Where Michael Jackson leads: If popular culture is used as a weapon against high cultural standards, the result is a freak show

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TONIGHT at the Oxford Union I shall be defending the motion, 'This House believes high culture is superior to popular culture'. Piece of cake. I prefer Shakespeare to EastEnders and Mozart to Shabba Ranks; I am unmoved by Madonna and left stone cold by U2. The occasional sneer at the posturing, undifferentiated mass of 'pop' culture is both a duty and a pleasure - statistically one is unlikely to miss anything of value.

Yet I was supposed to be on the opposite side. The motion was originally, 'This House believes there is no such thing as popular culture'. Since this was as palpably false as the new motion is self-evidently true, I was as happy then to oppose as I am now to propose. This man, you might think, will do anything for a night at the Randolph hotel.

I am now thought to be a turncoat. Both motions were intended to divide the Old Farts from the Young Smarts, and the latter had me down as one of them. The OFs are the mandarins and the academics with their set texts, their grand opera and their Great Tradition; the YSs are the media and cultural studies types with their semiotics and structuralism, pre- and post-, their computer games and their American - not French - movies.

The conflict is symmetrical since both factions are equally wrong. It is also important beyond the confines of Oxford, first because it raises the crucial issue of what, if anything, is worth saving from the continuing fragmentation of the culture and, second, because it directly affects what is taught in schools and universities.

The now fraught distinction between 'high' and 'popular' culture is based on fear and impatience. The fear is that of the OFs who wish to establish and preserve a realm of standards, traditions and artistic forms. The impatience is that of the YSs who see no virtue in such rigidities and find as much or more to savour and contemplate in the less self-conscious realm of mass expression and entertainment.

The basis of the fear is sound. Europe and, latterly, the United States have been responsible for an artistic tradition that is without compare in human history. Writing off Michelangelo, Flaubert or Degas because they are dead, white, European males, because they are part of a capitalist/colonialist canon or because they are 'irrelevant' is too stupid to consider. The fact that their work was made possible by the development of crafts and insights that were sustained by a continuity of tradition means that abandoning the tradition is as gross an act of vandalism as slashing a painting or burning a book.

Yet from the 19th century onwards the fear of this vandalism grew. Mass culture drove the defenders of continuity, from Matthew Arnold to F R Leavis, to an ever-more paranoid assertion of the need for an inner cultural priesthood that would protect the highest and the best from the lowest and the worst. In part this was a fear of democracy, secularism and mass education. Artistic greatness was seen to be too fine, too subtle and too important for general consumption. It embodied qualities that could not compete with the faster, sharper, sweeter pleasures of the masses.

The aesthetes' response was to withdraw into art, to say that it was a luxury for the finer sensibilities but not obligatory for the rest. The moralists, however, could only be content with an absolute insistence that high art was the ultimate distillation and protector of human values. Even if you did not want it, you must accept its authority.

The impatience that spawned the YSs grew initially from the sense that this was all too transparently self-seeking - jobs for the boys as cultural priests. This generated the cantankerous scepticism of the Fifties and was then intellectually underpinned by radical new critical and political movements in the Sixties and Seventies. The gist of this critical message was that the old cultural canon was an arbitrary, value-laden imposition; the reality of the modern world was a shifting mass of cultural systems in which a can of beans could be seen to be as replete with meaning as a Titian.

This appealed to young people who, by now, had been told that rebellion was the natural condition of their existence and whose most acute artistic experiences were more likely to have been derived from Bob Dylan or the Beatles than from Brahms. It appealed also to teachers in that the new discipline of cultural studies gave them a quasi-scientific status as opposed to the suspect mysticism of the old critical posture.

What has happened now - and the reason the Oxford debate is taking place - is that a generation that takes this radical cultural scepticism for granted is growing up and occupying positions of media, as opposed to merely academic, power. The magazine The Modern Review is based on the idea that low-brow art can be written about in a high-brow way, and the style has seeped into mainstream arts coverage. The general message is that the high culture emperor, clad in his mystifications and carefully cultivated 'difficulties', is, in fact, naked.

This may be a true and healthy corrective. Few aesthetic postures can be as arid as that of the high arty types who regard operas or novels as valuable simply because they are operas or novels as opposed to, say, Hollywood movies. It is this kind of reflex snobbery that produces the unarticulated 'literary' aspirations of the Booker Prize or the hermetic and incoherent ramblings of critical justifications in the visual arts. It is certainly true that there is more real art in a good Martin Scorsese movie, a vintage episode of Cheers or a fine song of Randy Newman's than in 90 per cent of the 'literary' novels now published, new paintings exhibited or new music composed.

But the mistake the YSs are making is to assume that popular expression is an entirely new phenomenon that requires a new critical justification and that the quality of these odd fragments of mass culture somehow undermines previous conceptions of excellence. The opposite is the case. The reason any of us are able to detect this new excellence at all is because the culture has made us critically aware. As Clive James once said, the reason he likes Randy Newman is because he likes Verdi. The only way you can reach Newman's dazzling ironies is by being attuned to the possibility of such expression. In short, the high art/pop art antagonism is meaningless - because when pop is good it becomes high.

Pop, however, is easily glorified and commercially attractive. So its elevation to art will tend to be a conquest rather than an acceptance. Free the schools and colleges to teach what pop they like and Flaubert will be driven out. Chaos will ensue - indeed, has ensued in the United States and, to some extent, here. Turn education into a dim-witted wallow in the dislocated mire of cultural studies and the future will produce no Newman and no Cheers. It will produce deracinated weirdos such as Michael Jackson, the pathetic figure of the week, lurching from burnt scalp to exotic skin and dental problems and now, apparently, painkiller addiction, without the faintest conception of who or what he is, and whose personal rock of stability appears to be Elizabeth Taylor. You can discuss this creature at length as a glittering pop emblem of the culture as a whole. But really he is no more than a wrecked victim of that culture, of pathological, but not aesthetic, interest.

Turning popular culture into a cause, a guerrilla war against the old high cultural standards, courts this kind of freak show by encouraging the belief that going with the global electronic flow is somehow virtuous. In reality it is no more than a passive acceptance of what Raymond Williams, in perhaps his only memorable phrase, called 'technological determinism'. Technology is beginning to create a worldwide, 24-hour entertainment system that will embody and sell purely pop values. You may catch a glimpse of Randy Newman or Cheers, but mainly it will be Guns N' Roses and The Word. The high-brow pop view is that, equipped only with our cultural studies qualifications, we should dive into this morass and analyse like crazy in the brittle prose the form seems to require. But what they are really saying is: this is going to happen anyway so let's sit back and have some fun. Why worry? Why work? Why resist?

Cosmo Landesman, previewing the Oxford debate at the weekend said: 'The motion before the Oxford Union may be carried - but I suspect it is too late to set the clock back to the age of Matthew Arnold and its simple cultural certainties.' Describing the author of Dover Beach as possessed of 'simple cultural certainties' is perverse, but I suspect Mr Landesman is otherwise right. The OFs, with my help, will win, but the clock is unlikely to be turned back. But does he really want to be right? Has he considered the hell that is the technologically determined pop wallow? Does anybody seriously want to be Michael Jackson?