It was always something of a mystery to us as to why the Library of Congress in Washington should sponsor a magazine of such obvious intellectual nullity as the absurdly named Civilization. To judge from its contents, the very title of this journal seemed to derive less from anything resembling real thought about the current condition of our civilization than from a once-popular television series produced by the BBC in London. To say that the Library of Congress version of Civilization treated the entire realm of culture and the arts with a remorseless superficiality would be to understate the case. For what Civilization packaged for its hapless readers was little more than a glossy print version of a not very bright television talk show about culture. The most compelling issues in contemporary cultural life were guaranteed to remain off-limits. What any of this breezy chatter had to do with the functions of the Library of Congress was anyone’s guess. To us, anyway, it always looked like a crass attempt to exploit the intellectual prestige of the Library of Congress for sub-intellectual commercial purposes.
But, as is often the case these days, it is always worse than you think. For Civilization has now openly annexed itself to the culture of celebrity by inviting a series of “guest” editors to take charge of the magazine’s editorial content. The first of these celebrity-editors is the movie director Martin Scorsese, who is responsible for the February/March issue. Future guest editors are said to include Paloma Picasso, Julia Child, Vaclav Havel, and Vartan Gregorian. What such names have in common is not, of course, any discernible standard of critical judgment. What they have in common is the culture of celebrity. This, apparently, is what now constitutes civilization at the Library of Congress. Shame! Shame!
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 7, on page 3
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