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Behind such shifts are the cultural relativists who have been a force in anthropology for over a century — they tend to follow something called “the Benedictine-Herskovitz formulation” which says that what is right or good for one individual or society is not right or good for another, even in similar situations. This means “not merely that what is thought right or good by one is not thought right or good by another, but that what is really right or good in one case is not so in another” (Frankena, 1973). Some would go still further, such as Alison Dundes Renteln in the US, who believes that “there can be no value judgments that are true, that is, objectively justifiable, independent of specific cultures”. This approach is a decisive attack on the old objective-subjective hypothesis as propounded by the Cambridge academic I.A. Richards — that (very roughly speaking) it can be conclusively demonstrated that a certain text is actually better than another. His theorem has turned out to be harder to prove, in the end, than Fermat’s last one. Such relativism is corrosive of critical standards. Perhaps we have not tried hard enough to prove it. Perhaps it might help if someone were to offer a million dollars. Maybe somebody very rich, cultured and liberal, in the true sense, like an American billionaire . . . ?

Otherwise, we must rely on talented individuals: writers such as the critic and scholar James Wood, born in 1965, now working in the US. Everything he writes is highly interesting and engaging, and if he were able to broaden his scope, and (preferably) return home, he might do much. Such writers need readers; and a group of brilliant and younger rivals. We can live in hope.

The battle between high culture — that of the real artists, their patrons, critics and audiences (which could be all of us) — and the anarchists and populists, is as vital as ever. This is what cries out for harder reading and thinking. There are other forces which are not on the side of the angels: increasing democratisation, the economic forces of globalisation, producing a rootless technocratic class and offering so many tempting routes to materialist excitements; there are the infinite tentacles of the internet. It is not so much the withdrawing roar of the waves down the naked shingles that depresses, as the ceaseless clamour of their electromagnetic counterparts, so difficult to avoid, so impossible to control, and (on balance, despite all the brilliant stuff) so massively, heedlessly Philistine.
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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.

Anonymous
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.

Anonymous
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 - http://www.aristos.org/barzun.htm

Anon
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.

anonymous
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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