Roger Scruton admits to being what many people would call an elitist. He thinks that some tastes are better than others. Specifically, he has a preference for high culture over popular culture and believes that this preference can be rationally grounded. Of course, probably everybody agrees that art, literature and music – the things that make up both high and popular culture – have value. Their centrality in human life, and the pleasure that they bring, make denying this proposition almost an absurdity. However, the idea that some art has more value than other art is contentious. It isn’t immediately clear what could ground such a difference. In his writings, Scruton suggests that part of the story is that high art functions to transform our lives, ridding them of their arbitrariness and contingency. I ask him how this might occur.
“I take it that there is a real question about what constitutes the value of high art,” he responds. “It requires a lot of thinking and discipline to appreciate and to understand. We are living in a period when many people don’t see the point of making the effort required for understanding difficult works of art, so unless you can say something about what you gain from them, the whole enterprise is jeopardised.
“Now, human ambitions are necessarily compromised; our lives cannot be so constructed that they move of their own accord to a satisfying conclusion; they cannot be constructed so that each part casts light on another part and seems fully satisfied by that other part. Our goals are frustrated. Our lives fall to pieces. Nothing seems to come to fruition. And this is all inevitable because of the empirical circumstances in which we live.
“Nevertheless, it is part of being human that our ambitions and loves are framed according to our ideals: not just things that we want, but things that it would be right to want, and that would fulfil us were we to obtain them. The ideal is not attainable in reality, but we imagine what it would be like to attain it, when we see it fully realised in the imaginative work of art. This applies even when the realisation involves the destruction of a character, as in tragedy. Tragedy vindicates the ideal, by showing people how to be greater, more interesting, more worthy of praise, than the forces that destroy them. Contemplating tragedy our lives are illuminated by the meaning that we see.”
So, for Scruton, high art is a moral phenomenon through and through. I ask him whether it is his view that the ethical life can only be sustained and renewed through art and the work of the imagination.
“I don’t want to say that it is only through art or the imagination that you can live an ethical life,” he replies. “The best art is devoted to the task of making the ethical life worthwhile, and showing that all the costs involved in it are fully compensated. That is something that you find in Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Although there is a huge cost in thinking in terms of right and wrong, duty and virtue, and living in this way – living in the eyes of judgement – there is also the greatest of benefits. Judgement raises us to the level where fulfilment is possible. So art and imagination offer us light in the darkness. But this doesn’t mean that people who have no feeling for art cannot live decent lives. On the contrary, of course they can.”
It is also true that art can be involved in people living very unethical lives. The example of Hitler and his love of Wagner springs to mind.
“People always give this example,” admits Scruton. “You cannot say that works of art will always have a good effect on people, even if their moral content is of the highest order. What effect they have depends upon the kind of person we’re talking about. An evil person will gain sustenance from a great work of art. But I think it is nonsense to suppose that this necessarily tells you anything about the work of art itself. Anything that had an effect on Hitler was going to have a bad effect, just as any water poured into a poisoned drain will come out poisoned.”
The problem with this reply is just that there are people who don’t agree. They think that there is something about Wagner’s art which explains why it was so attractive to Hitler. So I ask whether there is any way of settling this dispute?
“Well, the specific case about Wagner is still very much alive. But consider that Goebbels was very much moved by Mozart. Stalin had pretty developed musical tastes. Mao Tse-tung was moved by classical Chinese poetry, some of which contains what people claim are perfect statements of the old Confucian ethic. Yet all of those people went on to commit terrible crimes. I think you have to recognise that our appreciation and understanding of works of art is in the first instance isolated from life – that’s the whole point of aesthetic experience, that it enables us to contemplate life from a position of solemn detachment. Works of art are not there to influence or guide our actions. They are there to be contemplated; but from the act of contemplation we gain a sense of what is meaningful. And this feeds our moral sense.
“The fact that there are bad people moved by works of art doesn’t taint those works of art; you have to think of all the good people moved by them too. And maybe the only good thing about these bad people is that they were moved by those great works of art.”
According to Scruton, part of the distinction between high and popular culture has to do with the way that some art objects genuinely engage the imagination as opposed to being merely objects of fantasy. I ask him what’s involved in this distinction.
“Fantasy objects are substitutes,” he replies. “They are a way of titillating real emotions and giving substitute satisfaction. The imaginative act, in contrast, is an endeavour to create a possible world, an imaginative world, where the emotions are also imaginary. So the artist is not offering a substitute satisfaction for a real emotion – art is not like pornography, for example. Rather, the artist is making someone imagine both the object and the emotion directed towards it. The artist explores an imagined world as a free being with all moral commitments engaged. That tells us the difference between, for example, the erotic and the pornographic.”
It is not at all clear, however, that it is easy to draw these kinds of distinctions. For example, thinking about the difference between erotic art and pornography , it seems possible that the same object might produce different reactions in different people. So, for some people, an art object might result in an imaginative act and for other people it might be purely an object of fantasy.
“This is difficult,” admits Scruton. “You have to think in terms of the language of literary critics. Leavis talks about works of art that invite a certain response. We know what that means, although it is difficult to specify it precisely. We know this because we know it in life. We know that there are people who invite a sentimental response to themselves, and others who remain distant, as if there is something still to be got from them. In the same way, we recognise this in art. Kitsch is a form of cheap invitation, and pornography is an invitation to fantasy sex. The erotic, in contrast, puts the sexual object at a distance – so that it becomes an object of contemplation. And the passion that erotic art arouses is an imaginative passion, not a real one. You can see this, for example, in Titian’s nudes, which are very good examples of erotic art. A Titian Venus is not masturbation material at all. The whole image is veiled by contemplation and idealised. It is not a woman for the taking, but rather a woman who is thinking of her own lover. To grasp the atmosphere of the picture, you have to set it at a distance from yourself.”
