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.
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.