Pop Goes the Culture
One man’s quest to preserve and defend the good, the true, and the beautiful
Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
“ ‘A Sense of Place’ would be unimaginable at NPR today,” Myers says. Today at NPR, as elsewhere, culture means pop culture. With occasional gestures toward jazz, NPR music is the rock music of aging children; the visual arts begin and end with movies and TV, though stage plays will sometimes rouse attention if their themes are sufficiently progressive. This falling off isn’t the fault of the programmers alone, needless to say. In its decline NPR has tumbled in tandem with the tastes of its target audience—affluent white people with meaningless college degrees who weren’t educated into an appreciation for richer music and art and who, accordingly, find the whole cultural-patrimony thing intimidating, hence vaguely off-putting, and finally a snooze.
One of Myers’s recurring themes is the ways in which the dumbing down of the general culture has infected American Christianity and conservatism. These are two spheres where we might expect the work of “preserving cultural treasures” to be taken up. Yet wander into a Mass or worship service in any suburban Catholic or Protestant church and you’ll hear “praise songs” that might have been lifted from Sesame Street or, if the service is High Church, the soundtrack of Phantom of the Opera. It’s hard to believe this is the same religion that inspired Bach and Palestrina, whose choral works are no more familiar to the average pastor or parishioner than the chants at a Kikuyu circumcision ceremony. The liturgy, what’s left of it, is either pedestrian or absurd. (The Shepherd who used to maketh you to lie down in green pastures will now, if you’re a Catholic, “in verdant pastures give you repose.”) Among clergy no less than the laity, a desire for beauty and reflection is deemed prissy and dull.
“I’ve always thought that beautiful art was a great apologetic resource,” Myers says. Beauty is the chief attribute of God, said Jonathan (not Bob) Edwards. “Beauty points to a Creator.” Yet the church, Myers says, “capitulates more and more to the culture of entertainment.”
“It’s a way of keeping market share. But they’re digging their own grave. There’s a short-term benefit, but in the long term the kinds of cultural resources they need to be faithful to the Gospel won’t be there.”
Things haven’t been much better in the conservative movement, to the extent that it still exists. The idea that conservatives should have a special interest in high culture—the best that has been thought and said, sung and played, carved and drawn—has been selectively applied. In speeches and in the Journal Myers has often raised the question of why political conservatives, who defended the literary canon, the Great Books, with such energy in the eighties and nineties, went limp when it came to defending other traditional forms of cultural expression.
A watershed may have been reached when Rush Limbaugh, who would replace William Buckley as conservatism’s chief publicist in the early ’90s, chose as his show’s theme music a Top 40 track by the Pretenders—a self-conscious contrast, Limbaugh has said, to the baroque trumpet concerto that opened Buckley’s TV show Firing Line. Buckley’s fanfare had signaled that he aspired to something lively but elevated, slightly at an angle to the surrounding popular culture. The Pretenders’ guitar riff was meant to signal that Limbaugh’s conservatism would have none of that stuffy stuff: He was fully at home with what had become of American culture and wasn’t terribly curious about what had come before.
The indifference among conservatives toward beauty and order—toward artistic aspiration itself—shows how deeply they have imbibed the relativism and subjectivism of the culture in which they live and move and have their being. Myers likes to use the term “emotivism,” taken from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Emotivism is a handy tag for the secular dogma that all judgments of value are merely expressions of private emotion and taste, telling us nothing about the world as it is and not defensible on objective grounds. Along with everyone else, conservatives and Christians are uncomfortable with a hierarchy of aesthetic judgments. They have come to believe that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder; it’s not a quality inherent in things themselves but a matter of opinion. Bach . . . Chrissie Hynde . . . who’s to say who’s lovelier?
The intellectual genealogy of this view and the implications it holds for the truths that right-wingers are said to prize are a special obsession of Myers and the Journal. It took him awhile to find the proper vehicle with which to press his case.