Matthew Arnold’s error: the state is bad for culture

In order to judge 'the best which has been thought and said in the world', individuals must be free to discriminate.

Angus Kennedy

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In his new book, Being Cultured: In Defence of Discrimination, Angus Kennedy explores the cult of relativism that has laid siege to the arts. In an era in which inclusivity and non-judgementalism pervade discussion about culture, Kennedy argues it is only through the exercise of discrimination and judgement that the arts have any hope of survival. Below is an edited extract from his book:

‘To walk staunchly by the best light one has.’
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy

‘Barbarism is strength without sensitivity; decadence is sensitivity without strength.’
John Armstrong, In Search of Civilization

Culture and Autonomy

Culture and freedom go together. The arts need time and freedom to be made and to be appreciated. One needs leisure to cultivate oneself with books, music, the theatre, film and friends. High culture wilts in totalitarian societies and has blossomed at those moments in history when freedom was most valued. Great works of art reflect the freedom and personality of individual human beings. One of the things we value most in the Western tradition is originality: when artists are bold enough to break ground with tradition, outrage social sensibilities and offer fresh perspectives on our world. Sometimes this culture of freedom pits individuals against society and sometimes society feels there is only so much freedom it can take. Art-for-art’s-sake arguments defend artistic freedom while more utilitarian arguments defend the arts in terms of their social value, even, as so often today, their value in terms of contributing to something as everyday and basely material as the economy.

Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy remains a key reference point in discussions about the value of culture to the individual and to society. Arnold is either attacked as a Victorian elitist, wishing to educate the working classes, keep them well behaved and to stop society sliding into anarchy, or he is held up as the standard-bearer for a lost ideal of culture as ‘the best which has been thought and said’: a much-needed defender of high culture at a time when pretty much the only standard we have is a refusal to judge or to discriminate. Both positions are largely correct but both miss something very important about Arnold: his fear of individual freedom and his faith in the state. He thought that anarchy results from too much freedom, from the freedom for individuals to do whatever they want. Raymond Williams notes this in Culture and Society, quoting Arnold: ‘Freedom… is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere.’ (1) This is freedom not held up as an end in itself, but rather as directed freedom. The direction for Arnold was, of course, towards culture as ‘being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world’ (2).

Education of the working classes was traditionally the way to stave off individual license and social anarchy. A tension is apparent between an ideal of freedom to study and pursue culture for one’s own benefit, and the use of culture to temper the freedom of individuals, to shape them into social norms, an orderly mass.

Arnold shows us another tension as well. On the one hand, there is his faith in reason and his passionate desire for social and institutional reform, which led him to value our knowledge of culture as ‘turning a stream of fresh and free thoughts upon our stock notions and habits’. Culture for him was something open to change and its values were relative. While some of it might be ‘the best’, he had to admit that it might lose its position over time – such is the price of allowing free thought and criticism. On the other hand, Arnold knew there was no actual class in society so reasonable nor so interested in culture as to see it in its own interest to realise Arnold’s ideas. The aristocracy (‘Barbarians’) wanted to keep things the way they were. The middle classes (‘Philistines’) wanted to be wealthy. The working classes (‘the Populace’) wanted to be Philistines or to rob, steal and destroy. How could there be any hope for culture?

In two places, he thought. Firstly, in a ‘remnant’ of individuals from each of the three main classes: people who were not determined by their class situation – through whatever accident – and loved culture for its own sake. Secondly, and more reliably – although with a certain fear of the consequences for individual liberty and an awareness of the dangers of Jacobinism – he found it in the state. Only in the state was there, as Williams argues, an ‘agent of general perfection’, with the power and authority to use culture to organise society (3). In the end, Arnold, a classic liberal, was forced, despite his faith in individual reason and free thinking, to come down on the side of society – against the individual – and the use of the state as an engine of culture to shape and direct the people into an organised and harmonious whole. If freedom had to be sacrificed so the ‘sweetness and light’ of culture could lift as many from darkness as possible, so be it. Since Arnold’s time, the role of the state and of politics in culture, in education, and in museums – as in every walk of life – has steadily increased.

Culture in a state

Arnold felt he had little choice. Culture in his time – Western high culture – had lost the unquestioned authority it enjoyed before the nineteenth century. Enlightenment radicals like Diderot and d’Holbach, in their complete repudiation of monarchy and aristocracy, embraced ‘[a] conscious and systematic effort to erase completely the institutions and consciousness of the past and replace these across the board with the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity’. (4)

Nor were the values of industrial revolution and empire those of aristocratic connoisseurship: Lord Palmerston was no Robert Walpole. Arnold was doing his best to save culture from irrelevance and destruction, and he could only do so, he thought, by putting it at the service of society. He was perceptive to see that there must be limits. Freedom without any limits – at least the limit of self-discipline – is indeed anarchy, and culture without standards is undistinguished and meaningless. But tell people where to ride their horses to and they are not free. Use culture as a tool and it is no longer an idea we can ride towards – no longer an end but a means. The key point is that directed freedom is not freedom unless it is self-directed. Culture employed to make us better expresses a degree of paternalism that runs counter to the idea that we might make ourselves better through its study and pursuit. The only other way Arnold might have argued would be to say that those ‘remnants’ of each class – the unusual ones – actually form a model for leaving culture up to individuals. That is the only reliable way for people to become more cultured: if they study and pursue it freely rather than because the state makes them. He could have welcomed the emergence of the masses into society as something that would revitalise culture, but they terrified him and he lacked faith that they would or could come to culture on their own. His lack of faith in the pulling power of culture – and his decision to use it instrumentally to combat anarchy – was a fatal misstep since it was an admission that culture was not enough on its own, not enough in itself and for itself as Hegel would say, and lacking sufficient spirit to express itself. Culture was fatally wounded through the success of Arnold’s idea that it should be used as a tool in the interests of society.

