What is Wrong with Us?
Eric Coombes and Theodore Dalrymple, editors
Imprint Academic £14.95
WHAT words can encompass the degradation of mass culture in our times, and what policy could possibly reverse it? The contributors to this striking volume have a creditable shot at answering the first of those questions, but steer clear of the second, partly because they are aware that public policy has, in recent times, merely followed the fashion and given up on the attempt to correct it.
The BBC was set up with the purpose of bringing a high-minded vision of culture to the people of Britain. It aimed to be the solution to the problem of mass culture; it is now a state-funded part of the problem.
Vulgarity, lewdness, violence, and gross sentimentality have the same opportunities for display as beauty and refinement, and the idea that any authority should intervene in the name of taste is dismissed as a quaint survival from our elitist past. Ours is a non-judgemental culture, and nobody is to be censored other than the one who believes that
there is something more at stake than fun.
In this way, there has grown in our midst — and not in Britain only — a culture of desecration. Art proves itself by its capacity to shock and disgust, and the wearier the public, the more shocking the provocation must be. The new language of art criticism is built around this phenomenon: works of art must “challenge” our ordinary ways,
must “push the boundaries”, must be “transgressive”, “disturbing”, “unnerving”, in the manner of a mutilated foetus or a pile of body parts.
The contributors to this volume remind us that there was once another kind of culture that filled the channels of communication in our country. They speak the language of criticism as this has come down to us from Coleridge, Arnold, Leavis, and Eliot. They are aware that art has the highest of missions, which is that of ennobling the human condition through finding eternal meaning in the present tense.
Their exasperation with the ignorance and folly all around leads
to some justified bad temper. But Eric Coombes’s comprehensive demolition of the “Sensation” exhibition, and its perpetrator Norman Rosenthal, is a lesson in what matters in the artistic endeavour and why.
Equally insightful is Duke Maskell’s dismissal of the “British values” supposedly placed at the heart of our national culture by the government of Gordon Brown. Together, these two writers remind us that there was a time, very recently, when we did not speak of “values” because we did not need to, because our hearts were attuned to an aesthetic and moral legacy that guided us through this world in peaceful sympathy with our fellow countrymen.
Coombes tellingly compares Marcus Harvey’s vast tribute to the child murderer Myra Hindley, the idolatrous centrepiece of the “Sensation” show, with Paul Nash’s Totes Meer, his invocation of the reality of war in the form of an aeroplane graveyard. The first is a resurrection of horrors; the second a sombre laying to rest of the worst of them. Between them, these two works remind us of the true mission of art in our time, which is not to wallow in destruction, but to redeem us from it.
Theodore Dalrymple’s exemplary demolition of the charlatan Le Corbusier reminds us that, while we can avoid the inhuman products of the art schools, we have no defence against the equally inhuman, and equally uneducated, products of
the schools of architecture. In an entertaining satire of the celebrity culture, Dalrymple argues that the vandals get away with insulting us because they are also celebrities, targets of a new kind of screen-nourished idolatry.
Christians should take note of this; for idolatry means the loss of God. It is godlessness that the writers to this volume are describing and, in their despairing way, they are searching for the way back, as we all are.
Sir Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher.