Engaging Greatness by S. M. Hutchens

Engaging Greatness

Recently we were informed by one of our editors that an Internet forum run by another magazine contained a literate and rousing criticism of Touchstone. The correspondent complained that we evince an “extreme disdain” for popular culture. He pointed to Paul Weyrich’s announcement that, after the US Congress’s failed attempt to convict President Clinton, Christians had lost the culture war, describing American culture as an “ever-widening sewer.” Our critic did not think the sewer any wider than it was in 1899, and suspected that “many of Touchstone’s editors would probably tend more toward embracing Mr. Weyrich’s definition of sewage than mine.”

He’s probably right. People who profess, as he does, their mission in life to be rounding up as many Christian clodhoppers as possible and packing them off for tours of popular culture’s gay Paree are not likely to be great friends of Touchstone. Nor is it surprising that he takes the opportunity to whack two Philistines with the same stone by mentioning us and the fundamentalists in the same scornful breath. We editors are in fact, he implies, fuddy-duddies, uninterested in and disdainful of popular culture, ready to assign it to Weyrich’s sewer. Well, it’s not quite that simple, but it is an interesting charge that has enough truth to call forth the following Touchstonian response:

Most expressions of any age’s popular culture find their way to the sewer, as it were, with scant help from the likes of us. This happens simply because popular cultures are always cultures of a particular day and place, and those who come after see no reason to preserve much from them. This tendency is magnified in the presence of the modernist mood, in which popular cultures consciously define themselves as evolved from, hence superior to, those that went before. Occasionally, certain parts are resurrected by subsequent cultures, sometimes successfully—as in Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach, or neoclassicism in modern architecture, or the return of the soda fountain—and sometimes unsuccessfully, as in the fashion industry’s attempt to reintroduce the garish and impractical clothing of the 1970s.

Beyond recognizing this, however, the senior editors of Touchstone are classicists, which implies an actively critical stance toward popular cultures. We do not automatically mark every aspect for rejection, but believe there is a Great Conversation in the ideas from which culture is expressed, based in contemplation of God’s design of and requirements for man. All expressions of popular culture at any time in history bear upon this main stream, but not all are equally pertinent or worthy of inclusion in the conversation, nor do all automatically qualify for serious consideration simply because they exist.

Ascertaining what actually expresses the transcendental virtues of goodness, truth, and beauty is, of course, a parlous business, and we will make mistakes, both on what will or should be considered worthy by subsequent cultures, and what is truly part of the Great Conversation in music, the graphic and plastic arts, philosophy, literature, and so forth. We think it part of our task to discern these things and offer our thoughts to our readers, but our engagement of modern culture is weighted by the intuition of a classical tradition in all things that touch the human soul. It is why we might think it worth our while to converse with Meng-Tze but not Snoop Doggy Dogg, with Pericles, or even Sappho, but not Andy Warhol or the purveyors of MTV.

The irritated correspondent is right if he senses conservatism here—although we would prefer to call it maturity, and distinguish it from fundamentalism, which understands the necessity of criticism and exclusion, but doesn’t know enough of the Conversation to criticize or exclude competently, and is frequently too quick on the draw. Classicism is conservative precisely in that it is not closed, but neither is it entirely open to expressions of popular culture. The reason is not only their sheer volume, but also their lack of refinement, for these have stood neither the tests of time, nor intergenerational criticism, nor much yet of the judgments of the wise—they just keep coming at us in an undigested mass. They cannot escape these tests, which will eventually be imposed. In the meanwhile they cannot be accepted or rejected as a whole, but most will be rejected—put into the sewer.

The writer, we suspect, does his own share of sewering, presumably under the cover of light, while his fellow travelers in popular culture are sleeping off their night’s work of telling us what’s authentic about gangsta rap, Andres Serrano, and the Democratic Party. (Yes, we tend to agree with Weyrich.)

Our attitude is also conservative in that our view of history supports the notion that there are times and places in which, for reasons unknown to us, genius and beauty flower, and others in which the same may be said for ugliness and depravity. We doubt whether we are in one of the golden ages of art or music, but rather one in which, generally speaking, the genius and beauty of former ages is being quite consciously and unapologetically returned to chaos—that is, deconstructed. If this is a work of God, it is a work of judgment in which our culture is being given over to what sinful men prefer rather than to what is good—that is, following our mandate to interpret the beauty of God.

The response we anticipate is that this argument is made by every culture’s conservatives. They are the ones who thought El Greco, Beethoven, and Stravinsky were crazed modernists, and who burned Revised Standard Bibles in their pulpits. I would answer that their principles were right, although the ongoing and self-critical history of the Great Conversation has cast doubt upon their judgments. I would also observe that we don’t hear much about the “liberal” error of regarding the blighted or ephemeral as enduring monuments to the human spirit. The possibility of such mistakes is why we must be so careful in making such judgments, and why they are always risky. But that does not excuse us from making them, at least preliminarily, on the popular culture into which we have been thrown. Keeping our heads above these waters by trying to discern a classical canon is one of the chief things intelligence is for, and we are obliged to use it as best we can.

S. M. Hutchens, for the editors

S. M. Hutchens is a Touchstone senior editor.

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