Steamed up in a melting pot

Do clean shirts and cookbooks signal the decline of civilisation? Lisa Jardine thinks not
Dumbing Down: essays on the strip-mining of American culture edited by Katharine Washburn and John F Thornton, W W Norton, pounds 19.95

My father used to tell us a story about his first trip to New York in the early 1950s. Walking around the city, dazzled by its architecture, and entranced by its postwar self-confidence and easy affluence, he happened to remark to his companion - a titled, aristocratic English woman - how amazed he was that every man they passed wore a freshly pressed shirt. "What do you find so surprising about that?" retorted the lady, "Everyone wears a clean shirt in England, too." "No," countered my father, "In England everyone of your social class takes a daily clean shirt for granted. In this country, apparently, everybody is able to change their shirt every day."

Like that anonymous well-bred lady, the authors of the litany of US books and essays that currently lament the passing of high culture from the American scene also seem to me to be locked into the twilight world of traditional privilege. What makes their position sadder is that a number of those who maintain that American culture is sliding dangerously into decline under the weight of competing cultures and broadening artistic horizons are themselves second-generation Americans - people who have achieved their success within the generous embrace of the North American melting pot.

Two themes preoccupy the contributors to Katharine Washburn and John F Thornton's collection of essays, Dumbing Down. The first is that in every area of cultural life - from high art to cookery - the American public is fed a pap of reassuringly downmarket, comfortably low-effort reading, viewing and listening material. This, they claim, is swiftly obliterating a long history of "good" art and literature, thereby chronically undermining an entire society. "American society, for some time fallen into disarray, has somehow begun sliding down a long, steep chute into nullity".

The second theme is that there exists an opportunistic body of unprincipled people within the American cultural establishment who flagrantly exploit fashionable requirements for "accessibility" for their own benefit, and thereby accelerate cultural disintegration. These are the people who are "cashing in on the decline of American culture", and it is their activities that give the collection its subtitle.

As Gerald Howard wrote in the Nation in 1993: "It seems to me that this nation's media elite - the people who make the deals, create the networks, conceive, write and produce the shows, the albums, the books - are well along in their own meretricious form of strip mining. They are stripping away what was already a shallow overlay of national taste and intelligence in an incredibly lucrative dive down-market."

Those who argue this essentially New Right position in Dumbing Down range from accomplished essayists like Cynthia Ozick and Joseph Epstein to frankly crass (and significantly poorly-informed) tub-thumpers like Sven Birkerts and Gilbert T Sewall. Freshness and originality are intriguingly lacking throughout, as opposed to the occasional brilliant turn of phrase and slickly seductive argument.

A significant number of pieces here have been recycled over and over again recently, in barely modified forms. And there is little sign of that "alternative agenda" for the "culture crisis" or rescue plan for American culture (as promised on the book's jacket) to counteract the relentless negativity of almost all the essays it contains.

The "dumbing down" argument is at its silliest in pieces like Nahum Waxman's "Cooking dumb, eating dumb", in which the author seriously maintains that we have become a "recipe dependent" culture - unable to cook by our forebears' "common sense" methods and natural understanding of local ingredients. Anyone who wants to sentimentalise my Auntie Sadie's leathery boiled beef, greying overcooked sprouts and soggy potatoes is welcome to, but please don't ask me to sympathise. Give me balsamic vinegar, roquette, sea bream or frangipane any day, even if I do have to read a book to find out how to serve them. The "anything goes" approach of cultural diversity may sometimes seem plausibly to lead, with a scary inevitability, into the murky waters of information overload - but not, surely, in the kitchen.

What is most disturbing about this collection, though, is its contributors' lack of respect for any knowledge outside that which they claim as "canonical" - a smug ignorance of the "non-traditional" subjects against which they fulminate. In "What to do about the Arts", Joseph Epstein argues that the underfunded National Endowment for the Arts in the US is in a state of collapse, as it presides over the cultural bankruptcy of an art scene tyrannised by the politics of race and gender. He writes with all the consummate skill we would expect of the editor of the American Scholar.

As an example of this politicised "skewing" of the arts, however, he tells a story of the Daily Telegraph telephoning him on the eve of President Clinton's inauguration to ask for an opinion on "the poet Maya Angelou", who had been chosen to read a poem at the ceremony: "I told the reporter I had no opinion of Maya Angelou, that I had read only a few of her poems and thought these were of no great literary interest. I knew of no one who read her."

It does not bother Epstein in the least that these remarks betray straightforward ignorance of contemporary writing. Maya Angelou's reputation spans a broad range of literary forms, among which her autobiographical writings - including the classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - are probably best known. We all, occasionally, have to own up as critics to not having read a particular writer of repute; only those complacently clinging to an unscrutinised Great Books tradition would shrug off their own limitations with that inattentive "I knew of no one who read her".

In their introduction, the only solution the editors propose for the impasse in which they believe American culture finds itself is to encourage the return of the "educated philistine":

"At least, in their Puritanical way, educated philistines do in principle stand up for cultural aspiration, for the well-shocked family bookshelf, the series tickets to the symphony, and they express their distaste for the mayhem which they never endorsed and for which they never felt bound to apologize."

So there you have it. The choice apparently lies between narrow-minded bigots who know what they are supposed to like, and those with an open mind - the people who believe that the man-in-the-street's access to a daily clean shirt might also be a sign of a promising cultural future for us all.

Lisa Jardine is Professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London University. Her new history of the Renaissance, "Worldly Goods", is published by Macmillan.