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The Saturday Essay: Popularity is fine, but it's not what makes art great

Quality will out is what we elitists believe: how one winces when a programme says `not performed since 1782'
Sitting on a panel assembled to select products to put in the Dome as pointers for the direction of industry in the early years of the next century, I found myself next to an engineer. You could tell he was a brute because he was wearing a tie. Well, anyway, a particular sort of tie. It was a form of time travel, although back to the Fifties rather than fast-forward to the 21st century. One candidate for inclusion was a newly popular piece of street lighting that was vividly endorsed by its manufacturer as incorporating new advances in luminescence, and a record of exciting high levels of cupidity among normally placid local- authority road engineers. It was dismissed by me for being absolutely hideous to look at. My brutish engineering neighbour was nonplussed. But it's got awesome candle-power, he said, adding that it meets EU environmental standards for luminaries to 2006. I replied that this was all very well, but that it had no aesthetic content. He said: "That's just your opinion". I stabbed the table and said rather crossly, with histrionic emphasis on crucial syllables: "I am here for my opinions. And, besides, just- what-is-wrong-with-opinions, anyway? It has taken me 25 years of diligent observation and reading to form mine". Here was patiently acquired expertise being dismissed by a callous philistine. Or, to put it another way, here was a trenchant demonstration of elitism. Mine.

"Elitist" is a period term of contempt now enjoying something of a vogue. It is ritually invoked to stigmatise anyone who happens to prefer the best or claims to be able to identify second best. As an insult, its force depends on the assumption that the victim of the slur has a privileged and exclusive definition of what "best" is. An additional assumption is that we exist in a value-free miasma where the only politically correct approval is acceptance by the market, or what New Labour calls "The People". So, if our focus group prefers Friends to La Grande Illusion, then it is elitist to claim that Jean Renoir is better. Against the educated snobbism of interpretation and analysis are gathered the grim forces of statistics. In our frighteningly authoritarian People's Britain, elitists are dissenters.

But aren't the purposes of civilisation itself best served by the pursuit of excellence? I like George Steiner's justification of expertise. In a bravura cocktail of crushing arrogance and superiority, with a nice dash of resonant bombastics, he explained recently:

"The difference between the judgement of a great critic and that of a semi-literate censorious fool lies in its range of inferred or cited reference, in the lucidity and rhetorical strength of articulation or in the accidental addendum which is that of a critic who is a creator in his own right."

I wish he had been there to explain about the streetlight.

It is curious how many of the expressions we use to identify extremists come from the French. Along with the elite (which originally, and rather poetically, meant the choicest part of a flower) we have chauvinism and the avant-garde, a term for the advanced guard of the army appropriated for the conquest of European culture by modernists during this century. Yet, while few positions are as reviled as the elitist's, few things are now more dated than the avant-garde. The penetrating vanguard has given way to a vast middle ground of popular culture. The great adventure of the 20th century is the democratisation of art through mass media and mass production. The distinctive art forms of the 20th century are the factory-outlet cultures of industrial design, rock music, photography, fashion and film. Rather as Brillat-Savarin said of the chicken, that it is to the cook what an empty canvas is to the painter, so mass production and the mass media are new tools for the creative artist. But these powerful multipliers don't obviate the need for judgement and criticism.

Great art - Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Verdi - has always been popular, but not necessarily at the time of its introduction, although it is probably true to say that, whatever medium you choose, there are no undiscovered masterpieces. Quality will out is what we elitists believe: how one winces when a concert programme says "not performed since 1782". But popular acceptance is only a characteristic of great art, not a definition of it: Vermeer was scarcely known in his own day, Eugene Sue was once considered a better writer than Balzac, and Telemann's contemporary popularity easily outstripped Bach's. While Edna St Vincent Millay's verse used to be more read than Ted Hughes'.

This confuses dimbulb enemies of elitism. At his best, Bob Dylan's lyrics reach the condition of authentic poetry. Indeed, insofar as authentic poetry is probably no more widely studied than authentic haruspicy is nowadays practised, Dylan's Sixties lyrics - mass-produced and universally distributed on records, tapes and CDs - have more of a hold on the imaginations of the literate than salon poetry, in any case a dead medium. Never mind the economy of Dylan's extraordinary imagery, which would remain remarkable even if it were carved in bark in a limited edition of one, it would be ridiculous to deny that its successful reproduction into millions of copies both enhances and confirms the quality of the original.

Yet the whole oeuvre of Tupac is not as good as 10 minutes of The Marriage of Figaro. If this is an elitist opinion then there is a rational basis for it. The repetitive, hypnotic, tribal bloop-bloop of gangsta rap appeals to the pre-adolescent and the uneducated and, in certain rare moments of felicity, can even momentarily divert those over 14. That's what we call an elitist view. And so is this: while Mozart was, at his worst, a glib populist hack, at his best he was a composer of unequalled genius. And you could say the same for McCartney. Figaro has been revered for two centuries. It is witty, yet profound. Melodious, but thought-provoking, and has a range of psychological expression beyond even the murky Oedipean complexities of chanting about a muthafuka.

