TNC 25: Samuel Lipman on democracy and culture

[Posted 1:04 PM by Emily Ghods]

To continue the Best of the New Criterion series, Armavirumque turns to Samuel Lipman as he pinpoints the struggle within our society to meaningfully define “culture” and “democracy.” The article, “Redefining culture and democracy” appeared in the December 1989 issue of the New Criterion.

Lipman begins, “culture and democracy: these two words are central, separately and in association, both to the discussion of art in our society and to the larger debate about the meaning and organization of life that has so occupied intellectuals in our time.” Citing the blurring of distinctions that triumphed in the late sixties and onward, Lipman notes that we understand democracy and culture mostly in terms of vague associations:

“Culture, in the form of music, has been the work of my life; democracy is the political system under which we, in view of the alternatives, would certainly choose to live. For many of us, our lives are in some ways dedicated to culture; for us all, our lives are perforce dedicated to democracy. Ours is not the first historical period to notice the standing tension between the existence of culture and the extension of democracy, but our may well be the first period in which free men feel it necessary to choose between them.”

Indeed, Russell Kirk, in his Conservative Mind, cited this tendency in democratic societies. Democracies, by virtue of their atomistic emphasis on the common man, tend to level the natural orders of society, leading to the exaltation of the mediocre. Culture, of course, points up the sublime experiences of man, not the mediocre ones.

Lipman explains the symbiosis of democracy and culture: in the eighteenth century,

“culture was thought to be achieved not through cooperation with the status quo, but in resistance to it—resistance in the name of democracy. In music, for example, this was the significance of the careers of Beethoven and Wagner, two eminent heroes of nineteenth-century culture…once democracy and its accompanying political, social and economic freedoms had become the essential preconditions guaranteeing the health of culture, it was only a short step to seeing democracy itself as congruent with cultural vitality and integrity.”

But confounding culture with democracy, “the bearer of equally distributed political, social, and economic power,” would deprive culture of the variety that was essential to it. As Lipman succinctly puts it, “democracy was taken to mean unfettered cultural expression, and culture came to be understood not in terms of its specific content, but as an expression of unfettered democratic freedom.” Thus, this kind of circuitous reasoning has persisted—since the time of the French Revolution, to Lipman’s day, to today—abstracting quality from culture.

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