What I mean by the idea of culture is high culture, as set out by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy. Arnold described this level of culture as “the best which has been thought and said,” but in our day it has been enlarged to include the best that has been composed and painted and sculpted and filmed. Arnold believed that high culture had its “origin in the love of perfection” and the “study of perfection,” and thought it an idea that the new democracy under the industrial revolution developing in his day needed “more than the idea of the blessedness of the franchise, or the wonderfulness of their own industrial performances.”
What it took to pass through the gates into the realm of high culture was years of thoughtful reading, listening, viewing, thinking. This would develop the critical sense needed to discern the difference between serious and ersatz culture, and a receptivity to the sublime in beauty. High culture critics, meanwhile, saw their job as that of gatekeepers, making certain that no inferior works were allowed to pass themselves off as the real thing. In the 1950s and early ’60s, there was much written about highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow art—a distinction first made by the literary critic Van Wyck Brooks and, a generation later, expanded by the Harper’s editor Russell Lynes—and the differences and distinctions among them.
The pursuit of high culture came with a price. Once hooked on it, one was no longer entirely at ease with popular culture—the culture, that is to say, most of us grew up with and that remains the mainstream culture. Once one is devoted to the pursuit of high culture, the bestseller, the Oscar-winning movie, the highest-rated television shows—all uncomplicatedly enjoyed by one’s contemporaries—are, if not of no interest, then thought somewhat out of bounds, with the enjoyment of them tending to fall under the category of guilty pleasures.
Does all this talk of high culture have a ring of snobbery? If so, I have badly misrepresented it. There is nothing snobbish about seeking out the best that has been thought and said. What it is, as noted earlier, is elitist, a word in our egalitarian age in even worse odor, perhaps, than snobbery. Cultural elitists, as do connoisseurs generally, like only the best and seek it out. But how do they determine what is best? From tradition, from the tastes of their culturally elitist forebears, from their own refined aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Along with Longinus, they identify as high culture those works of art and intellect that elevate the soul, stay in the memory, and appeal across different cultures. Elitist the cultural ideal certainly is, but with the difference, as noted by Matthew Arnold, that it is open to anyone who wishes to make the effort to attain that ideal.
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Joseph Epstein (born January 9, 1937) is an essayist, short-story writer, and editor. From 1974 to 1998 he was the editor of the magazine The American Scholar.