For most of my adult life I used to have education and high culture in general in the greatest of esteem. My respect for culture bordered on deference. I would listen with reverence to all “intellectuals” and know my place when confronted with “men of culture” talking. I did not do exceptional well in school, but I had learned enough in school for my mind to be irreversibly imprinted with the notion that “culture” was the highest of all values. I had developed a sort of “culture” fetish. This reverence before anything “cultural” had as a consequence that culture became a rather intimidating entity to me. One could never be good enough for the sophisticated minds that stand for “culture” as opposed to “ignorance”.
I know this sounds sooo old fashioned ans so XX century now. It had not been always like this for me too. I used to like punk and rock n’ roll in my teens for example. I would respect only stuff that really impressed me, without much intellectual sophistication. I was not one of these melancholic sixteen-year-olds who would read tearful poems. Fuck poems, I like electric guitars!
Then, intimidated by all the reprimands of my teachers from my school days, over the next couple of years I read hundreds of books and novels, many of finest works produced by the human mind, and my greatest ambition as a young man “virgin of knowledge” became to make a “man of letters”, a “man of culture”, respected in the cultural community and to try to figure out what high culture really was. I almost went back to study ancient Greek, for God’s sake! I will not say I was modest in my ambitions. I rejected the rock n’ roll and had become what I used to abhor, an old bore, and I felt way older than my peers.
And then when I came there I realized that … I could as well spent my days sitting at the cafe and reading “Cosmopolitan” for what I am concerned. Actually reading “Cosmopolitan” would have given me greater insights into our contemporary culture than reading Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault.
I was familiar of course with the Marxist notion that what is revered as culture in a particular era is nothing but the culture of the elite, an elite not necessary determined by the meritocracy of the intellects but rather a byproduct of class war relations, where the intellectuals’ job is often only to spell out the ideological credo of a self referent elite and to justify it, even when they are seemingly trying to defy the ideological consensus of their era. Well, I’ll tell you one thing I have understood, intellectuals who defy the ideological consensus of their era do not become rich and famous! In Marxist theory, the intellectuals basically are the lackeys of the rich. I might have thought similar things, but my consideration of high culture still remained very idealistic, too idealistic to be seriously questioned by these childish doubts about the purity of the highest values of human civilizations
I know that in the era of postmodernism and pop culture much is supposed to have changed with regards to the relation between “culture” and the individual. Individuals are not expected to “submit” to culture anymore. Actually nobody is expected to “submit” to anything and the core assumption of our days seems to be that anybody can do whatever the fuck one wants. It all sounds like my ideal from my punk days. Apparently culture is not to be intended anymore as an organic and unitary system of notions, values and references which are required for an individual to be considered cultured and worthy of participating in the cultural discourse. Apparently in the postmodern era anything that might presuppose a hierarchy of cultural and artistic products, a scale of worthiness of cultural objects is to be confined to the dustbin of history because it brings us back to a conservative, retrograde, authoritarian, fascist thinking. It is the old story of the Decadence and the fear of the imminent decline of our civilization on one hand and the hatred of tradition and the equation of tradition with a dead patriarchal order and fascism tout court.
In a way in retrospect it might appear obvious that the rejection of Fascism, the apology of the Restoration, brought about the rejection of the whole traditional order. Many things have happened since 1945. But arguably they would not have been given the same weight had Nazism not been such a terrible thing to happen in the history of Europe. The decline of Europe and the departure from tradition could have been a bit more gentle and not turned into an outright rejection of the past.
It is not however that our paladins of our new contemporary deracinee tradition-free and shapeless culture, most aptly symbolized by some transgender video blogger on arts and ethics in her late 20s with some degree in gender studies, do not divide people in those who have culture and people with no culture and therefore unworthy of their respect. For them the 19-year-old Afghan boy who has never been to school is more worthy of respect than somebody who dares to disagree with their credo of radical equality. Make no mistake, these people are not the friends of all humanity they pretend to be. Often they seem to be actually motivated by hate. The supposed burial of a judgmental traditional is in reality the beginning of an era where the only ones allowed to be judgmental and express value judgments are the contemporary cultural priests who are often no less exclusive and censoring than the priests and guardians of culture of the past.
It is certainly the end of “high culture” as we used to know it but it is not a rejection of the very idea of culture, like somebody would want us to believe. It is not that the people who have come to believe that art as an expression of their spiritual and cultural superiority is best represented in the form of pictures of vaginas on a wall seem to realize the irony of postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon. No, these people themselves very seriously, like people of culture always have done, and not display the smallest grain of modesty or irony. They have actually perverted the original irony of postmodernism and made a cult of it through thoughtless imitation. Their culture is the dominant culture of our age, mainly because everybody is too busy to be able to challenge the nonsense these charlatans have been spreading – and nobody takes this stuff too seriously anyway.
A culture that by definition cannot form and “inform” anymore ceases to be a culture. It is just another form of decorative entertainment. Even in my punk days, I was expecting a bit more from my “culture”. Punk was a philosophy, a way of life and of interpreting the world, not just a few songs and some guy shouting incomprehensible words. When I became aware of the fact that not that whole world can be seen through the prism of punk, I realized the limits of punk as a philosophy and began to see punk as a marginal
But is not everything that passes as culture these days a marginal phenomenon, a pure decorative sets of notions and artifacts that in no way helps us come to the terms with our contemporary reality? Our “culture” has renounced politics, we have come to despise politics and many of us have lost any respect for the organizing modality of the life of community, in spite of our discourse being constantly filled by political concepts and ideals, like “democracy”, “tolerance”, “openness” and so on. Our young creative minds considers themselves so much above dirty, vulgar and boring world of politics to care about it. Maybe it has always been like this in a way. Artists have always been too eccentric for mainstream politics. It is strange that these people, who profess to be so very much against the establishment will welcome the election of Hillary Clinton as the greatest victory for their ideal of unprecedented progress.