ONE blogs – JOHN CALDER – Culture Change And Intellectual Decline

When the last world war ended in 1945, Europe was gutted, short of all the means of maintaining a normal existence, except that, pre-war, the lower classes had rarely shared normality as the middle-classes knew it. Suddenly there was an equality of diet, dull but not unhealthy, a shortage of clothing, houses and all luxuries, but a general sharing of what there was, and only the rich, taxed to the hill, really complained. Anything was better than war and that had ended. At the same time there was a flowering of high culture. Concerts were packed. So was opera and ballet, new literature was eagerly discussed, art exhibitions were full, and the BBC had started the Third Programme, which enabled everyone to hear on the radio good music, interesting and educational discussions and talks for a small license fee, and generally there was an interest in education, the higher levels of which had become available to all who could pass exams. High culture was general available and cheap enough to be affordable by everyone. Life of course was austere, but gradually over the years getting better until we entered the sixties when a new young generation took over and accepted full employment, easy working conditions, cheap access to culture as quite natural and as something that would go on forever.

What distinguished the fifteen years that followed the war and, for those now in their thirties, from what was to follow, was a deep and genuine seriousness, together with a thirst for knowledge, especially of many academic subjects, and of the arts. People wanted to catch up with what they did not know, and it was easy to do so because the media had not yet been swallowed up by commerce and mass consumerism, which started with the youth culture of the sixties and the greed of those who had found, through asset-stripping and other ways to get rich quick, a way to turn a welfare state into a super-capitalist one. That seriousness of the fifties and earlier was quickly turned into a craze for fashion. The Amadeus Quartet and new music from British and European composers who had come to general recognition were replaced by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It was possible to accept both, but that did not happen. General conversations about the plays of Beckett, the music of Schonberg and Britten, the creations of Henry Moore and Francis Bacon were eclipsed by Mary Quant, the new discos and what the press called “the sweet life” (after the film La Dolce Vita). The gallery at Covent Garden Opera, which thousands of young people filled when the price was 2/6 (12 ½ pence in today’s money), was now filled with much older people paying ridiculously high prices, which would not have been tolerated in other countries.

In short, the level of cultural interest among people who normally took an interest in the arts, once a highly visible section of the population, admittedly largely metropolitan, people who kept up to date with the present high culture as well as knowing much of the past, has declined to a small minority, increasingly elderly. What has replaced it is a culture of fashion, based on a worship of celebrity, including football heroes and people who, as J.N. Priestly put it, are well-known for being well-known.

This fascination with trivia owes much to the growth of artificial intelligence, the computer, the internet and various organs packaging bits of information, so that everyone gets a little of it, but seldom enough to understand a whole subject. But it is through its partnership with commerce that it has achieved its biggest threat to the evolutionary continuance of human intelligence. Literacy is falling back at an alarming rate, aided by television watching and all the other ways that electronic media have replaced books. These are used ever less in the classroom, ever less as a source of information, of news, entertainment or the passing on knowledge through translation. To the extent that they are still used in the class, books are often used to excerpt a section to be studied and added to excerpts from other books, so that what the student ends up with is an anthology that might help him or her to pass an exam, but only gives a modicum of the knowledge that is needed to understand the whole, whatever it is.

The human brain needs to be stretched to develop into a higher model. This is not happening. A contagious laziness has grown into everyday life, where seriousness is ever less valued, and a culture of commercial consumerism and acquisition of the things we need least has taken over. The present economic crisis, which may never end, and which can lead to a catastrophic future, is proof enough of the decline of serious thinking, with vested interests leading people ever deeper into disastrous investments, unhealthy life-styles and a state of mind that knows no logic, cannot think independently and intelligently, and is easily led and cheated by the unscrupulous. Crime is increasingly finding that its best opportunities come through the possibilities offered by the Internet, and to police it will, if possible at all, be extremely expensive. As people are less able to use their minds they become more gullible.

Not only is there a general lowering of intelligence overall – we would not be in the present economic mess we are in were it not so – but this applies doubly to the present group of members of parliament we have elected. There has never been such a philistine, uncultured parliament in the past. They know nothing of high culture and assume that no one else does either. They have taken away music, great literature, history, and the arts generally, from the syllabus because they probably never encountered them themselves. An uncultured governing body can only lead us to disaster; in fact they have already done so.

What is the future. Violent disorder and even revolution within three years is most likely. It will be met of course with violent counter-force, so the police and also the army will be used. Whether they will all be loyal is the question! The recent revolutions in North Africa show both possibilities. Either way a regime of punitive and unequal austerity seems in prospect. Fascism and some form of communism are the alternatives. But the mindset points to the first. So much has already happened this year, but the politicians and the financial City of London have hardly noticed if one can go by their statements. New parties and new voices are needed but where are they? And what message will we be hearing?

– John Calder 1/9/11