Dumbing down

Culture today is dependent on shock, excess, instant effect, and the avoidance of intellectual effort. If the plastic arts are notably trivial and befuddling, literature, music, and cinema lag not far behind. From openDemocracy.

Jeremy Fox
21 June 2012

At a recent gathering in Mexico City, I met young Colombian journalist - Eduardo - and after the introductory pleasantries were over found myself plunged in an intense conversation with him about Latin-American literature.  After running briefly through the canon, pausing to pay respects to Felisberto Hernández (arguably Latin-America’s greatest short story writer) the two of us admitted to a special admiration for Roberto Bolaño, agreeing that his works, though quirky, complex and sometimes difficult were never impenetrable and always worth the effort to understand.

“Trouble is,” Eduardo said, after we had spent a good half hour happily ranging over a selection of Bolaño’s writings, “authors like him don’t really matter. Only the elite reads serious literature nowadays.”

I countered with a personal anecdote from his own country, Colombia. In 1981, I happened to be in Bogotá a few months after the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s wonderful, Chronical of a Death Foretold[1]. Picking up a copy of the first edition at a local bookstore, I remember reading on the reverse of the title page that the initial print-run amounted to a staggering one million and fifty-thousand copies. Surely this was evidence of a readership that extended well beyond any definition of the elite.

“That was thirty years ago - before I was born,” Eduardo replied. “The world has changed since then. People no longer have time for philosophical reflection or for the effort needed to digest a true work of art.”

His remark brought to mind a little book by Indian writer, Ved Mehta, called Fly and the Fly-Bottle published almost exactly fifty years before. Mehta was a young scholar of formidable wit and intellect who, on graduating from Balliol College, Oxford had moved to an editorial desk at the offices of the New Yorker on West 43rd Street. From that vantage point, he had observed a controversy played out in the correspondence columns of The (London) Times not between the usual suspects - politicians - but between ‘Oxford’ philosophers. Intrigued, and presumably with the encouragement of his employer, Mehta had jumped on a plane to the UK and secured interviews with the key combatants, among the most prominent of whom were Richard Hare, Bertrand Russell, Stuart Hampshire, Ernest Gellner and A.J. Ayer. For good measure, he interviewed contending historians too in what turned out to be a witty survey of British intellectual life of the time. Fly and the Fly-Bottle - a phrase coined by Wittgenstein to describe the purpose of philosophy (“to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”) - became if not strictly a best-seller, then certainly a rather unusual hit.

What struck me, however, as I heard Eduardo’s complaint, was not so much the content of Mehta’s book as the fact that it was inspired by letters to The Times. Fifty years ago, the views of intellectuals were thought sufficiently important to merit an airing in the serious - and sometimes in the not-so-serious - press. In Britain, people took notice of what philosophers, writers, and artists both thought and did. Their involvement in public life was a given. Politicians feared them, wooed them, sometimes even employed them, as Harold Wilson employed C.P. Snow. Many stood in the vanguard of political activism. Bertrand Russell was founding president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) - an organization whose early supporters also included J.B Priestley, Benjamin Britten, Joseph Rotblat, Julian Huxley, Doris Lessing, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Michael Tippett. I remember the impact of Wesker’s “working-class” dramas: The Kitchen, Roots, Chips with Everything; the fury of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the influence on what we thought and felt about ourselves and about the world of such writers as John-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet… They mattered. Together with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cuban revolutionaries, leaders of the civil rights movement in the US, they were stars whose light we followed into what became the ‘counterculture’ of the 1960s, exemplified by the sexual revolution, the student rebellions of 1968, the feminist movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, a widespread, crazy but heady belief that we - the young - could change the world and make it better.

Perhaps my Colombian friend was right. Where had this ferment of ideas, this sense of infinite possibility gone? Why could I not expect to encounter anywhere in the media the kind of polemic about which Mehta wrote so entertainingly half a century ago? What had happened to the poems, plays and novels that galvanized the world in which I grew up?


On the day after my conversation with Eduardo, I came upon Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’ s new book, Civilization as Spectacle [2], an extended essay - something of a diatribe - on the dumbing-down of modern culture. Churlish though it would be not to respect Vargas Llosa’s achievement in winning a Nobel prize, he is far from being among my favourite novelists. Nor do I think much of his vacillating political opinions which he expresses with sublime confidence and minimal consistency. He is, however, undeniably clever as well as being a brilliant and thoughtful wordsmith; in short, a serious artist. When a figure of his distinction speaks, it is worth while paying attention.

