It's dumb to say that culture is just plumbing the depths

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The Independent Culture
THE THESIS that some sort of "dumbing down" process is happening to our culture, discussed in a series of articles last week in The Independent, I reject. I don't find the evidence, quite the reverse.

Here is one test. My wife and I go to the cinema on a weekly basis. We make our choice from the film reviews, generally picking the critics' first or second recommendation. Inevitably, then, we mainly see Hollywood productions, with a leavening of art-house films. If we were going to find evidence of dumbing down, surely this is where it would be likely to appear. Not a bit of it.

Out of, say, 50 movies a year, I am rarely disappointed. In recent weeks, out of Affliction, The Opposite of Sex, Shakespeare In Love and Hideous Kinky, only the last named fell short - and even so there was the pleasure of Kate Winslet's acting. I know that out of the 400 or so films a year that go round Britain's cinemas I have probably picked some of the best, and that I might find many of the others, well, "dumb". None the less this is a good experiment, because film-making is always strongly driven by commercial considerations; it is not an art in which state subsidy plays much of a role. The studios are seeking to get their money back, and more.

Aside from the cinema, most of us find that we are seeking relatively narrow ranges of cultural pleasures, because our interests differ one from another and the field is so vast. Were dumbing down a serious threat, would we not find that these minority tastes were less and less well served? We would have noticed a deterioration over the years. But wherever I look, comparing the Nineties with the Fifties and Sixties, there has been not decline, but improvement. When I first discovered opera in my mid-twenties, apart from Glyndebourne there were no regional opera companies. Either you went to London to hear live performances, or you waited for the occasional regional tour. Now, you can find centres of operatic excellence well away from the capital city.

I regularly buy recorded music at the local outlet of a national chain of music retailers. Downstairs there is a vast emporium of popular music, while upstairs, in half the space, classical music is stocked. And here I have to marvel at the richness of what is available.

Before going to a concert, I like to familiarise myself with music I don't know. I go to buy the CDs with the concert details in my hand. Since I have a passion at the moment for chamber music, my requests are for this trio, or that quartet, or a piano quintet by so and so, or whatever - a minority interest if ever there were one. Yet this average shop, 10 minutes from my home, is almost always able to supply me immediately with what I am looking for; indeed, I can often choose from a number of different recordings. As I glance along the racks, I am astonished by the range. Do I seek English choral music? It is there. Am I wanting contemporary music by German or American composers? l will find it. Is any of Chopin's piano music missing? I doubt it.

I am equally delighted by my local bookshop. While there is evidence that standards of literacy have declined, as people pay more attention to radio and television and less to the printed page, this trend shows no sign of reducing the supply of books. Recall the range of publications reviewed in yesterday's newspapers. In my own case I make out a book list twice a year. As usual, just before Christmas I went to stock up. I had Bryan Magee in mind. I have always admired his ability to explain the work of the great philosophers, and since briefly dabbling in the subject at university I have never lost my interest - which is normally satisfied by reading nothing more extensive than the occasional book review or, for instance, a biography of Bertrand Russell.

However, this time I went further, and bought Magee's recently published The Story of Philosophy. The text is everything for which I had hoped, but what surprised me was the style of publication. The publisher is Dorling Kindersley, celebrated for its well-designed guides - Eyewitness travel guides - and for CD-Roms about the way things work, and for books such as Miriam Stoppard's Questions Children Ask. But here, the publisher's skills have been applied to enhancing understanding of philosophical concepts by means of well-chosen illustrations and good design.

There are three or four pictures on every one of the 230 pages, along with boxes containing nuggets of useful information in the margins. It works well. A publisher such as Dorling Kindersley, whose shares are quoted on the stock exchange, would never contemplate such a venture if we really did live in a dumbed down age.

Yes, argue the supporters of the thesis, but look at television. There you will find many examples of dumbing down. Has not the BBC palpably reduced its standards? Nowadays, the Corporation even transmits confessional talk shows with phoney guests in the afternoons; how much lower can you get? Just last week, the House of Lords staged a debate on the subject, in which assorted peers and baronesses expressed their dismay.

I find differently. Television may be primarily an entertainment medium, but coming a close second is its role as an educator. It is still teaching me. I was completely absorbed, for example, by the Monica Lewinsky saga in all its aspects, from the President's cigar to the impeachment provisions of the American constitution.

Regarding the second item, the continuous television coverage of the proceedings in the House of Representatives, and then in the Senate, provided both by CNN and the BBC, enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of the machinery of American government. I was fascinated by the debates, by how they were conducted, by the range of opinions that were expressed, and by the assumptions behind them. If television works for me in this valuable way, it must do so for everybody.

And behind my good experiences lies a development which the dumbing down school has failed to notice. Access to culture gets easier. Multiplex cinemas have increased the choice available to movie-goers. Music-lovers have benefited from the old vinyl records being replaced, first with tapes and then with compact discs. Book prices are falling. The multiplication of TV channels is a blessing, not a curse. Indeed, rather than dumbing down I believe the nation is trading up.