The dictum “less is more” is usually attributed to the German architect Mies van der Rohe. It is a saying easy to mock. There are many circumstances, however, for which we are tempted to regard it as Algernon (in The Importance of Being Earnest) regarded one of his own mots: “It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.” When it comes to cultural life, at any rate, we believe that Mies’s stern observation is far preferable to Robert Venturi’s smirking riposte, “Less is a bore.” For one thing, Venturi’s rejoinder—or rather the spirit it heralded—turned out to be a license for cultural pollution, A.K.A. postmodernism. For another thing, if there are plenty of circumstances in which “less is more” is inapplicable or just plain wrong, there are also many circumstances in which mere proliferation is a disaster. Less isn’t always more; but when it comes to the life of the mind and the vitality of high culture, more isn’t always more either.

We had occasion to ponder this seeming conundrum recently while reading “All Culture, All the Time,” the cover story of the April issue of Reason magazine. Written by Nick Gillespie, a senior editor at Reason, this long and thoughtful essay argues vigorously for more being more. According to Mr. Gillespie, we are living through a cultural renaissance. “During the past few decades,” he writes, “we have been experiencing what can aptly be called a ‘culture boom’: a massive and prolonged increase in art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression. Everywhere we look, the cultural marketplace is open and ready for business.” He cites the increased numbers of books sold and bookstores that sell them, the increased number of stores that rent videos and the number of VCRs and television sets with which to watch them. Many network stations used to go off the air for several hours a day: now most are broadcasting around the clock. There are more art galleries, more museums, more symphony orchestras, more dance companies, more theaters, more internet sites and more computers to access them—in short, there is “more and more of everything.”

Mr. Gillespie couldn’t be happier about this development. He sees it as part of “a broad-based, centuries-old trend that also includes generally longer lives, increased wealth, and the greater personal autonomy that accompanies such developments.” Just as the stock market has fueled extraordinary economic prosperity, so the “culture boom” has enriched us individually. “Relatively speaking,” he concludes, “we’re all aristocrats now.” Mr. Gillespie not only regards this as an excellent thing in itself, but also hails it as an effective check on those “moral crusaders and cultural critics”—“commissars” he calls them at one point—who worry about cultural standards and who are disinclined to equate “more” with “better.” For while Mr. Gillespie thinks that “the culture wars, like competition in economics or politics, are a marker of a healthy, diverse, engaged society,” he is profoundly irritated by the idea of “a ‘common’ or ‘national’ culture,” “received interpretations,” and the polemics of “cultural commissars, whether conservative or progressive, who argue that culture should be didactic and instructive toward a single set of desired ends.”

Mr. Gillespie dilates enthusiastically on this point. He is a firm believer in the old adage chacun à son goût: “One man’s ‘pap,’ after all, is another man’s Proust—and we’ve entered a phase where people are increasingly willing to argue the point. Proclamations of artistic or social value can no longer be issued ex cathedra but must now be submitted before a skeptical audience.” Among other things, this “decentralization” of culture allows people “to opt out of someone else’s cultural value system… . People are freer now to look elsewhere, to pursue their own interests to their own ends.” This is a very good thing, Mr. Gillespie insists, not least because “the most vibrant cultures, like the most vibrant economies and political systems, are ones in which people are as free as possible to define and choose what is valuable and meaningful to them.”

It sounds wonderful. Freedom. Choice. Autonomy. Liberty. These are lovely words. And although it is not at all clear that the historical record supports Mr. Gillespie’s claim that “the most vibrant cultures … are ones in which people are as free as possible to define and choose what is valuable and meaningful to them,” we appreciate the generous spirit that informs his encomium. Nevertheless, we have serious reservations about Mr. Gillespie’s diagnosis. Consider: “One man’s ‘pap,’ after all, is another man’s Proust.” What can that mean? Mr. Gillespie assures us that the burgeoning “consumption” of culture he sees everywhere “hardly means that cultural standards have been obliterated, any more than freedom of religion means that theological standards have disappeared.”

Would that it were so. But in a cultural situation like the present what we see is not so much the “multiplication” of standards, as Mr. Gillespie would have it, as the degradation of standards. Indeed, the multiplication of standards always entails the degradation of standards. And today, when so much popular culture is indistinguishable from moronic pornography, Mr. Gillespie’s populist cheerleading is especially ominous. He is happy that, when it comes to music, “consumers” can freely choose among “Mozart, Mingus, and Marilyn Manson.” But even to mention Mozart together with Marilyn Manson—a freakish rock star named for Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson—is to give the game away. (In fact, we believe that to mention Mozart in the same breath as the jazz bassist Charlie Mingus is almost equally problematic, but we will not pursue that issue now.)

The hard truth is that in a sitution where “one man’s ‘pap’ … is another man’s Proust,” what one faces is not cultural “profusion” but cultural chaos. Mr. Gillespie’s essay is accompanied by several charts plotting the upward curve of books sold, VCRs owned, concerts attended, art works purchased, and so on. It is indeed “more and more of everything.” But mostly, alas, it is more and more garbage. Nor is that all. The deeper problem is that the proliferation Mr. Gillespie champions not only elevates pap to the status of Proust. It also tends to reduce Proust to the level of pap. Here as elsewhere the “multiplication” of standards is at bottom prelude to the abandonment of standards. The “culture boom” that Mr. Gillespie celebrates involves more boom than culture. Far from transforming us all into cultural “aristocrats,” it impoverishes us by making the possession of worthwhile culture increasingly difficult and increasingly fragile.

Mr. Gillespie would doubtless ask, “Who’s to say what’s worthwhile?” If one man’s pap really is another man’s Proust, this question can have no answer. But of course, the very idea of “pap”—“something,” the dictionary tells us, “lacking real value or substance, and considered unsuitable for the minds of adults”—shows that Mr. Gillespie’s equation is specious. Our language and our behavior constantly bear witness to the fact that we recognize artistic and moral standards independent of our personal likes and dislikes. If we sometimes fail to live up to those standards … well, that is something traditional theology easily accounts for. In the cultural realm, it is something that criticism can account for, which is one reason T. S. Eliot was right when he defined the critic’s task as “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” As Eliot recognized, more is by no means always better.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 9, on page 1
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