Scruton draws a similar distinction between real feelings and sentimental feelings. I ask him how this cashes out in terms of an understanding of high and popular culture.
“These are very difficult philosophical questions,” he replies. “Sentimentality is one of those things which is very hard to define. I take the line that the crucial feature of a sentimental emotion is that whilst it might appear that its intent is to exit outwards towards an object, it is in fact only a pretence that the object is the real focus of its concern. Its real focus is the subject. So the thought is not ‘how sad’ of that object, but rather ‘how refined and touching of me to be feeling “how sad” of that object’.”
For Scruton, then, it seems that notions of sentimentality and fantasy are central in drawing the distinction between high and popular culture.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to argue that all popular culture is kitsch,” he cautions. “But there is truth in what people like Adorno say, that there are different levels in which we respond to art, and some responses are much easier to achieve than others. They are easier to achieve because they involve either a kind of emotional laziness or engagement with self-satisfied feelings.
“Now, there are different reasons why something might be easy to engage with. But one reason is that it is simply eliciting a stock response. The response is automatic, involving no reflection on the object. In such cases sentimentality is always in the wings. If you are just giving vent to a stock response, the thing which is most important to you is not the object, it is yourself.”
Arguably, the difficulty with this kind of argument is that it is highly value-laden. Surely, it is possible just to reply, well, the whole point of art is to produce a sentimental response?
“That’s one come-back,” agrees Scruton, “just to say, well what’s wrong with sentimentality? I feel that one of the great achievements of English literary criticism since Coleridge is that it has not only tried to answer that question, but has actually given an account of what is wrong with sentimentality.
“Essentially, sentimentality puts a veil between you and the world. It makes your own feelings more important than their object, and thereby neutralises the feelings. You are not really responding to the world as it is; hence there is an epistemological defect in sentimentality. Leavis brings this out very brilliantly in his analysis of the Hardy and Tennyson poems in ‘Reality and Sincerity’. He succeeds in showing just how concrete the vision of the world is in Hardy, and how he is interrogating objects and using them to interrogate himself. Each detail is raising an evaluative question, not only about the thing itself, but also about the quality of the emotion directed towards it. Whereas in Tennyson, there is an easy flow of emotion, which washes over things so that you hardly see them. There is no self-interrogation, and no interrogation of the object. The level of awareness is diminished.”
There’s an interesting question about what’s at stake here. The talk has been about the different levels at which one can respond to art. As someone who prefers popular culture to high culture, despite having had fairly extensive exposure to the latter, I wonder whether any moral, and perhaps behavioural consequences, follow as a result of a preference for sentimentality and fantasy.
“I think there certainly are,” responds Scruton. “This is a delicate question, because it depends upon how important artistic and cultural matters are in the life of a person. The artistic choices people make don’t reveal that much if art isn’t particularly important in their life. But when art becomes integrated into your life, then it does become a sign of what sort of person you are. It also becomes a means of communicating with others, which is a very important role that art plays in our culture at least. We use our artistic tastes in order to clarify our feelings about other things, not only to ourselves, but to each other. That’s one of the reasons that we are ‘suitors for agreement’, as Kant says in the Critique of Judgement. The aesthetic judgement is never just ‘I like that, you don’t’; there is always an attempt to use the aesthetic object to cast light on your own way of life.
“Thus I would find it extremely difficult to live with somebody whose main interest was pop music. Not only because I cannot stand the sound of it, but because it would mean that communication would be curtailed, and a source of judgement would be neutralised.
“On the other hand,” continues Scruton, “I can see that this is too simple a view. There’s a part of me that likes pop music too. I can read about pop music enthusiasts and get a sense of how it might be thrilling to be even the most abject kind of MTV addict. Take Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. It is about two Indian pop idols, and it conveys some of the sense – though I think a completely delusive sense – of pop as a spiritual crystallisation of modernity. I can see how someone can get to the point of liking pop music for this reason, believing it to be a vivid symbol of modern life, and a means to engage in that life.”
I want to push Scruton on these points. I ask him whether he would be willing to say that his experience of the world, and perhaps his moral sense, are richer because of his involvement in high culture than a person’s can be through their interest in popular culture? And will other people be able to recognise this? Are there implications for one’s relationships, for example?
“The position I would like to defend is one that some people would call elitist, though I don’t regard that as a term of abuse,” replies Scruton. “I think you can be an elitist without being a snob. You can think that some tastes are better than others, not just because they are more satisfying, but because they engage in a more creative and fulfilling way with the human soul, without condemning people who don’t have those tastes. That is the position that I would like to take, because I know what the love of serious music has given to me – not just enjoyment at the sound of it, but an insight into what matters.
“I was thinking about this, this morning. As I woke up, I had the thought that the twentieth century had been full of the most wonderful farewells, and I thought of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Stauss’s Four Last Songs, Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Those are all incredible farewells, and I thought how wonderful it is to have known these things, and to see how to be reconciled not only to your own death, but also to the death of a civilisation. I woke with a sense of gratitude that this had been given to me through art. I don’t think it could have been given to me in any other way.”