Civilization as Spectacle begins with its conclusion, namely that we inhabit a time in which serious art, reflective politics, the urge to question how we should live, activities that have produced the finest flowers of civilization and guided the way in which mankind has sought to frame social and political life, have now all but disappeared from the stage. In their stead we are left with a demand for facile entertainment, for fun, for distraction from the numbing routine that characterizes the daily round. Ours is an age of mass-market superficiality to which even the most talented creators acquiesce, not least because there is no longer any appetite for depth. Light literature, light cinema, light art afford consumers a feeling of being cultured, up-to-date, free-thinking when the opposite is the case; because what such works propagate is not thoughtful engagement with the world but drab conformity, complacency and unthinking mediocrity.

Vargas Llosa backs up these claims with an impressive array of examples and expository argument. Do we really think, he asks, that figures such as Damian Hirst (and, I would add, Tracey Emin) belong in the same company as Michelangelo and Rembrandt? Are they even involved in the same activity? Describing Hirst as essentially a snake oil salesman, a vendor of costly baubles, Vargas Llosa suggests that his fame and the hallowed tones in which critics and curators speak of his work tell us more about our own civilization than about the quality of the artist. Hirst and his like (the author cites Fernando Pertuz - who came to notice as a performance artist by defecating in public and consuming the output) - owe their reputation not to the originality of their art but to sensationalism and a gift for publicity.  Their appeal is of the same kind as that of the tabloid newspapers: dependent on shock, excess, instant effect, and the avoidance of intellectual effort.

If the plastic arts today are notably trivial and befuddling, literature, music, and cinema lag not far behind. Where, Vargas Llosa asks, are film directors like Buñuel,  Bergman, and Visconti, composers like Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, playwrights like Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shaw? No doubt they are somewhere, but since their importance is now judged by estimates of their return on investment they are as like as not living in obscurity and will probably die unknown.

Critics are not of much help since it is hardly possible nowadays to achieve any kind of consensus about what does or does not constitute art, beauty, or even original thinking. Many are doubtless cowed into parroting received opinion through fear of being accused of philistinism or of being mired in the past (history having been recast as a midden for ideas and sentiments of depleted worth). Vargas Llosa has already been attacked in Latin-America precisely for being ‘out of touch’, an elitist railing against one of the signal triumphs of democracy: a world where, after millennia of cultural snobbery, the voice of demos has finally prevailed.

The demotic argument is not without potential defenders among the most elite of academics - the post-modernists, the cultural relativists, the deconstructionists for whom there can be no absolute truth and therefore no absolutes of aesthetic or intellectual judgement, no ‘great tradition’. For these avatars of meaning (or meaninglessness), a paragraph of tabloid gossip has the same cultural value as a Shakespearean sonnet; and whoever thinks otherwise belongs to a generation that has already passed into irrelevance.

Of this Vargas Llosa is well aware. Between those like him (and myself) who believe philosophy, literature and art to be activities of historical and moral consequence, and those, like deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who confine literature to a self-referential world of texts referring to other texts with no direct relevance to lived experience, there can be little in common. “Whenever I am confronted by Derrida’s obscurantist prose and his suffocating literary or philosophical analyses,” Vargas Llosa grumbles, “I have the impression of miserably wasting my time.” If - as the deconstructionists assert - literature is no more than an assembly of hermetic texts that have nothing to do with the external world and from which, therefore, we can learn or experience nothing beyond themselves, then what is the value of so much textual excavation, such tedious analytical labour? 


Derrida and company, however, can be no more than a rivulet beside the mainstream criticism of Civilization as Spectacle which is that it is little more than a paeon to inequality, an elegy for an aristocratic past of refined taste. I doubt whether this is what Vargas Llosa has in mind. It certainly does not coincide with my own views. Writers like Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Gogol, Flaubert, Zola - to name just a handful of nineteenth century novelists, wrote best-sellers in their own time. Their works were never the province of a tiny elite, any more than those of García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, André Gide, E.M Forster in the twentieth century.  My friend Eduardo’s lament, let us recall, was not for a lost aristocracy but for a time when serious literature was also popular literature.

Frivolous  cultural artefacts are not, of course, a twenty-first century phenomenon. Cervantes began Don Quijote de la Mancha partly as a satire on (or at least in competition with) trashy novels of the time, as did Rabelais when he wrote Pantagruel and Gargantua.  These masterpieces obliterated the lesser creatures that inspired them. Vargas Llosa’s fear  - and mine - is that the reverse may now be happening; that the creations of our finest writers, artists and thinkers are giving way on the shelves to banalities with a high sugar content and that hardly anyone is heeding the obesity warning on the labels.


[1] Crónica de una muerte anunciada, La Oveja Negra, Bogotá, 1981

[2] La civilización del espectáculo, Alfaguara, Mexico, 2012.

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