I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.
Notes Toward the Definition of Culture
—T. S. Eliot
My friend Hilton Kramer, the art critic of the New York Times and afterwards the founding editor of the New Criterion, was not a man you asked whom he liked in the Super Bowl. An acquaintance once queried me about which was Hilton’s favorite rock group. I responded that I wasn’t certain but thought him a touch partial to Herman’s Hermits. “I say,” as Senator Beauregard Claghorn, the windbag Southern politician on the old Fred Allen radio show, used to remark, “I say, that’s a joke, son.” As a kid, Hilton may have listened to the Fred Allen radio show, but the likelihood of his having heard of Herman’s Hermits or any rock group of lesser fame than the Beatles is, more than unlikely, preposterous. The Lubavitcher Rebbe might as easily been discovered eating a pulled-pork sandwich at Wendy’s.
I was talking over the phone one day with another friend, Samuel Lipman, who as a child was a piano prodigy and later a powerful music critic and with Hilton Kramer a founder of the New Criterion. Sam was dying of leukemia. I told him I had heard that Steve McQueen had gone to Mexico for laetrile treatment for his cancer. Following a pause, Sam, who was then 58 and had spent his entire life in the United States, asked, “Who is Steve McQueen?” On another occasion, I said to Sam that he rarely mentioned the movies or television. “I consider movies and television,” he replied without raising his voice, “dog shit.” Such for Sam was popular culture; he wasn’t willing to confer upon it even the dignity of the droppings of a horse or a bull.
Hilton and Sam were dear friends, and I do not know to what extent they were aware of my own deviations from high culture. I watch lots of sports on television. The all-too-occasional excellent television sitcom—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Seinfeld—found me at my post on the couch, an avid viewer. Although I don’t read detective or spy stories, I enjoy them, in more passive form, through movies and television. Middlebrowest of all middlebrow activities, I also watch most Masterpiece Theatre productions on PBS. I never find myself violated by a bad movie, though after having watched one, I wish I had instead done a load of laundry. I sometimes drive around the city with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons blaring away on my CD player. Hilton and Sam, as I say, may not have known about these hopeless dips on my part into popular culture, and had they done so I do believe they would have forgiven me, with a touch of pity added for my wasting my time on such drivel.
I admired both Hilton and Sam greatly, and one thing I particularly admired was their ability to live on an exclusive diet of high culture. I didn’t for a moment think that, in ignoring popular culture, they were missing much, apart, perhaps, from a stronger notion of the general tastes and cultural preoccupations of their countrymen. Between time spent watching six segments of Seinfeld and listening to the late Beethoven Quartets there really can’t be any argument about which is the right choice. Nor can there be any between reading, say, Tolstoy and Stephen King or Sir Ronald Syme and Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for visual art, about suffering and much else, as W. H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong, and any competition between them and contemporary visual art ended, sadly, with the triumph of Andy Warhol, after whom serious people no longer needed to be interested in contemporary visual art. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that one of the signs of being cultured is that one knows what one doesn’t have to know. Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know.