Notes & Comments: September 2001

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Notes & Comments: September 2001


"The New Criterion" at twenty

With this issue, The New Criterion begins its twentieth year of publication as a monthly review of culture and the arts. This is a significant accomplishment for any highbrow monthly; for one that has been as outspoken and heterodox as The New Criterion it is extraordinary.

The New Criterion was created partly to provide a home for vigorously written cultural criticism, partly to provide a voice of critical dissent. The two go together. At a time when culture and intellectual life are everywhere beholden to the imperatives of political correctness, even insisting on clear prose seems a daring provocation. (Thus one follower of the French decontructionist Jacques Derrida declared that "unproblematic prose" and "clarity" were "the conceptual tools of conservatism.") Similarly, simply telling the truth about a whole host of controversial subjects is regarded as an unacceptable challenge to the reigning pieties of established opinion. Try it and see.

T. S. Eliot once defined criticism as "the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste." Today, many people entrusted with the care of our cultural heritage would reject Eliot's definition as presumptuous at best. If meaning is radically indeterminate (as we are constantly told), can we really hope to elucidate works of art? And if aesthetic and moral standards are relative, who is to say what counts as good taste, let alone presume to correct its failures? It is no surprise that, by attempting to live up to Eliot's vision of criticism, The New Criterion early on found itself at odds with the spirit of the age.

How should we understand that spirit? Ours is indisputably an age of material abundance. We must be thankful for that. Yet almost everywhere one looks, standards of taste, intelligence, and moral discrimination trace a course of perilous decline. Education? Study after study shows that our public schools are a disaster. A shocking proportion of high school students are unable to read, write, or calculate effectively. They are furthermore impoverished by a breathtaking lack of general historical knowledge. By the fifth grade, students know all about the proper use of a condom, but many seniors cannot quite remember who George Washington or Winston Churchill was, nor can they name the century in which the Civil War was fought. Meanwhile, our colleges and universities--those precincts devoted to the humanities and social sciences, anyway --have become scenes of political grievance-mongering, polysyllabic posturing, and tenured irresponsibility.

It is the same with popular culture. Every season, movies, television, pop music, and other forms of mass entertainment get a little cruder, a little dumber, a little more mindless. The occasional bright spots only highlight the depressing morass that surrounds us. The arts? Wedded to a bankrupt conception of the avant-garde, many of our most conspicuous arts institutions seem to have given up on aesthetic excellence in order to pursue the inanities of "transgressive" gestures. Public manners and morals? Even to ask the question is to answer it. Add to all this the widespread ignorance of our own political traditions and institutions--even of the fundamental tenets of our constitutional democracy--and one arrives at a recipe for cultural catastrophe.

The New Criterion first came on the scene at an earlier stage in the history of this decline in standards and debasement of cultural life. From the outset, what we endeavored to bring to our readers was not a panacea for the cultural and social ills we catalogued. We were never under the illusion that criticism should be a substitute for public policy or political engagement. On the contrary, what we strove to provide was a publication in which responsible alternatives to prevailing orthodoxies could be seriously examined. We sought to provide a home for cultural criticism that was intelligent but not academic, vividly written but not trendy, passionate but not ideological--a mode of criticism, in other words, that had been forsaken as politically invidious by the principal organs of left-liberal thought. …

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