The Politics of Culture
This article was originally published in Socialist Worker (Ireland) No.323
Everywhere in contemporary society there is a division between what is known as ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’. High culture refers to things like opera, ballet, classical music, Shakespeare, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Renaissance and modernist art, and Ancient Greek drama; popular culture to pop music, soap operas, TV game shows, romantic fiction, whodunits and Hollywood movies.
As can be seen by these examples the division is international and cuts across different media, art forms and genres. Television features both high and popular culture (if not in equal proportions), films divide into the art house movies of Bergman or Fellini and the blockbusters of Stephen Spielberg. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and The Sound of Music are both dramas with songs, but we think of the former as an opera and the latter as a musical.
The division is not hard and fast; there are no border guards or checkpoints, and intermediate cases and crossovers abound. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings began somewhere on the fringes of high culture, but migrated into popular culture, especially with the production of the films. Where does jazz fit in, and which jazz? Are we talking about the ‘jazz’ of Bing Crosby or Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis? Nevertheless the division is real.
It can be thought of in various ways: as a question of the taste of minorities versus the taste of the majority (though you can definitely have minority or niche popular culture like grunge music or heavy metal); or as a matter of quality – high culture being seen as better than, superior to, popular culture (or requiring more education or more focused attention to be appreciated). However at bottom it reflects and is produced by the class divisions in society, essentially the division between the capitalist class or bourgeoisie and the working class or proletariat.
It is the profound differences between the life conditions, experiences and resources of the different classes that lie at the root of the split in the culture. Crude material factors – wealth, income, housing conditions, conditions at work etc. – play a big role here impacting directly on such things as numbers of books in the home and amount of leisure time, but they are by no means the whole story. Upper class people are trained from childhood in their families and their schools to be confident and step forward as leaders. Working class people are conditioned from birth to follow orders and lack confidence. It makes a huge difference as to how you feel when you step into a museum, art gallery or theatre or what you want when you open a book or turn on the TV.
Of course it is important not to be mechanical about this. There is no rule stopping a working class person reading Ulysses , listening to Bach or visiting the National Gallery, and many individual working class people do just that. Similarly there are many in the upper classes (the British Queen among them) who are cultural philistines and who prefer Coronation St. to Shakespeare any day. Then there is the complicating factor that between the capitalist class and the working class lie a series of hierarchically structured intermediate layers, commonly referred to as the middle classes , who range culturally from intellectual ‘art lover’ types to avid devotees of popular culture , while there are certainly cultural productions tailored specifically for the genteel middle classes – Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, aga sagas and Inspector Morse in the TV etc.
Overall though it is the basic class division in our society that conditions people’s taste – for what it is worth the radical French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu has proved this statistically – and the division in the arts and entertainment is part of a larger division which runs through the culture in its widest sense, including sport (polo, show jumping, rugby versus football, snooker and boxing), food (fine dining versus fast food), clothing (haute couture versus the high street), language (different class accents) and so on.
What attitude should socialists take to this class cultural divide? Several responses are possible. One would be simply to denounce high culture as irredeemably bourgeois and uncritically support popular culture as the culture of the working class. There are major problems with this: a) popular culture may be consumed by the working class, but it is overwhelmingly controlled and produced by the bourgeoisie and is mostly of very low quality - the bourgeoisie has no interest in raising the cultural or intellectual level of the working class; b) it can very easily fall into or merge with right-wing anti-intellectual populism as typified by The Sun.
Another response is the relativist view, widespread in university Media and Cultural Studies departments, that it is wrong (and reactionary) to make judgements of cultural or artistic quality, and all that counts is ideological analysis. This misses the fact that under capitalism working class people are not only economically exploited but also culturally (educationally, intellectually, emotionally etc) oppressed and they, and socialists, benefit from exposure to high quality art, even if it is bourgeois, because it expands their understanding of the world.
A more radical view rejects the dominant high culture as reactionary and counterposes to it, not mass popular culture but either ‘authentic’ working class ‘folk’ culture or ‘authentic’ avant-garde revolutionary culture, which takes a politically correct line – in other words not Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Tolstoy but either The Blackleg Miner or The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists or The Clash or, perhaps, Jean Luc Godard. In my view this is a preferable position to the previous two but suffers from narrowness. It leaves the working class cut off from many of the greatest cultural achievements of mankind. For, as Leon Trotsky pointed out during the Russian Revolution, the working class as an exploited and oppressed class lacks the opportunity under capitalism (or immediately after its overthrow) to develop an all-round autonomous working class culture.
The classical Marxist position, defended by Lenin and Trotsky, was that the best of bourgeois, and all past, culture should not be rejected by the working class but, as far as possible under capitalism, be assimilated by it, and taken over and preserved under socialism. As Trotsky put it in Class and Art Shakespeare will still speak to us when, ‘Capital will have become merely an historical document, together with the program of our party. But at present we do not yet intend to put Shakespeare, Byron, Pushkin in the archives, and we will continue to recommend them to the workers’. The healing of the split in culture, the achievement of a diverse but unified classless culture, would however be possible only in a classless socialist society.
To this standpoint, which I share, I would make two additions. Changed conditions in the last century have made it possible for some elements in popular culture, coming up from below, to achieve the quality, intensity and complexity associated with the best of high culture. This happens mainly in music, the art form closest to the people, but sometimes in other forms as well. My personal nominations would include Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Shane McGowan, Charlie Chaplin and Tracey Emin.
Also every major people’s movement develops, as it were, its cultural wing and accompaniment. The Irish national struggle is an obvious example with WB Teats, Jack Yeats, Synge, O’Casey etc. But think also of the black movement in the US with Paul Robeson, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nina Simone and many others, or the Russian Revolution with Mayakovsky, Tatlin, Malevitch, Rodchenko, Eisenstein, Vertov and so on. This has a necessary and positive role to play in helping to bring social change and needs to be encouraged by socialists, not to replace or dispense with traditional art or ‘high culture’ but in addition to it.