Private View: The philistinism of revering culture

'In LA talking about culture is more like a ritual display of gang colours than an exchange of ideas'
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I didn't entirely understand what VS Naipaul was getting at in his remarks about plebeian culture - the general invective against New Labour's homogenisation of our intellectual life (semi-skimmed for all; Naipaul Gold Top withdrawn from circulation) sitting rather awkwardly alongside his apotheosis of American civilisation.

I didn't entirely understand what VS Naipaul was getting at in his remarks about plebeian culture - the general invective against New Labour's homogenisation of our intellectual life (semi-skimmed for all; Naipaul Gold Top withdrawn from circulation) sitting rather awkwardly alongside his apotheosis of American civilisation.

As it happens, those two views are compatible - but only, surely, if you think that a plebeian culture is a good thing, since America undoubtedly has that in spades. And at this point, the path through the woods forks in two directions, since plebeian culture is either a good thing because it's conspicuously bad, thus driving intelligent life further up the beach to avoid contamination, or because - whatever you think of its quality - it is very vigorous and thus lends some of its brio and confidence to what sits above it. (Obviously, "above it" may not be right any longer, either, since the cultural seating plan has been so effectively shuffled over the last 20 or 30 years that it doesn't make much sense, these days, to squabble about who's above and who's below the salt.)

It's all very complicated, anyway, and it didn't seem to me that it was clarified by Sir Vidia's whine of neglect from Wiltshire. I'm not sure, either, that I trust the percipience of a sage who could pass blithely through 18 years of Tory postmodernism and become "depressed" only in the last three years. That's rather like snoozing through the siege of Stalingrad and waking up with a scream of terror when someone pops a champagne cork to celebrate the ceasefire.

But it was interesting to see that such a philippic could still provoke a reaction - one amplified by the current open season on Mr Blair's government but not completely explained by it. One of the more interesting responses came from Will Hutton, in The Observer, who took issue with details of the Labour counter-attack. The Arts minister Alan Howarth had cited the success of Nixon in China (composed, written and produced by Americans, incidentally) as evidence of a Blairite revival of the performing arts. But Mr Hutton didn't trust the universal approval for the work, citing it as an example of the tyranny of imposed tastes. For him, the music "jarred" and the libretto was "far too forgiving to Nixon", but that was "a view few dare to hold and express publicly".

Mr Hutton, a one-man SAS team (Stakeholders' Aesthetic Strikeforce), did dare, suggesting that the mob approbation was evidence of the general subjection to the Naipaulian view of high culture as sacrosanct and unassailable.

This ad hominem argument was not entirely convincing. The fact that Will Hutton gets impatient in the third act of a modern opera is not sufficient grounds for thinking the third act an artistic failure, after all. It's at least conceivable, isn't it, that he wasn't up to the opera's expectations, rather than the other way around?

But his larger point about consensus was well made and entirely pertinent. Because if there is one reliable indicator of philistinism at work in a society, it is the notion of unquestioned values - that an expression of distaste for some particular expression of culture is necessarily an assault on the notion of culture itself.

You can feel this at its most asphyxiating in a city such as Los Angeles, where talk on cultural matters is more like a ritual display of gang colours than a free exchange of ideas. When someone asks your opinion of a recent film in LA, they are actually asking you to identify your allegiances, and a failure to match their own views is not the beginning of a conversation - it is the end of it.

This terror of difference has its counterparts here, where approval is not always believed to be compatible with critical reservation. An either/or culture - something is either "sublime" or "beneath contempt" - is a dying culture, because it doesn't allow for ambiguities of response or the subtle negotiations of prejudice and instruction that worthwhile works of art involve.

And, if I understood VS Naipaul's argument at all, it looked as if this kind of cut-and-dried hierarchy of values - incontestable and fixed - was exactly what he pined for. That may not be plebeian, but it is not what you'd call cultured, either.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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