If culture is simply a matter of private enthusiasms and hobbies, of small details and specialties, then what of a common culture? What about the collective project and shared sense of purpose that built Western civilization?
“The expert takes a little subject for his province, and remains a provincial for the rest of his life.”—Jacques Barzun
Cultural historian Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) diagnosed the ills of modern society with rare penetration, a skill enhanced by his longevity—he seemed like Father Time proffering wisdom from eons of experience. In his book The Culture We Deserve, Barzun inveighed against the splintering of academia into ever narrower fields of study, a trend he observed as a longtime professor. Barzun believed that “specialism” leads to cultural fragmentation and the replacement of the true spirit of culture with dull analysis. Culture becomes a mere shell, a mess of external things without a spiritual core.
Barzun was animated by the conviction that culture is something that belongs to and unites all human beings. It is rooted in cultivation, the feeding of the mind and spirit. It is, or ought to be, a habit of daily life. Today, however, culture has been taken away from the common man and delegated to experts. It is mystified by virtue of being smothered in complex technical language. It has been turned into an industry, complete with an assembly-line atmosphere where scholars produce a steady stream of learned material that few people read and compete with each other on a narrow turf.
The result is a society full of cultural production yet curiously devoid of cultural life. The culture machine grinds on, yet the lives of most people are dominated by ephemeral things like the daily news and mass entertainment. Culture risks being degraded to a mere status symbol or conversation piece, not something with a power to affect the soul. Since just about everything in our society has become a commercial enterprise, we mildly acquiesce to culture becoming one too.
It’s important to distinguish between specialization and what Barzun calls specialism. Specialization is inevitable and necessary; no individual short of a Leonardo da Vinci is capable of mastering every branch of knowledge. Experts in various fields enrich all of us. The problem is when specialization deteriorates into specialism, a narrow-minded concentration on niggling academic questions, neglecting larger humane concerns.
In the past we had writers like Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, and indeed Jacques Barzun, whose writings ranged over the whole of Western culture and did so with urbanity and a human touch. Now we have a host of specialists speaking a cold language to a select audience. (Much contemporary writing on art is a case in point.) Only those who are already adepts in the field are able to understand; the others tune out. Overwriting is a scourge of the age, as if we are in a rush to prove how much we know. Information is spewed forth at high speed. The spiritual essence of culture is lost in a lot of intellectual overkill.
The sheer overproduction of culture—the endless packaging and re-packaging of books, music, art, movies, etc—is another impediment to cultural life. Although technology has led to wider dissemination of cultural products, this too often leads to distraction and ennui. Producing too much of anything cheapens or degrades it. Culture should be digested like fine cuisine; instead it’s cranked out like junk food. This is simply an outgrowth of the modern worship of technical efficiency, of quantity over quality.
Interest being diffused among so many disparate objects results in cultural fragmentation. We are all cordoned off into our separate cultural niches; there is very little sense of men, women, and children being the possessors of a common, cohesive culture. We have all become collectors of information—what Barzun called “so much packaged stuff”—without the ability to put it together into a meaningful whole.
And the biggest casualty of all has been the very definition of culture. Instead of its original meaning of something that is cultivated, the term has come to mean little more than anything people or societies do. Social customs are glossed over by the phrase “it’s part of their culture.” We talk about the “culture” of the inner city, the “culture” of a business firm, and so forth. “Culture” has in short become simply another vague term thrown around in public discourse, a good-sounding word that everybody likes but nobody can define with any precision.
This debased notion of culture leads to the loss of a sense of purpose. If culture is simply a matter of private enthusiasms and hobbies, of small details and specialties, then what of a common culture? What about the collective project and shared sense of purpose that built Western civilization?
Perhaps a more noticeable casualty can be seen in the overall mood of society: As Barzun put it, “The prevailing mood in this kingdom of analysis, criticalness, and theory is depression.” While culture should be a source of joy and discovery, instead it becomes a form of pedantry and bean counting. It loses its emotional content because it has been divorced from its transcendent aspect, its connection to ultimate truth.
In order to find our way back to an authentic experience of culture, we must shut out the white noise of the culture machine and retreat into a private space where we can concentrate on what most moves us, whether it be art or music or great books. There must be an intense concentration and stripping away of all excess. We must go straight to the spiritual heart of all things. This alone will lead to a true cultural life, one in which personal freedom leads us to seek the good, true, and beautiful through the best works of man’s genius.
It seems to me that this is part of the mission of The Imaginative Conservative—to offer a holistic vision of Western civilization, in place of the short-sighted and disconnected bits of knowledge we find elsewhere. The impressive range of subject matter covered here, from politics and history to music and poetry, shows the breadth of the expertise of the individual authors, yet expresses also the cohesive richness of our civilization, always with an accent on the permanent things rather than the ephemeral—or better, how the ephemeral may relate to the eternal. We gain a feeling for culture as something more than just another technical product, but a portal to truth, goodness, and beauty.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo taken by Niklas Hamann, and is courtesy of Unsplash.