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They will have to be willing to fight for their position. Few would deny that the massive assault on the traditional aesthetic structures of British culture that had its roots before the First World War has continued ever since. What writers in the 1940s referred to as “mass” culture has produced not only irresistible waves of popular culture, but the intellectually well-drilled movements summed up by terms such as post-modernism, structuralism, cultural relativism and multi-culturalism. Writers in these movements, marked by a propensity to theorise at length, have been generally less cultured than modernists such as Eliot and Joyce who were obsessed with reinventing rather than picking over the carcase of the European literary tradition. In short, they have been Philistines, not something that would have bothered Marx, who inspired many of them, because he was a monstrous Philistine himself.

Steiner saw the greatest danger as coming from the deconstructionists, postmodernists, and post-structuralists, who flap like eager vultures around the Promethean body of Art. The school of the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has produced many an unreadable chapter with a title such as “Althusser and Foucault in English literary theory” (why are these guys messing around with our literary theory anyway?). Marxism argued that culture was a tool of the elites to manipulate the lower classes, and such perspectives are common in the humanities and the young schools of cultural studies. Their tracts are usually badly written. Take, at random, Culture and Citizenship, edited by Nick Stevenson:

[G. H.] Mead’s work . . . allows us to see that citizenship is necessarily rooted in the inter-subjective nexus of the lifeworld. Following Habermas (1987), however, I contend that a lifeworld perspective is not sufficient, on its own, for critical social theory. A systems perspective is also required . . .

There is a great deal of lugubrious Gallic authority. Oh for some sweetness and light! (Arnold and Epictetus, 1851.)

Multiculturalism can mean various things, some of them entirely desirable, but that it can have a doubtful effect in aesthetic terms is suggested by the shift in texts set for GCSE English, where, for the “Different cultures” paper, pupils will encounter random international poems which have value as documents, but very mixed aesthetic or intellectual merit. This is partly no doubt because the dominant culture (ours) produces lots of poems with equally little value or content, but also because we accept the fact that by and large most teenage boys and a lot of girls are going to struggle beyond the point of anybody’s endurance with anything from the “literary heritage” that isn’t about war (Wilfred Owen has always gone down pretty well).

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Richard Biron
April 17th, 2017
10:04 PM
One name rather too quickly dismissed in this interesting piece was Terry Eagleton, whose brilliant book ‘Culture’ (published last year) wasn’t mentioned (it isn’t nearly as leftist as some of his writings): and whether you agree with his politics or not, he is a scholarly and perceptive critic.

April 4th, 2017
5:04 PM
Both Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling deserve a mention in this article. A great read.

Jerry Kavanagh
April 2nd, 2017
10:04 PM
No critic today can match the erudition, the linguistic brilliance, and the experience of John Simon.

April 2nd, 2017
11:04 AM
Wonderful article. And special credit for mentioning James Woods. Woods was the last of the independents. Just read how he was treated by the n+1 crowd (all Yale graduates) and you will quickly see that independence has been replaced by company men doing company business. We're in a tough spot in the U.S. because most 'critics' are alumni of some elite academic institution and thus only praise works that come from same institutions. When was the last time you read a real critique of a Yale or Harvard author? They won't allow it. And now they are all stuck in the feedback loop of their own praise.

Louis Torres
April 1st, 2017
6:04 PM
"Great creative [cultural] critics"? You neglected to mention Jacques Barzun. Louis Torres,Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts and Editor, A Jacques Barzun Compendium -

March 31st, 2017
10:03 PM
Western society is now post-western, having abandoned inherited standards in aesthetics, in personal, social and business morality, in manners, in language use and public discourse, in a sense of the spiritual, in its concept of the human person, in the ethics of war. Ideologues on the left and power brokers on the conservative right have legislated against the instincts of commonsense. We walk in a wasteland.

March 30th, 2017
8:03 PM
This is a fascinating topic, and such people are surely missed. The current criticism most people rely on comes from websites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes who just aggregate large numbers of opinions. There aren't enough figures who can stand out from the crowd and articulate a view.

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