On the other hand, for all its manipulative, saccharine cheek-sucking whimsy, Eleanor Rigby exceeds in artistic value anything irritatingly cacophonous by Arthur Schnittke or Pierre Boulez. Why? Because it introduced an audience hitherto largely ignorant of poetry and the cello to these joint delights and did so in an imaginative, popular and uncompromisingly modern way. It is also remembered. Hum a little Schnittke? You can't. No one can.

Or take a sophisticated modern car, the new Ford Focus for example. It is not elitist speculation to talk about the subtle and complex aesthetic considerations that went into the design. Sensibilities that can only be described as sculptural were continuously involved: the car's designers understand the language of form and can use it expressively. They appreciate the relationship between planes and radii, between details and the whole. With this language, metal can be made articulate. Like advertising, car design is a collaborative activity rather than an individual one, so lacks the individual authorship which defines creativity, but at the same time each powerfully apes the effect of art. The Ford Focus is a satisfying visual confection which commands attention. A Benetton ad by Oliviero Toscani requires you to refocus on the world. The same cannot be said of every car and poster. There are degrees of excellence in pop culture, as in the canon of literature.

Durability is the first great test of quality in art and here Philip Larkin's way of judging a novel can be developed for universal applications: "Could I read it? If I could read it, did I believe it? If I believed it, did I care about it? And if I cared about it, what was the quality of my caring, and would it last?".

The second test involves the sort of league table that elitists enjoy. There are identifiable standards of excellence. There are ways of measuring the effect of art and the quality of that effect. The American sociologist, Herbert J Gans did it a quarter- of-a-century ago in his book Popular Culture and High Culture (see box). Industrial processes democratised the fine arts into design and rock and movies, but the question of judgement remains. The position was succinctly put by George Santayana in The Life of Reason (1914): "Culture is on the horns of dilemma; if profound and noble it must remain rare, if common it must become mean".

On one horn we have the common Chris Smith (and his East German-sounding Department of Culture, Media und Sport) and on the other, the rare Peter Conrad. Conrad is the mondain Lecturer in English at Christ Church, Oxford. In his formidable new book, Modern Times, Modern Places (Thames & Hudson, 1998, pounds 24.95), he sets out to explain how the radical technologies and revolutionary politics of the 20th century have changed the perceptions of artists. Yet in a book of more than 750 pages, the index contains no reference to Coco Chanel, the century's greatest fashion designer; Harley Earl, the Michigan mogul who invented car styling; John Lennon, who merged rock with surrealism; Terence Conran, who brought the Bauhaus to the High Street; Elizabeth David, who in teaching the British about authentic ingredients gave an unforgettable lesson in taste; Eliot Noyes, whose advice to IBM's Thomas Watson Jnr that "you would prefer neatness" literally changed the face of American business; to Akio Morita, whose Sony Corporation popularised the transistor; to Curnonsky and Michelin who established the contemporary idea of tourism; or to Ferdinand Porsche, the great automobile engineer.

On the other hand, Conrad has time for Hermann Minkowski, Hans Pfitzner, Kuri Blossfeldt, Berenice Abbott and Andrei Bely. Maybe their contributions to culture are the stuff of everyday conversation at Christ Church high table, but one reading of Conrad made me yearn for some popular context. Yet the alternative is surely not the Pooterish maunderings and celebrity glad-handing of Chris Smith who, in his lamentable book, Creative Britain (Faber, 1998, pounds 7.99) also lacks an entry for "Chanel, Coco" but compensates with seven for "Channel 4". He says the Turner Prize is a success because it's on the telly, but does not bother to mention what tosh it all is. Here Smith also announces his scary corporatist belief in "creative industries".

Maybe the great contemporary media tend to acquire collaborative effort of an industrial sort and maybe this puts the idea of the autonomous individual artist under scrutiny. Certainly, the factories of Pininfarina put modern sculptors to shame when it comes to creating everyday beauty. But there's something else, too. Whatever the medium, great art must always astonish. As Charles Eames believed, the designer must give the public what he wants, not what he merely expects. Miles Davis said "Don't play what's there, play what's not there". It's as simple and as complicated as that.

Four Levels of Culture?

High culture

Interest in creative process and symbolism; preference for experimentation; introspection preferred to action;accepts different levels of meaning.

Upper-middle culture

A less literary verbal culture;figurative and narrative art preferred, especially illustrative of individual achievement or upward mobility.

Lower-middle culture

Form must unambiguously express meaning;demands conclusions; unresolvable conflicts not made explicit.

Low culture

No concern with abstract ideas: form must be entirely subservient to content; demands crude morality with dramatic demarcations.