An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture
The devil's work: deconstructing a culture
An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture
By Roger Scruton
Duckworth. 152 pages. ?14.95.
The philosopher Roger Scruton was until recently Professor of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London. He is eminently qualified to provide this elegantly written, witty and persuasive analysis of modern culture.
He firstly outlines the ethical vision lying behind (European) culture since the 18th century, and then turns to a critique of 20th century culture. He argues that culture 'has a religious root and a religious meaning' (p.vii). Mankind needs an ethical vision: the certainty that man is an object of judgment (p.10). This concept guards the notion of human responsibility: without it, society will collapse.
Western culture was, until the 18th century, broadly based on a common worldview that man is created by God and accountable to him. Thus there are objectively true moral imperatives. The 'Enlightenment' brought an end to that consensus. The 'Age of Reason' saw many proclaiming that humanity is free from external authority: whether the authority of God, the Bible, the Church, or an absolute monarch. Authority (it was argued) is only legitimate when the one submitting to it makes a free choice to do so. Today we are all heirs to this intellectual tradition. 'We too are individualists, believers in the sovereign right of human freedom' (p.27).
The removal of a personal God left a void. What is the significance of our lives? Religion had answered that fundamental question. But in the 19th century, many turned to nature, to aesthetics, to beauty. The Romantic movement provided an alternative to conventional religion. The yearning of the soul for community, for 'home,' for meaning, could perhaps be satisfied with the glories of music or art or literature.
Romanticism & kitsch
The music of Beethoven, the pictures of Constable or the poems of Words-worth provided a vision of beauty, and reassurance, and consolation. But how quickly such artistic endeavour could be sentimentalised! And the descent into cheap emotion, into tawdry imitation, into what became described as 'kitsch' (cheap and nasty art) provoked the modernist movement. This was the effort to 'rescue' culture from the banality of what 'ordinary' people liked to buy, to put on their walls, to listen to. The poet Baudelaire introduced 'the most important project of modernism: the attempt to revive the spirit by offending it' (p.72). The artistic elite deliberately made their work difficult. They constructed a high wall around 'real culture' to keep the Philistines out. To be 'good', a work of art had to be 'a challenge'. And then you needed a breed of 'experts' to explain this 'real art' to the uninitiated. If common people said that they wanted pictures that would be 'nice' to look at, or poems that would be pleasant to listen to, or music that would be tuneful - that was proof positive of cultural naivety! In reality, such 'common people' demonstrated admirable common-sense in refusing to pay for the efforts of many 'modernists'. Sadly, they were powerless to stop their taxes being prolifically spent on these modernist works.(1)
It became a truism that to be valid, a work must shock. Elephant dung, a picture of Hindley made out of child handprints, dismembered limbs, rotting animal carcasses, women posing as live nudes in a gallery: this is said to be 'real art'. But offence itself has become a cliche (p.80). Post-modern art has lurched towards 'bombast and doodling by turns' (p.82).(2)
Yoof & sex
The cultural scene is equally bleak if we turn to music. Scruton excels himself in a scathing and vastly entertaining critique of 'popular' music.(3) He then turns to a general discussion of 'Yoofanasia' - the universal, global 'youth culture'. Every effort today is made to present this culture as 'subversive, a response to oppression, a voice through which freedom, life and revolutionary fervour cry from the catacombs of bourgeois culture . . .' (p.100). It is, in reality, the 'official culture of Britain, and probably of everywhere else. Any criticism of it is greeted with scorn or even outrage' (p.100).
The sexual revolution removed marriage as the major rite of passage into adult life. Now sex is a universally accepted activity of youth. Restricting sex in any way is seen as oppressive. The bourgeois family has been vilified as a repressive institution which involves a ghastly surrender of individual freedom. The 20th century indeed has seen the construction of an entire culture of repudiation, involving 'a systematic, almost paranoid, attempt to examine the charming images of that former life, and to cast them one by one into the pit' (p. 115).
Doing the dirt on life
And that leads finally to the post-modern treatment of literature. Deconstruction is described by Scruton as 'the devil's work'. The aim of the deconstructionist can only be understood in theological terms. That aim is to demonstrate that the true meaning of every text is - nothing. It is the philosophy of negation. Of meaninglessness. This is the logical outworking of the culture of repudiation, the desire to 'do the dirt on life', which is the official culture of the post-modern university (p.119). Our taxes subsidise lecturers who show the students how to deconstruct our entire Western heritage, and then assure them that 'it is a burden that they have done well to discard' (p.130).
The prospect is bleak. The Goths, Huns and Vandals of the modern academic elite have brought us to the edge of a new Dark Age. Just as the monks kept Christianity and civilisation alive during the Dark Ages, so now a beleaguered minority may have to retreat to a 'catacomb culture' as barbarism becomes the official creed. For what passes for culture today is nothing more than a 'collective mental indolence' (p.131) and it is likely that only a tiny elite will be courageous enough to oppose it. Indeed public opposition may be futile, but at least keep the flame of faith alive in the catacombs!
Is there no hope for a culture which assumes that God is dead? In a post-Christian age, Scruton sees only three possible prospects for society. We can find a secular path to the ethical life, or fake the higher emotions, or collapse into individuality (pp.13-14). The first, Scruton argues, is the best of these unattractive options. We cannot return to the old world of Christian certainties, of authority, of hierarchy, of certainty. We have to preserve 'high culture' as the secular path to the ethical life. 'High culture' at least provides an imaginative world in which there is dignity, restraint, respect, and human worth. We are to live 'as if' there was an eternity, 'as if' there was transcendental meaning.
But what sort of answer is this? The 'death of God' has led to the death of a culture. For if we are not accountable, then why should we not act as we please? To advise us to live 'as if' life really mattered is the counsel of despair. We appreciate Scruton's masterly description of the modern predicament, the horrible void, the empty space, the need for meaning and significance. But we proclaim to anyone who will listen: 'You do matter! Your life does have meaning! Because we are all created, and we are all accountable! There is judgment but also an offer of freedom from the sentence justly deserved! This life is not all there is: there is an eternity!' Scruton ends his book by pointing to Confucius - the sage who urged his devotees to live 'as if' life mattered. But we proclaim Christ - the Lord who commands us to accept the gift of life that really does matter.
Christ and culture
And all of life does matter! Christ is the Lord of all. Art, music, literature, sculpture, engineering, architecture: each facet of life must be the very best it can be - for him. We believe in the physical resurrection from the dead into a new heaven and earth. The best of what humans (by the grace of God) achieve in this life will be the starting point for the renewed and perfect culture of the next world. What we do here and now matters.
The demise of Western culture was inevitable - given the rejection of God. We lament that demise. But we do not give in! We keep on proclaiming the gospel, believing that Christ can transform individual lives and even an entire culture. If, however, God does not choose to intervene, if Western civilisation collapses to rise no more, then we still have confidence that while human civilisations rise and fall, the City of God stands firm for ever.
1. Another writer who is brave enough to shout out that the Emperor (or art establishment!) is stark naked, is Paul Johnson: see for example the scintillating essay 'To Hell with Picasso' in the collection of essays with that same title. Phoenix, 1996. pp.203-206.
2. For a Christian perspective on modern art, see Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the death of a culture, Apollos, Leicester, 1994.
3. For an analysis of the moral issues surrounding rock music, see the brilliant discussion in Alan Bloom, The closing of the American mind. Simon and Schuster, USA. pp. 68-81.