You can't separate Blur from Schubert

A vibrant popular culture is one sign of a more democratic society

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Who would have guessed that, more than 30 years after the Beatles took the world by storm, our opinion-formers would still be trapped in a stultifying debate about high and low culture? Yet this week, Britain's unelected cultural commissar Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, called for "educators" to impress on children that "high" culture is good, profound and moral, whereas "low" culture is base and worthless.

Dr Tate is convinced that the threat posed by Blur to Schubert is so serious that unless we return to basics (in culture as well as morals) the core values on which Western civilisation was based will crumble away for good.

It is particularly odd that this argument is being made now. After all, during the past three decades the boundaries between high and low culture have virtually disappeared. Opera is marketed just like pop music. Pavarotti sings on U2 albums and there are successful film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. The vast majority of us have long ago got over the mistake of believing that art forms are superior simply because they are old or do not use modern technologies. But others have found this blurring of the boundaries profoundly destabilising. Perhaps it was inevitable that as people became less deferential to the old sources of authority, a backlash would gather force with culture as a key battleground.

For people such as Tate there are visible villains. Post-Modern theories taught by trendy teachers in media studies courses have made a mockery of our cultural traditions. Our culture and language have been so deconstructed and so personalised that they have left us without a framework. We are left to judge things in a meaningless vacuum. Tate and his kind believe moral relativism has naturally accompanied the cultural ferment since the Sixties, leading to the absurd situation where Mills and Boon novels can be discussed as on a par with Austen.

However, traditionalists suffer from an elementary confusion: between high and low in cultural terms and high and low in moral terms. It is true that cultural relativism, taken to extremes, leaves us without the ability to make judgements about the worth and moral weight of certain cultural artefacts over others. Many academics in the cultural studies field really did lose any sense of the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and convinced themselves of the intellectual conceit that everything was essentially equal once it reached the printed page or the screen.

Clearly this is nonsense. Plays such as Macbeth and Hamlet have stood the test of time precisely because the dramas that unfolded were universal themes - of love, ambition, death, greed and corruption - which have as much contemporary relevance as they did in Shakespeare's time. Television characters such as Beavis and Butthead may act as illuminating symbols of the crisis of masculinity in the Nineties, but they are devoid of anything more.

To maintain an artificial divide between high and low culture is wrong and historically ignorant. Shakespeare's plays were performed for and enjoyed by very mixed audiences. They were not high culture in any meaningful sense. Classical music has often drawn directly from folk traditions and its greatest exponents, such as Mozart, happily straddled the worlds of the salon and the bawdy music hall.

It is not just that popular culture has so often been the source of many of the great classics. It is also that popular culture has value in its own right. Jack Kerouac has become part of the canon, as has Charles Dickens, and both often had far more of a moral sense than the high modernist literature written earlier this century. Films and jazz have been the most vibrant art forms of this century. Even soap operas such as Brookside have some of the qualities of 17th-century morality plays, presenting vivid moral and ethical dilemmas.

There is another flaw in the argument of the absolutists, and one which is their central weakness. The concept of "high" and "low" culture is inherently elitist; the terminology itself makes a statement about class. Hiding behind their arguments is the deeply held assumption, which in the past was explicit but now has to be hidden, that people of the higher classes are morally superior, more civilised and display more discerning taste.

Behind the rhetoric of restoring traditional cultural values is an unmistakable fear of popular culture and of the public; a profound unease with a society which has been democratising itself and where the old tradition of deference to authority can no longer be taken for granted.

Indeed, it is because of this fear that many people, such as Dr Tate, confuse their own prejudices (and preferences) with eternal truths and see the culture that they were brought up in and feel comfortable with as somehow immutable and endowed with certain superior qualities. Precisely the same arguments have been made about language itself. Successive traditionalists have wanted to preserve the language in aspic: to say that a certain word or phrase is right or wrong, more often than not casting higher-class speech patterns as the norm. But as Professor Jean Aitchison, the Reith lecturer, said this week and as Steve Pinker showed brilliantly in The Language Instinct (Allen Lane, pounds 20), such a view is born of ignorance. Real languages, like living cultures, are continually changing and human ingenuity is constantly throwing up new ways of looking at the world, new types of creativity and new insights. And no one has either the right or the power to prevent this.

That is why, ultimately, people such as Dr Tate are less dangerous than they might at first appear. For while they remain deeply attached to the fantasy that they can plan a culture, just as earlier generations believed they could plan an economy, fortunately they are no more able to control culture than the Academie Francaise is able to control what words French people use or what lyrics French pop songs contain. Although the elite regularly finds new tools - such as the National Lottery - to finance its pleasures, the tide of public opinion is against it and the democratisation of our culture is too deeply ingrained. In yesterday's Times, Dr Tate wrote of the need "to combat the romantic individualism which supposes that each new generation can somehow create the world afresh".

Fortunately, that is precisely what every generation does do.

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