The War on Culture
“You know I was a good student. I always hear about the élite, you know the élite. They’re élite?! I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student then they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment – and I live in the White House, too. Which is really great. I think, you know what, I think we're the élites.”
—Donald Trump 22/08/2017
Anybody can be forgiven for overlooking these 24 seconds in the hour and eighteen minutes of Trump's rally speech in Phoenix this summer, but we do so at our own peril. For anyone who has ever found themselves branded a cultural élitist, a snob, or pretentious, it is hard not to begrudgingly admire these 24 seconds of Trump: he has achieved the unthinkable! He unites those who are anti-élite and anti-expert (of Brexit fame) behind him with reasons that are textbook élitist by the very definition of those anti-élite who stand before him. A staggering achievement. By abruptly changing the personal pronoun to 'we', he suddenly includes them in his own élitism making it a shared experience and somehow 'of the people'. Trump could probably change the whole perception of classical music in one rally speech held outside the Elbphilharmonie in the not-rain, if only he wasn't so...well you know.
It may begin to sound as though I am pro-Trump. I am not. Nor am I pro-Brexit, or in support of any form of élitism. I am, however, emphatically pro-Culture and as such pro-Expert. But higher than all of the above I am confused, worried, and tired of being forced to preface thoughts and comments with disclaimers and pick sides in a war that people don't even realise they are fighting. Because this is what the Trumps, Farrages and Boris Johnsons of the world do: they polarize. They coerce endorsement of all of their ideas from one idea (think of Trump and his fabled wall), they deflect and shimmy and make it about what it is not. So what is it about? Honestly: Culture and Art.
If you feel they have no place in politics or economics, then you have misunderstood or purposefully been led (by a certain type of élite) to misunderstand what function Culture and Art truly serve. In its broadest sense, Culture is what we as a society, both on the macro level of nations to the micro level of small communities, assign value to. Throughout each level the values are consensus based, meaning culture is not defined by the opinions of one person, but is rather a movement shaped by the collective “We” of society. Art is the specialization and enshrinement of specific endeavors within a Culture. If we return for a moment to Trump's speech and to the Brexit referendum, there is one point which shines above all the chaos. It is a point which needs to be urgently understood by all alike: People do not vote rationally; they vote emotionally. Facts are of no use and shouting them at people won’t change feelings of injustice, inequality, unfairness, and anger. So why Culture and Art? Because emotions are the terra firma of Culture and Art, and the emotional understanding we crave, can be found there.
The question of élitism and the emotional response it elicits is one of the main arteries flowing from the heart of Western problems. However, too often 'élitism’ becomes conflated with 'expertism'. An emotional understanding of the first is a feeling of being excluded from something or denied opportunities based on factors over which you have no influence - where you were born, who your parents are – rather than personal merit and skill. Élitism is to be viewed with great caution and suspicion, and should of course be openly challenged.
The argument against 'expertise' is far more tendentious and very often employed in bad faith—as with the 'sick of experts' rallying-cry of the Brexit campaign. One need only think of football, almost a religion in England, to see that people are not really anti-expert. All the players on the pitch are experts and artists. The attack is not really directed at expertise per se, but rather at certain areas of expertise. More people assign value to the expertise of the footballer than do to the expertise of the classical pianist. Why? They don't like classical music. Fair enough, but is that really an answer? Is it only possible to acknowledge value in things we like, and if so is that not a cyclical argument (we like what we value; we value what we like)? The composer Helmut Lachenmann gave an interview in January where he was questioned about modern culture and specifically music. He says that people go to concerts with an ‘I like it, I don't like it’ attitude and then continues to say ‘what the hell are these for criteria.’ And this is where we are. We have allowed a thumbs up, thumbs down system of evaluation to creep into our society and we have given it purchase on ideas to the point where we have elected presidents and changed the trajectory of countries, based on nothing else.
However, this binary way of seeing things is not all-pervasive. Simply sit down with a Manchester United fan. To hear them dismantle a football match, analyse it, talk of strategy, skill, even genius. To talk of transfers, economics, abstract ideas such as ‘worth’. Just because it is not a piece of Mozart makes their critical faculty no less impressive and no die hard Man U fan would talk of a football match in terms of thumbs up, thumbs down. People are more than capable of engaging with complex ideas and art, but only if they see it as being emotionally worthwhile. There is no lack of intelligence in our societies but there is a lack of emotional persuasion.
Football is an area of immense artistry, but it does not do criticize or offer opinions and perspectives. It does not persuade. This is where other art forms such as music, picture, film, and literature, differ. They criticize and observe, and, in doing so, emotionally persuade us. They present us with a story to which one can respond in any way – nobody says you have to like classical music or this film or that book, but if not, then why not? We should argue our own views and not reduce ourselves to the baseness of a simple yes or no response – those who do, do their own intelligence a disservice and this reduction to a binary system of evaluation inevitably leads to a dependence on experts.
Here is the core of the problem: nobody likes being told what to do, or what to like, or what to value. As such, nobody likes ‘experts’ who say they know better. This is the beauty of Art: it is not telling you what to do. It gives an emotional perspective. It wants you to react to it, but it will never tell you how to react. It does not deal in empirical truths you can accept or ignore, but moves in the far subtler world of what you feel is important. Somewhat counterintuitively, we need experts so we can disagree with them. By disagreeing with them, we reform the systems in which they work, and we live. All artists are experts: the footballer, the musician, the producer, but that does not mean they are better than us. They are elite in only one way: they have chosen to dedicate their time pursuing excellence in one area.
Not everyone has time to reflect upon themselves, or on the nature of goodness, happiness, equality, and so on. Art can reveal things to you, that you simply don’t have time to find out yourself. The film you cried to, the song you can’t stop singing, the book you can’t put down, the pianist you can’t stop listening to – these are experts who have found a way to your heart. Art acts as a map to your emotional world.
In ten years from now, you can be certain that someone will direct the next Oscar winning “Moonlight” or “Dallas Buyers Club” about Syrian refugees coming to Europe, and it will have a glorious sweeping soundtrack and we will all be crying and thinking how could anyone be so cruel. We need this Film now. This Soundtrack now. This Symphony. This book. This play. At the moment, everyone feels misunderstood, as if no one ‘gets them.’ But we are all looking in the wrong place for answers. We look to facts when really we need emotional understanding. We need Art to move us again as only Art can. To remind us that we are of flesh and blood, that we are more than numbers and market equations. That actually, there is only one binary choice in our lives: those who need help, and those who can help.