With reference to AT LEAST ONE OTHER course text, justify or contest F. R. Leavis’s argument that ‘in any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends’. F. R. Leavis’s ‘Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture’, was published in 1998 as part of Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. In the pamphlet, Leavis sets out his views on culture, namely art and literature, and it’s appreciation. To answer the question, it is important to define Leavis’s idea of what ‘culture’ means to him.
Leavis distinguishes ‘good’ culture from the bad, naming Shakespeare and Homer’s works as ‘high-brow’ culture, and Hollywood blockbuster films as bad. He uses a currency metaphor to describe the ‘discerning’ appreciation of art and literature, as if there were only a small amount of approval that could be bestowed on the cultural world. His main argument is that it is only a small number of people in any society that are capable of intelligently appreciating culture. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu supports Leavis’s argument to a point.
He also sees culture as something only the educated can understand, but also comments on the ‘pure gaze’ of the uneducated and innocent. Raymond Williams’s ‘Culture is Ordinary’, from Resources of Hope, shows a more open minded idea about culture, pointing out that the uneducated ‘masses’ have their own, equally valuable cultural world. Throughout Leavis’s pamphlet, I get the impression that he has unreservedly ignored the popular culture in England, and insists that only what he sees as being culturally ‘good’ is true culture.
True, the works of Shakespeare and Homer are fascinating, brilliant pieces of literature, but if the Sun newspaper sells more copies that the complete works of Shakespeare, doesn’t that make the Sun better, culturally, as it is more popular? If this is true, then Leavis’s argument is wrong, as a small minority would be able to appreciate certain types of art and literature, but a larger minority could still appreciate their own forms of culture. However, as an educated person I know that Hamlet is better than the latest J.K.
Rowling novel, because it explores the real world around us intelligently and beautifully, and that anyone not educated in the basic ideas behind Shakespeare’s works would find it nearly impossible to understand the concepts in the play. Leavis’s argument seems to hinge on the fact that only educated people really know what true culture is, and I will explore this in the essay. Whilst reading ‘Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture’, I was given an image of a ‘cultural class’ that Leavis seems to talk about.
This small group are the intelligent, educated people, those capable of using the cultural language of art and literature. But has this always been the case, and is this the case today? Certainly in Shakespeare’s time, there would have been a very small number of people who had access to the larger cultural world, as many were illiterate, and led lives that did not allow them to enjoy the fine arts. It would have fell then to the upper classes or the gentry to appreciate culture. Even today, certain areas of art and literature are closed to those who are not educated in it.
Take Homer’s Ulysses or Dante’s Inferno for example. Without a basic knowledge of the texts, learnt beforehand, it would be impossible to comment intelligently on them. Although the boundaries between classes in England today have become blurred and almost non-existent, I will use the term ‘working-class’ to describe those at the bottom of the social ladder, the street cleaners and shop assistants, the builders and miners. How much access do these people have to today’s cultural world, and if they have any, are they capable of engaging with it in a worthwhile manner?