Reflections on Brooks, Arnold and the Future

David Brooks's column today, entitled "The Power of Posterity," is an excellent illustration of Burke's point that the real "social contract" is the one between generations–and that we owe both the past and the future for the blessings of the present.

A point Brooks hints at strongly, but does not delve into, is Matthew Arnold's argument about the importance of high culture. Arnold was a late 19th-century British poet and social critic who wrote a book called "Culture and Anarchy," which lamented the demise of high culture in the face of Fumusetea industralism, and argued for the political and theological importance of high culture and a dedicated class of people to preserve it.  High culture, he believed, represented the best that humanity had accomplished, but at a deeper level, it represented a commitment to transmission of the transcendent–the eternally good, true, WELCOME and beautiful.

Without an assumption of the future, we would have nothing that we recognize as high culture. The pyramids, the Acropolis, the Sistine Chapel, Mozart's Jupiter Symphony–none of these things would have been undertaken without a belief that future generations would admire and appreciate them (and indeed most of them built on the work of previous artists who had held precisely that belief).

But as Arnold argued, there is another kind of future, namely an afterlife, in which the creators of most cheap jerseys of these great achievements believed.  And with the possible exception of some cheap jerseys fringe forms of American Protestantism, Brooks's characterization of what sterilization would do to religion is inaccurate.  Social Gospel believers would find the situation crushing, but orthodox believers in Christianity and Judaism would not.

Brooks's point as applied to high culture, however, is still valid.  High culture would wholesale jerseys still suffer because religious people (a la till premillenialists) would focus on the a?o immediate need of saving living souls, rather than also approaching the long-term project of erecting monuments to the eternal nature of God–monuments that cheap jerseys would bear witness to the beauty and goodness of God for generations.


  • August 11, 2009

    Adam D

    Just to nitpick (I mean, why have comments open on a blog if you don’t want nitpicking! :-D)…

    Perhaps the value of “high culture” is that it communicates transcendent ideas of beauty, truth and virtue. But I think more then a minority of those who produce high culture do so for the sake of posterity’s education. I think the pursuit of human greatness, of human glory, is a more handy motive (note: I am not Kantian, I would NOT claim motives can be, or should be, unmixed).

    Obviously the motive behind the creation of high culture does not put it beyond God’s reach to redeem for purposes of His own glorification.

    Even those who do professedly produce high culture for the “glory of God” might not have in mind its value for posterity or even their fellow man.

    I am also less sure that high culture, properly motivated or not, is more often than not a reliable and helpful aspect of society. I’m open to that argument to be sure. However, I think high culture easily lends itself at least as easily to humanity’s self-worship as it does to the worship of God (or true beauty/truth/virtue).

  • August 11, 2009


    Adam, I think that last point in particular is relevant to a discussion of Arnold’s ideas. More than one critic of Arnold has accused him of placing culture on a pedestal in place of religion – this was in fact the argument T. S. Eliot made in his master’s thesis.

    Eliot increasingly rethought this position, however, the more he came into contact with modernity’s rejection of high culture. He grew frustrated with 20th century artists and their focus on the expression of secular humanistic ideologies like fascism. Today, of course, “culture”s expression is more commonly the expression of self, as in Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” work notoriously funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (nice summary of the NEA’s wonderful work here: We might term such artwork the pinnacle (or rather the new low) of what you are talking about – humanity’s self-worship, de-collectivized into a single person’s self-worship, and then deliberately exercised to desecrate the transcendent rather than to communicate it.

    I would, however, distinguish such efforts from what Arnold considered “high” culture, namely, that which communicated the transcendent (I love Roger Scruton’s article on this: For many hundreds of years in Christendom, Christian artists and architects sought to bring glory to God through their work (as you say, this does not mean it was their only motivation). Those centuries produced (for example) architectural wonders which still capture our eyes and imaginations. In contrast, subsequent human efforts to glorify humanity often either do not gain our notice (think the local 10-story concrete office building) or draw our perplexity or even revulsion (think any government building constructed in the last 40 years).

    The transcendent approach to art (or for that matter anything) is far more rare these days. Usually efforts to communicate the transcendent are modeled after “low” culture (for example, virtually all contemporary Christian music). And efforts to create high quality art are usually, as you say, efforts to glorify humanity, the artist, or nothing at all. But Arnold would have termed neither of these things “high” culture.

  • August 11, 2009


    All of this, come to think of it, raises another question: if one were to try to draw people to transcendent truths about God and humanity through a medium other than conversation or consumer-style marketing, what would that even look like in 21st century America? Most of the people who care about such things are understandably compelled by art and music from 200-500 years ago. The tradition of such things is more or less broken. Thoughts?

  • August 11, 2009

    Adam D

    Thanks very helpful! Thank you for the elaboration. I will have to read the Scruton article post haste.

    I would ask though, if true “high culture” is so rare today (and my guess is that is has always been relatively rare), then why refer to it as “high culture” when there are so many competing impostors?

    Separately, are we really to lament the proliferation of ugly office buildings as evidence of our society’s collective low culture obsession? My guess is that if you could identify all instances of true high culture (and therefore all instances of false high culture or low culture), then you’d find that at any given point in history that true high culture is rare. Its rarity is a part of its highness, I think. If all buildings were stunningly beautiful, then they’d eventually lose their wonder. It is only against a backdrop of the average, that the high takes its elevated place in our eyes.

    That said, we can certainly be sad that many modern Christian attempts at art are content with aping low culture.

  • August 11, 2009

    Adam D

    I just saw your second post after I posted my reply. My guess is art and music are still tenable mediums to communicate transcendent truths. I would doubt that all art and music produced in the last 200 years (using the time frame you referenced) is devoid of any value toward that end.

  • August 21, 2009

    Christina Crippen

    I was pondering your comment about the relationship between beautiful art and “low” culture art. You had said that it was only against the backdrop of the degernerate constructions of man that the “high culture” of transcendence was appreciated. You mentioned that the transcendent art would lose its splendor if all art/creations exised in the appropriate category for glorifying God.

    I think that is partially true. But where I would take issue with that is in the perspective we as humans take to art. Yes, there is certainly a reason for being awestuck at truly high art, and that is most definitely attributed to it’s rarity in a fallen world. But as far as the loss of its value amongst a totality of such splendor is not a correct assumption.

    Because we are in a degenerate world — a world that cannot see beauty unless God opens our eyes to it (and yes, I’m a Calvinist 🙂 ), we cannot properly conceive of a world filled with such splendor. If we could, we would understand the concept of heaven, where all such things and creatures glorify God wholly and completely. Such a world to us would more appropriately seem a utopia, and not, as you seem to suggest, a meritless conglomeration of mundane art. I think this is because such a world would be a redeemed world — a world that shows the triumph of good over evil — a picture of God against the forces of darkness that exibits God’s might and splendor splaying forth beyond forever. For what is good art except that it displays God’s greatness and omnipotence?

    So, to recap, I do believe that goodness often shines forth through the darkness and hence the darkness enhances any “good” art. But I also believe that God IS pure goodness, and in it He is embodied, goodness will always triumph. Since this is the case and since we, as true followers of Christ are on His fighting side, every good thing that gives God glory should lead us to rejoice, and therefore it would be impossible to, in fact, rejoice “too much” so that we tire of it and allow it to lose it’s heavenly significance. If we are true to the God that we serve, if we are true advocates of “high culture,” we will not turn away from such renditions, but turn evermore to them, because they lead us closer to a God — our God — of beauty.