High and low culture: separated at birth?

Battle of Ideas festival 2012, Saturday 20 October, Barbican, London


‘For a mass society is nothing more than that kind of organised living which automatically establishes itself among human beings who are still related to one another but have lost the world once common to all of them.’ Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

The closing ceremony of the Olympics 2012 was dubbed ‘A Symphony of British Music’, but there was little that was classical about it. Despite the presence of the London Symphony Orchestra, supporting pop group Elbow, this symphony was all Spice Girls not Vaughan Williams, Russell Brand not Elgar; avowedly modern and popular. Of course there is no reason a closing party should not have a rocking soundtrack, but in many areas today it appears that the dethroning of what was once deemed ‘high’ culture has gone so far that the music of Queen, by default almost, is better than Handel. Is there such a separation between the adherents of different ‘cultures’ as to amount to a total communication breakdown between their camps?

‘Good society’, the taste of elites, has long been struggling to respond to the emergence of the masses into public life, and not just in popular forms of culture, but even the mannered aping of culture that Matthew Arnold attacked among the philistine bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. Since the end of the Second World War, the decline in the authority of traditional forms of culture has become more and more evident: think of the late Robert Hughes’ Shock of the New; British ‘In-Yer-Face’ theatre; Schoenberg, Phillip Glass and John Cage. Or the vast numbers of questionable initiatives designed to attract new audiences to opera, galleries and concert halls. Is yesterday’s ‘high’ culture being consigned to today’s museum? Should we lament its passing? Try to preserve it? Or accept its day had come and that it’s only misplaced cultural nostalgia to imagine that what we have today is in anyway inferior? Might it even be better?

Maybe the difficulty is with our ability to discriminate between what is good and what doesn’t make the grade, between ‘high’ and ‘low’. Maybe it is our cultural judgement that has eroded, rather than classical music itself having somehow passed its sell-by-date. In the past, after all, high and low rubbed up together and influenced each other: think of composers like Dvořák and Janáček, both influenced by folk music. Is there a possibility today for such a healthy interchange between pop and classical? TV and art-house film? Street dance and ballet? Damien Hirst and Jack Vettriano? Or, in an avowedly non-judgemental age, one of relative values, of ‘I like what I like because I like it’, is what was once potentially a common and shareable cultural world, now irretrievably shattered? Reduced to the lonely perspective of the individual, as unique to him as his birth, or, on the other hand, to the mass spectacle, to entertainment rather than culture?

Ivan Hewett

chief music critic, Daily Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; broadcaster; author, Music: healing the rift

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Roly Keating
chief executive, British Library; formerly first Director of Archive Content, BBC; former Controller, BBC Two; member, Barbican Centre Board

Dolan Cummings

associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)