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When she wrote in the early 1960s, she saw little risk of cultural philistinism in the United States. She saw it as largely a European phenomenon. She traced its origin to the growth of a well-to-do commercial class in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Though this class possessed means, its members nonetheless lacked social standing. They turned to art, mostly collecting, in order to gain cultural polish in the eyes of others. These people, she makes clear, had no real interest in the art itself, its timeless beauty, its ability to bond one to another in the culture, and certainly not to glimpse immortality on earth. Rather, they put art to their purely practical ends, in this case to gain social standing. Their motives remain purely utilitarian, and since the very definition of philistinism is an inability to appreciate anything except the utilitarian, she saw a crass philistinism in these people. Beyond silly, she saw it as a dangerous distraction from the feelings art can create and so a force that undermines its immortal nature.

Arendt saw America’s different social relations as protection from this. They, she argued, free the new classes of means of any need for such pretences. American artists, without this impediment, are, she claimed, better able to reach the essence of great art. She saw this especially in the literary sphere and referenced Melville and Whitman. Her take may have been true of the 19th century and perhaps even the first half of the 20th century. Since then, however, the practice of cultural philistinism, as she described it, has acquired a considerable following in this country, so much so that by the 1970s it acquired its own American label, “culture vultures”. They flock to cultural events, museums and other venues less for the art than to burnish their image. I met many suspects on my tour. The European danger that Arendt identified has metastasised here.

The entertainment confusion is certainly as prevalent in America as in Europe, perhaps more so. Of course, the desire for entertainment has always existed. It differs from the draw of great art and has long lived in society parallel to it. To that extent, it remains harmless to art. Arendt saw danger, however, when entertainment, in its relentless and ever-expanding search for material, begins to co-opt great art. She saw the danger growing in the tendency of what she called “mass society”, and what moderns might call “mass culture”, to make entertainment out of everything. The resulting commodification distracts even people who should know better from the meaningful feelings brought by art and so moves all away from that larger sense of what she, Kant and Scruton wrote. If such a loss is not guaranteed, the imposition of entertainment certainly increases the risk that it will occur.

This reasoning then charges museums, libraries and serious musical venues to avoid two temptations in their quest for an audience. One is to expunge as much as possible that which caters to the culture vultures. The other is to avoid using art for entertainment instead of for its own sake. Should they fail on the first effort, they may generate a cash flow for what they consider better purposes but only at the risk of corrupting those purposes. Should they fail at the second and allow entertainment to abuse the art, they are less likely to “plant a seed”, as some museum people told me, than block any lasting relationship with the art. I am well aware that these warnings would foreclose primary ways in which many supposed cultural venues support themselves, but there must be other, less risky ways to do this.
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