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Cultural diversity can make you dumber

The new elites in the arts, culture and the media can now dish up anything they like to the public, says Mark Ryan, while congratulating themselves on giving diverse identities a voice

At a recent book launch I attended by a well-known Irish writer, somebody in the audience made a comment about cultural diversity which the writer took to be derogatory. He was shocked, he said, that anybody could use such a tone of voice when speaking of an idea which to him seemed almost sacred.

Cultural diversity has that religious aura about it. Nowadays you only have to say the words to elicit that nodding approval which is the reward of virtue. Scarcely a new government arts initiative is launched that is not justified as promoting cultural diversity. Every time a traditional institution comes under attack, the fatal blow will often be the accusation that this elitist body does not represent the extraordinary cultural diversity of the society in which we now live. Why, it is demanded, should the Royal Opera House get so much money when there are thousands of other groups struggling to make their voices heard? It is time, we are told, to stop pandering to the tastes of the elite minority and to start building bridges into the incredible plurality of identities that make up our diverse world today.

It seems a bit rich that at the very time when nearly the entire world consumes the same culture, when nearly all regional, national and popular cultures have disappeared save as theme parks for eco-tourists, we should be banging on so much about how diverse we are. The only way in which Britain today is more diverse than in the past is in varieties of skin colour. By any other measure there is remarkably little variation. As recently as the 1950s, people from the East End of London and those five miles away in Kensington were almost incomprehensible to each other. Even into the 1980s it could be said that some vestige of genuine popular culture existed in the likes of working men's clubs in Britain or their equivalents in other parts of Europe. What marked such customs, for what they were worth, was that they were genuinely popular - creations of the people. They existed for themselves and needed no external prop to keep going.

What distinguishes today's diverse cod cultures is that they are, almost without exception, creations from without - creations of state subsidy, or for the really lucky ones, the beneficiaries of patronage from a Hollywood or pop dignitary who takes it into his head to discover and promote some regional identity. If the new Scottish parliament wishes to start off on an honest footing it should erect a statue of Mel Gibson at the entrance to its new buildings in Edinburgh.

Cultural diversity has little to do with reality. It is a purely ideological category by which a fake world can be created, in order to justify adapting intellectual and artistic life to what is low and mundane instead of raising it to what is lofty and challenging. In the name of cultural diversity, the new elites in education, the arts and the media can dish up almost anything they like to the public, while reassuring us that at last all these diverse identities are being given a voice.

The effect of this phoney cultural democracy is to confuse and blur any sense of objective knowledge and artistic merit, and to drag down genuine intellectual achievement to the level of the mundane and the mediocre. A society which accords equal respect to everything is in trouble. The effects of this levelling out are most alarming in the natural sciences, where many proponents of 'science studies' contend that the beliefs of native tribes should be treated as an account of the natural world equally valid to that of the rational discipline of science itself. A discipline which is bound up with the very survival of the human race can now be put in jeopardy by this kind of intellectual nihilism.

Even in the world of arts and the media, where the scope for interpretation and taste is much greater, the obsession with representing diverse voices is just as destructive, even if its consequences for humanity are less immediately dire. The main effect is to devalue that which is bold, daring and innovative, and to elevate the everyday, in the name of relating to what are assumed to be the deeply rooted cultural tastes of the audience.

It is the work of art, the piece of music or even the television programme which should create the audience, not the other way around. Such a work will have a distinct presence and will be well able to stand on its own two feet. It does not need any special scaffolding to hold it up, or special interpreters to explain why it is there.

The authentic work of art is created by the artist out of his own deepest feelings and attention to his art. He does not begin by looking over his shoulder, wondering what his audience might think of what he is doing and adapting his work accordingly. Good art often challenges existing assumptions rather than simply accommodating to them. Even if people do not at first understand or appreciate the authentic work, and might even be hostile to it, they can be captivated by its sovereign presence. On the other hand, the work which is created on the basis of a principle external to itself, like satisfying what the artist assumes to be the cultural taste of an existing audience, will, no matter how prodigious the talent, be weak. This is not the fault of the audience. It is fault of the producer who lacks the moral independence to act on his own authority, and is looking for the audience to provide a crutch.

Even in something like television and other media, the concern with giving ready-made audiences what the producers believe they want is misguided. It is obviously the case that audience figures are the bread and butter of television and radio. But there is a crucial difference between a concern to win audience share for what you have to offer and a willingness to tailor your output to connect with the imagined preferences and prejudices of some culturally diverse audience.

For example, the BBC's Radio 3 is today neither more nor less constrained by audience figures than its old predecessor, the Third Programme, founded in 1946. Throughout its entire history, the Third Programme/Radio 3 has eyed its listening figures nervously and has often dropped items which it thought would be just too avant garde to attract listeners. Yet there is a gulf between the two which seems to grow by the day.

The original Third Programme was driven by the belief that what it had to broadcast were the finest jewels of civilisation, whether in the field of poetry, drama, philosophy or, above all, music. The gravity of its presenters might make them sound like Harry Enfield caricatures today, but at the time it did at least convey their deep reverence towards their material. The concern with audiences was whether enough of them would listen to the treasure the service had to offer so that it could go on broadcasting. Many of today's Radio 3 presenters, by contrast, leave you with the feeling that they find the highbrow character of their material pretentious and faintly embarrassing, which they can hardly offer without interlarding it with smart comments or light-heartedness in the manner of Classic FM. It is as if they want to say, 'You shouldn't take this too seriously. We don't'.

Without that unwavering belief in the superiority of the material, the genuine concern with keeping audiences turns into a nervous obsession with whether they really like what you do, which quickly turns to ingratiating flattery, which in turn can only end by insulting people's intelligence.

Elevating the native wisdom of phoney cultures, and investing audiences with a specialist artistic authority which they do not possess, could only happen because those who run the arts and education in Britain no longer believe in what they once held. They do not believe that a liberal education is any better than the pap that is dished up now in so many of Britain's universities; that knowledge is any better than ignorance or that Beethoven has any more claim to greatness than the didgeridoo artist.

For the new elites, the fake world of cultural diversity, where it seems that anybody can be a fascinating genius just by being themselves, is far more congenial than the real world of art and learning where people are challenged and have to become something better than what they are. The one demands rigour, application and testing, the other demands...nothing at all.

Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999



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