With this issue, The New Criterion begins its twentieth year of publication as a monthly review of culture and the arts. This is a significant accomplishment for any highbrow monthly; for one that has been as outspoken and heterodox as The New Criterion it is extraordinary.
The New Criterion was created partly to provide a home for vigorously written cultural criticism, partly to provide a voice of critical dissent. The two go together. At a time when culture and intellectual life are everywhere beholden to the imperatives of political correctness, even insisting on clear prose seems a daring provocation. (Thus one follower of the French decontructionist Jacques Derrida declared that “unproblematic prose” and “clarity” were “the conceptual tools of conservatism.”) Similarly, simply telling the truth about a whole host of controversial subjects is regarded as an unacceptable challenge to the reigning pieties of established opinion. Try it and see.
T. S. Eliot once defined criticism as “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” Today, many people entrusted with the care of our cultural heritage would reject Eliot’s definition as presumptuous at best. If meaning is radically indeterminate (as we are constantly told), can we really hope to elucidate works of art? And if aesthetic and moral standards are relative, who is to say what counts as good taste, let alone presume to correct its failures? It is no surprise that, by attempting to live up to Eliot’s vision of criticism, The New Criterion early on found itself at odds with the spirit of the age.
How should we understand that spirit? Ours is indisputably an age of material abundance. We must be thankful for that. Yet almost everywhere one looks, standards of taste, intelligence, and moral discrimination trace a course of perilous decline. Education? Study after study shows that our public schools are a disaster. A shocking proportion of high school students are unable to read, write, or calculate effectively. They are furthermore impoverished by a breathtaking lack of general historical knowledge. By the fifth grade, students know all about the proper use of a condom, but many seniors cannot quite remember who George Washington or Winston Churchill was, nor can they name the century in which the Civil War was fought. Meanwhile, our colleges and universities—those precincts devoted to the humanities and social sciences, anyway —have become scenes of political grievance-mongering, polysyllabic posturing, and tenured irresponsibility.
It is the same with popular culture. Every season, movies, television, pop music, and other forms of mass entertainment get a little cruder, a little dumber, a little more mindless. The occasional bright spots only highlight the depressing morass that surrounds us. The arts? Wedded to a bankrupt conception of the avant-garde, many of our most conspicuous arts institutions seem to have given up on aesthetic excellence in order to pursue the inanities of “transgressive” gestures. Public manners and morals? Even to ask the question is to answer it. Add to all this the widespread ignorance of our own political traditions and institutions—even of the fundamental tenets of our constitutional democracy—and one arrives at a recipe for cultural catastrophe.
The New Criterion first came on the scene at an earlier stage in the history of this decline in standards and debasement of cultural life. From the outset, what we endeavored to bring to our readers was not a panacea for the cultural and social ills we catalogued. We were never under the illusion that criticism should be a substitute for public policy or political engagement. On the contrary, what we strove to provide was a publication in which responsible alternatives to prevailing orthodoxies could be seriously examined. We sought to provide a home for cultural criticism that was intelligent but not academic, vividly written but not trendy, passionate but not ideological—a mode of criticism, in other words, that had been forsaken as politically invidious by the principal organs of left-liberal thought.
Again, we think of Eliot. Looking back in the mid-1940s to the creation of his magazine The Criterion (which in many ways we took as our model), Eliot wrote that he and his colleagues intended it to be partly a means of fostering “common concern for the highest standards of both thought and expression” and partly a means of discharging “our common responsibility . . .to preserve our common culture uncontaminated by political influences.” In this respect, too, we have aspired to make The New Criterion live up to Eliot’s ambition.
This is how we assessed the situation in our initial statement in September 1982:
Today, more often than not, the prevailing modes of criticism have not only failed to come to grips with such tasks, they have actually come to constitute an obstacle to their pursuit. A multitude of journals of every size and periodicity—quarterlies, monthlies, fortnightlies, weeklies, and even the daily papers to the extent that they concern themselves with matters of the mind—lavishes upon the life of culture a vast amount of attention. Yet most of what is written in these journals is either hopelessly ignorant, deliberately obscurantist, commercially compromised, or politically motivated. Especially where the fine arts and the disciplines of high culture are concerned, criticism at every level—from the daily newspaper review of a concert or a novel to the disquisitions of critics and scholars in learned journals—has almost everywhere degenerated into one or another form of ideology or publicity or some pernicious combination of the two. As a result, the very notion of an independent high culture and the distinctions that separate it from popular culture and commercial entertainment have been radically eroded. Far from resisting this erosion, criticism has lately been responsible for hastening it on its downward course. Not only have our critics assisted in blurring the kinds of distinctions that were once fundamental to their vocation. In many cases they have openly celebrated the demise of such distinctions.
