece (or at least I think I did–I pointed to a similar piece). Do you have a link for that?

    Elena,

    You wrote:

    “Music of the past is, and always has been, a sort of specialty interest.
    The public at large has always been more interested in the music of the
    present than the music of the past. And while it’s very important not to
    lose our sense of history, it’s quite natural that the culture takes
    especial interest in the music of its own time.”

    Steyn acknowledges this. His point isn’t to belittle ‘music of the present,’ but rather to point out that the nature of ‘music of the present’ has changed such that it is no longer grounded in the past. His example of Benny Goodman is instructive on this point, I think.

    Reply

  6. My addled brain mixed its references. The article was indeed one you first put me on to, from Commentary mag, Terry Teachout’s “Selling Classical Music.” Worth reading again.

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  7. Matt–

    We’re agreed. A few minor quibbles aside, I think Steyn is spot on.

    I’m just not sure how to go about creating historically grounded high-art music in the 21st century. I’m also not sure if it’s even theoretically possible on a broad scale.

    And frankly, that scares the living daylights out of me.

    Reply

  8. […] Last week, when Matt Anderson wrote this, I linked it then, noting that I was heading out to a concert that weekend. He had written (and quoted a Steyn piece): Steyn argues that the death of high culture is bad for low culture, too. A whole range of references and jokes is no longer possible, because the audience doesn’t understand the references. In addition, if high culture doesn’t exist, there’s no standard to compare ‘low culture’ to. And that undercuts the whole ‘pop culture’ enterprise. And once Mahler’s gone and Schubert’s gone, you can no longer make musical claims for rock and rap, so all you do is hail it for its authenticity and its energy and, as John Kerry did, its copious amounts of “anger.” Thus, the loss of a high-culture aesthetic eventually undermines your pop culture, too. Imagine if talking pictures hadn’t been invented in 1927, but eighty years later, in 2007. Do you think Hollywood studios today would conclude that they needed to hire house composers and full orchestras to accompany the drama with symphonic scores? Something we take for granted about the form of modern talking pictures—dialogue accompanied by orchestral music—arose from a particular kind of cultural aspiration that no longer exists. […]

    Reply

  9. I completely agree, However i do not think it will die out as such.

    I think the problem exists because there is a lack of identity and locality within populism.

    Post modernism and modern media has just bulldozed through the cultural capital of a place and its people which has just served to wash out any individuality. Leaving very little left except populism.

    However where ever there is folk, the esoteric and tradition ironically there will be high arts. It will just become a sub-culture while Populism will become the excepted norm with different strata much like it is now. High Culture will reflect High Populism to the uninitiated for example as folk, history and tradition will become esoteric.

    Until hopefully that bubble will burst and the renaissance will happen again.

    I come from a visual creative background rather than music based but it does concern me.

    Reply

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