The discerning appreciation of art and literature depends



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Is an acquired talent’, not something everybody has. Pierre Bourdieu agrees with Leavis’s argument, but goes further to say that it is not only education that gives a person access to, and allows them to appreciate culture, but also their upbringing, their ‘social origin’. People who have had early access to the cultural world are able to easily appreciate it. If I had been brought up in a family that didn’t go to see orchestras or plays, I would find it very difficult to understand or enjoy them today. In a way I have been ‘culturally conditioned’ by my parents.

It is through them that I learnt the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and also what is respectable culturally. Strangely, although I rarely listen to Beethoven or Mozart, I respect it as being better than the popular hits aired weekly on Radio One or shown on Top of the Pops. I don’t think I have merely accepted what my parents told me was good, but learnt and realised for myself that there is something deeper and more profound in art and literature that Bourdieu would describe as being ‘culturally legitimate’.

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Williams is quite dismissive of Leavis’s argument, but admits that certain members of society are excluded from a part of the cultural world. He recalls the teashop boys at Oxford, the ‘culture vultures’, those who thought that their education and cultivation allowed them to distinguish the good culture from the bad. He describes himself as one of the ‘deserving poor’. Coming from a working class background, he was intelligent enough to be allowed into the cultural world. And so it can be said that Leavis’s argument that it is a small minority that is able to appreciate culture has some standing.

That minority are the intelligent and educated class. However, do the unintelligent and uneducated masses have no access to culture at all? Although they may not have read Paradise Lost or To the Lighthouse they may have read the latest Jackie Collins novel, or the Sun. Instead of listening to Mozart, they have Britney Spears. The flooding of the cultural world with so much of what he would call bad culture angers Leavis. ‘The prospects of culture, then are very dark’, he says. I would disagree. The fact that so many people now have access to some kind of culture is good.

The cultural world has opened itself to the masses for their appreciation, and at least allows them to decide for themselves what is good and what is bad. I don’t think that Britney Spears is any less culturally worthy than Mozart. Although I can see that Mozart’s music is better, simply the fact that Spears is hugely successful tells us something about the world we live in today. Art and literature have always grown out of the social world to create our culture, and Spears’ music is obviously a sign of the times we live in.

Leavis moans that with so much of this trashy popular culture, it makes it difficult for the culturally aware to find legitimate culture. I think that now that we live in a country where everybody has access to such a large amount of culture, an intelligent person must take it upon himself to trawl through the sea of information and find what he thinks is culturally sound, and not be told by people like Leavis and the tea shop boys what they think is. Leavis also fears the Americanisation of British culture, and quotes Lord Melchett, who rather xenophobically states the ‘future of the Anglo-Saxon race’ is at stake.

Surely the fact that American culture has become so popular in Britain shows that it is stronger. Why should we grasp on to English culture when American culture is more popular with the masses? The dumbing down that Leavis writes of merely opens the cultural world further to the less educated. You needn’t be one of the ‘deserving poor’ to have access to culture. Leavis states that it is only a small minority of people that can appreciate culture, but seems to be against allowing anybody else to enjoy or even have access to it! Raymond Williams raises some interesting points in ‘Culture is Ordinary’.

He says that rather than the working classes being excluded from English culture, they are English culture. They have their own institutions and culture that has grown out of a working class way of life. In fact, their cultural world often excludes the educated middle and upper classes. Football matches, trashy novels and popular art forms their culture, which I feel is equally worthy of appreciation than Leavis’s culture. Bourdieu, although agreeing with Leavis’s argument, does write about the ‘pure gaze’ of the uneducated. I think that this way of appreciating art and literature is a worthwhile one.

Looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music without any preconceptions allows that person work out what it truly means to them, rather than what it means to the world in general. Even without education or intelligence, it is possible to appreciate art and literature for what it is, rather than what it means. In summary then, Leavis’s argument that ‘in any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends’ has some truth to it, in so far as only the educated and intelligent are able to understand and appreciate some parts of the cultural world.

These areas do include certain types of literature and art that require some previous learning. However, I think that Leavis’s idea of what is culturally sound and worthwhile is wrong. Just because he is educated does not give him the power to decide what makes a good book. Art and literature should always be open to interpretation from any level, educated or uneducated. Also, Leavis fails to make note of the fact that there are different cultural worlds, and that they all have as much right to be appreciated as each other.

To answer the question more directly, the small minority of people that are educated in the arts and literature are able to appreciate them to a greater extent than the uneducated, but someone who has not grown up in a working class background would find it difficult to understand certain aspects of that cultural world, a football match for example. Culture is a wonderful gift, and one that changes and shifts as the world around us changes. It is open to everybody, and can be appreciated, on different levels, by everybody, no matter where they come from or how intelligent they are.

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