This fateful collapse in critical standards— and in the very idea of critical disinterestedness—is only a part, of course, of a more general cultural drift that has brought some woeful consequences in its wake. It has changed, and changed very much for the worse, the way the arts and the humanities are now studied in our universities. It has changed the way art museums and other cultural institutions now conceive of their programs and priorities—and indeed, the very reason for their existence. It plays a role in the way government agencies, private foundations, and corporate sponsors dispense funds for cultural projects. In many cases it has condemned true seriousness to a fugitive existence even in realms, such as the world of scholarship, where it was once highly prized. It has thus altered the conditions of artistic and intellectual life in this country, and made it infinitely more difficult for the voice of informed intelligence to make itself heard, and almost impossible for it to prevail.
Of course, the world has changed a good deal—changed, in some respects, fundamentally—since these words were written. Developments as disparate as the fall of the Soviet empire, the globalization of economic life, and the emergence of the internet have irrevocably altered the political and cultural landscape, while advances in genetic engineering and other technologies confront our morally depleted society with urgent but unanswered questions about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What has not changed, however, is the fact that “the conditions of artistic and intellectual life in this country” make it extremely difficult “for the voice of informed intelligence to make itself heard, and almost impossible for it to prevail.” In this sense, we believe, the task of The New Criterion in nurturing true seriousness is even more exigent today than it was in 1982.
It is worth noting, moreover, that it is not only about the future that our culture is stymied. About the past, too, we are increasingly at a loss. The problem is partly intellectual. With the failure of education, the past becomes more and more inaccessible —a closed book, indeed. But the problem is also partly moral. Our culture seems unwilling to face up to enormities committed in the name of once-cherished illusions, possibly because illusions once cherished are seldom entirely overcome. The collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, brought a welcome end to the Cold War. It spelled the demise of the mythology of a glorious socialist future that had captured the minds, commanded the loyalties, and often extinguished the lives of a great many gifted artists and intellectuals—not to mention the millions of innocents who perished in the name of an imaginary collectivist utopia. Yet these millions of innocents remain unreckoned with—and publicly unmemorialized—in the very societies that caused them so much suffering and death.
Unequipped for the future, unreconciled to the past, our culture increasingly dwells in a precarious present that is (to quote from Eliot once more) “distracted from distraction by distraction.” From the beginning, The New Criterion has aspired to provide a reasoned alternative to the twittering distractions of the present. We believe in the vocation of criticism, the enabling resources of tradition, the abiding claims of permanent human realities. The New Criterion is often described as “conservative,” disparagingly by some, respectfully by others. In fact, there is much about The New Criterion that is far more liberal, in the classic sense of the term, than our detractors recognize. They fail to recognize this largely because their own liberalism has, in many cases, degenerated into a kind of latitudinarian political correctness. A culture besotted by the Newspeak of “affirmative action” is not “liberal” but simply mendacious. Which is to say that by contemporary standards The New Criterion is undoubtedly conservative. We are conservative—proudly so—in exactly the sense that Evelyn Waugh, writing toward the end of his life, said that Rudyard Kipling was conservative:
[H]e believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.
Nearly three decades earlier, Waugh had expatiated more fully on this theme. “Barbarism,” he wrote in 1938,
is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.… The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.
In the perpetual contest between barbarism and civilization, The New Criterion is firmly on the side of civilization. We, too, wish to see its defenses “fully manned.” We know that culture is a precious inheritance, immeasurably more difficult to achieve than to destroy, and, once destroyed, almost irretrievable. We also know that civilization’s fragile emoluments are all that stand between our dreams and chaos—what Edmund Burke famously called “our naked shivering nature.” At the same time, it is worth noting that The New Criterion is not an antiquarian publication. We are not interested in nurturing cultural nostalgia. We do not seek the pastness of the past, but its living presence. If we have provided a home for critical dissent, we have also sought to provide a forum for critical assent. That is one reason we publish the best contemporary poetry we can attract. It is also why we have consistently been sympathetic to the cultural and spiritual ambitions of high modernism. Modernism in this sense is not the enemy but the preserver, the invigorator of tradition. No poet was more deeply concerned with tradition than T. S. Eliot: none was more modernist.
As we set out on our third decade of publication, it seemed appropriate to commemorate this commitment to civilization. We are therefore inaugurating a special year-long series of essays under the rubric “The Survival of Culture: Permanent Values in a Virtual Age.” Below, we publish the first installment, “The New Epicureans,” by the distinguished political philosopher Kenneth Minogue. Contributors to the series will include Robert H. Bork, Anthony Daniels, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, Eric Ormsby, David Pryce-Jones, Keith Windschuttle, among others. These essays are partly exercises in spiritual anatomy, partly salvage operations. We canvass some of the most significant institutions and trends defining cultural life today. If the tenor of several contributions is somber, their ultimate aim is deeply affirmative: to endorse permanent values in order that culture might not simply survive but flourish.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 1, on page 1
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