Unable to see the masses as anything but a dark mass, neither was Arnold able to see the trees for the wood: that is, to see the populace as made up of individuals, and free ones at that. The free individual is the basis of culture in two senses: firstly, as a producer of culture; secondly, as its suitor. Arnold failed, understandably no doubt, to write the book he could have done: Culture and Autonomy. That would have resolved his problem since the autonomous individual, while free, submits himself to his own laws. Won’t we all go in different directions? No, because when we act to improve ourselves, strive toward our best selves, we do act in our own interest. But that interest, while it is of course a self-interest, is equally a shareable interest. The point about self-interest is that it is precisely not other-interest: that is, if I act in what I determine, for myself, to be my interest, then it is not something determined for me by the powers that may be. That is, I act in freedom. As do you. On the basis of the shared freedom of self-determination rests the possibility of consensus and agreement. Culture is one way of bettering oneself. It is also, and importantly so, something that helps us recognise our own human freedom and acts as a reminder that some things are better than others.

It is of course true that relatively few people are committed to the study and pursuit of high culture. Some, equally, might like fine art but not classical music, nor opera, nor ballet. Some do not like the arts at all, but are passionate about sport. In some ways it is remarkable that people actually retain as much love for the high points of the Western tradition as they do given the almost complete loss of cultural authority it has suffered over the last hundred or more years. Those whom one might think would be its staunchest defenders seem to find it rather embarrassing at best. BBC arts editor Will Gompertz recently declined to express any opinion on what art he thought was good and what was bad. Yet it is precisely strongly-argued value judgements – and authoritative guides – that can make the arts so attractive (5). The trend, however, has long been in the other direction: towards science and the state, not the arts and the individual. For democratisation and anything-goes relativism, not elitism and judgement, nor good taste. There has been an explosion in identity politics, attacks on the ‘orientalism’ of Western thinking, on the dead white men and supposed phallocentricity of the Western canon. The ‘counter-culture’ has sought to shatter and overturn the allegedly rigid and exclusive hierarchies of culture.

So thoroughgoing has been this trend that it is increasingly rare to talk of art for art’s sake, let alone of truth and beauty, and certainly not Truth, or Beauty. And it may even seem odd to talk today of culture at all, rather than cultures. Even when high culture does not come with a sneer, there is a tendency to elide or deny any distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ or ‘popular’ culture. The ultimate no-no today is to talk about being cultured or to say that someone has better taste or is more discriminating. Statements like that of philosopher Roger Scruton to the effect that all ‘civilisations have a culture, but not all cultures achieve equal heights’ should be matter-of-fact but are taken as unforgivably elitist, if not racist. Culture today is no more than just whatever we happen to like, and we refuse to be told that what we happen to like is not always the best we could.

The irony of the state of culture today is that society fears the individual expression of judgement every bit as much as Arnold did in the nineteenth century, and is just as determined to inflict its own vision of culture on the ‘masses’, and to defend such instrumentalism – through an entirely circular argument – as what the masses want. Art, we are told, must relate to people’s experience, and people like what they know. Even the burgeoning heritage industry in the UK strives for such contemporary ‘relevance’. In 2013, the National Trust took over responsibility for television’s Big Brother house, arguing: ‘[T]he fact that the garden is not the parterre at Cliveden but is more like the AstroTurfed gardening section of a DIY store actually makes it more relevant, or at least more comprehensible, to modern society. The great houses of our past reflected the tastes of the day, and so does the Big Brother house.’ (6)

The defenders of the arts have again adopted instrumentality as a cover for their own loss of faith in the power of culture. Lacking the courage to stand up for their own tastes, they presume to act in what they imagine to be to your taste. Threatened with irrelevance and government cutbacks, they have made the case for how very useful the arts are: in providing jobs for ‘creatives’; turning young people away from crime; and making us all happier and better citizens. Arnold would recognise the arguments if not the value of much of contemporary culture. In such circumstances, a defence of individual discrimination is more vital than maybe ever before: as a statement of our common freedom as individuals; of our being in a shared world and our shared ability to choose that world. If we do not mount such a defence, our cultural tradition will continue to lose significance since, while the state can do many things, one thing it cannot do is give meaning to anything. Meaning is not generated in committee rooms. Only individuals and private associations of individuals have that power because only they have the freedom to judge and to argue.

Angus Kennedy is convenor of The Academy. His book, Being Cultured: In Defence of Discrimination, is published by Imprint Academic. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

(1) Williams (1961), p. 127.

(2) Arnold (2006), p. 5.

(3) Williams (1961), p. 128.

(4) Israel (2010), p. 224.

(5) Tiffany Jenkins, ‘The good, the bad and the non-judgemental’, Scotsman,
26 October 2012.

(6) ‘Big Brother House to open as “National Trust”’,

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