We fight ‘culture wars’ over a wide range of issues — race, gender, sexuality, power and privilege. But the one culture war we don’t fight any more is over culture.
Yes, we dispute the ideological subtexts of novels, and scrutinize or even ‘interrogate’ works of art for their latent — or, if they’re old enough, blatant — sexism and racism. What matters is what the work in question says about marginalized groups, not about our personal taste as cultured individuals.
It hasn’t always been so. There was a time when we judged people, labeled them, loved them or hated them because of their taste in literature, art and even pop music.
Louis Menand, professor of literature at Harvard, argues that the great American critic Lionel Trilling wrote for an audience who believed that your taste in literature, music and painting told people something about you and your values. According to Menand, Trilling’s audience really did believe that there was something wrong with you if you preferred Theodore Dreiser to Henry James.
Who today would dare to suggest that if you prefer Donna Tartt to Iris Murdoch, or Nick Hornby to Philip Roth, there is something wrong with you, that you could be dismissed as lacking in seriousness and substance? Answer: no one. But is that really such a good thing?
The importance of taste wasn’t just a peculiar feature of high culture, but of pop culture too. Robert Christgau even graded the albums produced by the school of rock. It was a time when a band didn’t say something about you, but everything about you.
Your choices had consequences. In the Seventies, admitting to a love of Abba was a form of social suicide. I saw them live in London in 1979, and never told anyone for years. In the age of punk, it wasn’t clever or funny to say you loved Deep Purple or Pink Floyd. You couldn’t be friends with people who had a passion for early Jethro Tull or late King Crimson.
Pop and high culture each had a clerisy of critics who patrolled matters of taste and had a whole vocabulary for ranking your taste and you. In pop culture you were either hip or you were condemned as an old hippie. For the high-culture crowd, people were defined as highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow or even Midcult.
Woe betide those who challenged the canon and dissented from a mandatory love of the Velvet Underground and Joy Division, or Samuel Beckett and Thomas Pynchon. You thought that Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad was boring or John Cage pretentious? Die, scum!
Then along came postmodernism in the Eighties, with its assault on cultural hierarchy and modernist high seriousness. We lost the line between high and low, good and bad, art and entertainment. If postmodernism provided the theory, social media provided the technology for the democratization of opinion. Since the early 2000s, culture has had its very own populist uprising against the metropolitan elite of taste.
Professional critics have been culled from newspapers and magazines ever since. Art that is difficult or demanding is dismissed as elitist. Expressing harsh judgments about other people’s taste is denounced as snobbery. For many this is good and progressive, because art and culture have become more open, inclusive and tolerant.
What we have now is a taste truce and a style stand-off. You like X, I don’t like X. I like Y, you don’t like Y. I give it five stars, you give no stars. Everyone to his/her own opinion. In theory that’s fine. But in practice we have become so tolerant of other people’s tastes that taste doesn’t really matter. Who cares what you think about the latest Rushdie novel or the new Tarantino film? It’s just your opinion. If your opinion doesn’t have any consequences, it just floats off into the black hole of infinite blah. We need stigma, shame and bug-eyed disbelief at what we say about books, films and music.
But what about all this talk we hear about ‘guilty pleasures’ — the ironic love of works that the lover suspects aren’t any good? The idea of guilty pleasures is actually redundant, a tic from a time when taste mattered. The fact is that nobody feels guilty or ashamed of their taste any more. On the contrary. People love to flaunt their bad taste, as if a passion for Love Island or early Led Zeppelin were something daring or decadent. And we’re not allowed to criticize this, because that’s snobbish, condescending and judgmental.
People once fell out over books, plays and movies the way they now fall out over Donald Trump. I remember a dinner party at my parents’ house when Germaine Greer said that Jean-Paul Sartre was a ‘second-rate philosopher’ and another guest, the American novelist Chandler Brossard, replied, ‘I think it’s time to go home now,’ and left in disgust. Kenneth Tynan said he didn’t think he could be friends with someone who didn’t like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. I once dated a woman who said that my indifference to the video installations of Bill Viola made her wonder if we were suitable for each other.
I like that degree of unreasonable passion. The intensity of our feelings for works of art should make us intolerant of or at least infuriated with each other. It’s the price we pay for having a cultural life that matters. Attack my taste, by all means: call me a pseud, dismiss me as dumb, dump me and tell me I deserve to die for liking Toto’s ‘Africa’. In short, make war on my taste. That tells me you care about what I think and love.
This article is in The Spectator’s November 2019 US edition.