|Damselfly on a stick,|
on the river in our backyard
Mario Vargas Llosa interviews sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky on the relative merits of "high" and "low" culture in the world today - "Proust is Important for Everyone." Here is some valuable reflection on today's Western happiness-seeking culture.
Today, low culture has overtaken high culture. This allows people greater freedom of choice between the wide range of cultural possibilities; it also creates the current "civilization of the spectacle" as "culture becomes a unit of consumption." Lipovetsky says:
"We're no longer waiting for culture to change life, change the world, as Rimbaud thought. That was the task of the poets, such as Baudelaire, who rejected the world of the utilitarian. They believed that high culture was what could change man, change life. Today, nobody can possibly believe that high culture is going to change the world. In fact, on that score it's the society of entertainment, of the spectacle, that's won. What we expect from culture is entertainment, a slightly elevated form of amusement; but what changes life today is basically capitalism, technology. And culture turns out to be the crowning glory of all this."
In a kind of strange positive, our shallow cultural expectations (like the city people in "The Hunger Games"?) allow greater freedom. Lipovetsky says that the society of the spectacle, consumer society, has massified behaviour patterns, has given a greater degree of autonomy to the individual. This is because...
"...it has meant the collapse of mega-discourses, the grand political ideologies that confined individuals within a tight set of rules, and has replaced them with leisure, with cultural hedonism. By and large, people no longer want to submit to authority: they want to be happy and to seek that happiness with all the means at their disposal. Hedonistic, consumer society has allowed these lifestyles to proliferate. Television, for example, has been a sort of graveyard for high culture, but it has also provided people with other references and opened up new horizons: it enables individuals to make comparisons. On that level, the society of the spectacle has enabled individuals to become autonomous, creating a kind of society à la carte in which people construct their own lifestyles."
Vargas Llosa agrees with some of the positive aspects of La civilización del espectáculo. Yet "happiness culture" has led to the "triumph of confusion." Llosa:
"The old canon that enabled us to distinguish between the excellent, the mundane and the execrable is no longer available: today, it depends on the customer's fancy. In the art world, the confusion has reached sometimes comical extremes....
The old canon that enabled us to distinguish between the excellent, the mundane and the execrable is no longer available: today, it depends on the customer's fancy. In the art world, the confusion has reached sometimes comical extremes."
"If culture is purely entertainment,' reasons Llosa, then "nothing is of importance."
The culture of entertainment has not given us the peace, serenity and conformity that will eliminate, or at least reduce, violence. Llosa says that,
"On the contrary, violence is still out there, a constant presence in our crime-ridden cities, in sex crimes and in discrimination of all kinds. There are phantasms stemming from the economic crisis that result in xenophobia, racism and discrimination. Violence is present against sexual minorities, for instance, and is rife, with very few exceptions, throughout the world. How do we explain all this? One way in which this violence is manifested is precisely the collapse of high culture. It is this that enriches our sensibilities and that leads us, come what may, to concern ourselves with the big issues. A culture that as well as being entertaining is preoccupying, disturbing, that inculcates non-conformity and a critical spirit, is something that a culture which is pure entertainment can never be."
This is an immensely valuable dialogue, worth reading in its entirety as two great thinkers attempt to understand just are the effects of the current cultural waters we swim in.