What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 25-26.

[Symposium Contents]

Hilton Kramer

It is with a feeling of immense foreboding that I regard the future of cultural life in the first decade of the new millennium, never mind what might be in store for our society further on in the coming century. All the portents point to an acceleration of the merry, mindless, technology-driven surrender to the complacent nihilism that has already overtaken so many of the institutions of cultural life—the universities, the museums, the book-publishing industry, the entertainment media, and the demoralized remains of liberal journalism. What looks to be a certainty in the next decade is that the telecommunications revolution will further imperil the already fragile sanctuaries of high culture—and thus the treasured intellectual traditions of the West that require a vigorous and creative high culture for their survival and renewal.

It is already a fact of life that the telecommunications revolution has had the effect of further immoralizing and infantilizing almost every aspect of popular culture, which is now massified on a greater scale than ever before. It is also a fact of life that our democratic society has lost the power to protect its citizens—and particularly its children—from the evil effects of this cultural imperative.

Consider, for example, the fate of the campaign to limit easy access—which means, of course, mass access—to pornography. In certain cities—New York most conspicuously—the effort to "clean up" districts formerly dominated by porn shops is regarded as a significant success. And in some respects it has been a success. In my own neighborhood in Manhattan—in what used to be called Hell’s Kitchen, a short walk from Times Square—the changes at street level have been dramatic. Yet the vilest forms of pornography are now more easily accessible on the Internet than they ever were on the streets. That, too, is a paradigm of the cultural future.

So is the fact that some of the milder forms of pornography—and some not so mild—have now become standard fare in mainstream television programs, movies, Broadway shows, museum exhibitions, and the many glossy magazines that cater to the fashion and "lifestyle" interests of young adult men and women. A similar decline in the standards of public decency has now become the norm in certain branches of the fashion advertising industry, especially those promoting the sale of underwear and jeans. Sexual freakishness is the norm, too, in, for example, the fashion pages of the New York Times Magazine, which deliberately compete with some of the seamier, so-called "transgressive" forms of visual art in the galleries and museums in an effort to appeal to young consumers. These, too, are portents of a cultural future that is likely to be further immoralized.

Against the growing power of this immoralizing imperative, our democratic institutions have so far proved to be powerless. Far from resisting it, our schools have largely surrendered to it, and so for the most part have the courts. Our political leaders talk about "family values" yet do nothing to support the moral integrity of marriage and the family. There are pockets of resistance, of course. I think the home-schooling movement may be the most significant, for what seems to be the driving force of this movement is not only the desire to secure a more sound education for children than can now be obtained in the public schools, but also a well-founded fear of the immoralizing influence that the culture of the public schoolroom may now be expected to exert on innocent minds. For the schoolroom, too, is now more decisively influenced by the popular culture than ever before. For these reasons, I would expect the home-schooling movement to continue to grow in the coming century, yet its very nature will prevent it from becoming anything more than a marginal phenomenon.

As for the fate of high culture, everything will depend on its ability to marshal a principled resistance to the influence of popular culture. With few exceptions, our universities can no longer be counted upon to contribute anything significant to that resistance. Our academic culture has become part of the problem. So, for the most part, have the liberal media. Everything now depends on those fragile sanctuaries of high culture that continue to exist at a distance from our mainstream institutions. Whether these embattled sanctuaries will play as great a role in cultural life in the next century as they did in some earlier periods of this century, no one can say with any certainty.

But we can take some solace, perhaps, in the fact that so-called "coterie" movements in high culture have contributed most of what we still value in the cultural life of this century. The odds against repeating that difficult success are now greater, to be sure, and we enter the next century with our ranks depleted. Yet the outcome in the cultural sphere of our civilization, as in the political sphere, will depend on the quality of its leadership, and no one can yet say what that will be.

Hilton Kramer is Editor of the New Criterion.