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on 30 June 2011
I initially bought this book in the belief that, as with other books recommended with this, it would tackle the issues as dealt by Peter Hitchens, Theodore Dalrymple and the like. My impression was that it would disparage the vulgarity of the culture of this age and, in good style, target those who are to blame for it. A good moan and a set of good ideas: that was all I was expecting, and it would have been a fascinating read. However, I got something very different. That it turned out very differently was, for me, a discovery of a much under-appreciated work.

'Modern Culture' was, in fact, an intelligent, philosophical book that not only explored the grime and shadows of culture in the 21st-century, but also highlighted the necessity of beauty, the aesthetics and, of course, high culture. More importantly, it offered a delicate and thoughtful argument about the legacy of the Enlightenment. It is not my place here to give anything away, but it is worth noting the significance of the ambiguous legacy of the Enlightenment has for Scruton's case concerning culture. As a traditionalist conservative, Scruton argued from angles I had not thought of before, which, though I cannot say I agreed absolutely, has made me think quite differently.

Another crucial aspect to 'Modern Culture' was the proposition and belief that religion forms a vital part of human societies and cultures, especially our own. His argument acts as a great reminder to conservatives or indeed to popular commentators about the spiritual aspect to all that goes on. In such an age that we live in now, Scruton's argument is a very important one, a reminder of how significant God and religion has been to us, though we do not notice it ourselves.

The book's blurb is, thus, quite misleading. But I think it is a marvellous decoy to a philosophical and sophisticated book which deserves to be read by all, whether conservative or not.
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In many respects I should give this book five stars. As ever with Scruton, he makes difficult ideas easily accessible, with a style that is both clear and engaging, and at times almost poetic. He manages to pack a great deal of wisdom and erudition into what is really quite a brief text. If you are looking for a place to get rapidly oriented in cultural history, and in the bitter controversies that have divided academia, more or less back to the days of Nietzsche, then I can't imagine a better or more informative start.

However, the book is not just a neutral description of the territory. It is an impassioned plea from one side of the great divide. Scruton is one of the most articulate proponents of the high culture camp writing at this time. So, I am in broad agreement with his main argument; that high Art has evolved to somewhat fill the vacuum in society left by the demise of Religion. That it is under threat from accommodations made with popular culture by modern powers, and from academic movements that have taken cultural democratisation several steps too far. Such movements as Deconstructionism centered around the questionable ideas of thinkers such as Derrida, who decry high culture as a tool of repression of the power elite. I also agree that Art matters, and that quality and excellence in the Arts matter to quality and excellence in society at large. On these things I am full agreement. In particular I am fully behind his critique of the vacuity and essential inarticulateness of large swathes of popular culture.

Where I am not in agreement with Scruton is that high Art is a bastion of conservative values that were once underwritten by the Church, and that this was representative of a kind of community in which everyone belonged and could find their place. I think that this kind of community was only ever an ideal that approached realisation only for a very few. It was a good and highly attractive ideal, but there were large parts of society for whom such ideals remained pure mythology. I also disagree with Scruton on his attitude to love, sex and family, which again he sees as, in the good old days before mass contraception, providing a thread of belonging and transmission of moral values. Again, family might have fulfilled that idealised role for a small section of society, but for the most part people just muddled along with whatever hand they were dealt. He seems to neglect that fact that the community of yore could be very cruel, and could ruthlessly marginalise various categories of people. Not just those caught up in poverty, but children, for whom there were no systems of protection from abuse, women, unmarried mothers, spinsters burnt as witches, the mad and so on. Scruton also fails to bring to light the thread of subversiveness that runs through the canon of high art, often playing the catalyst to many of the social changes that he finds most regretable, and that it only becomes a repository of conservative values from a rather tame retrospect.

I could go on into my own rant of where I think Scruton has got it wrong, but that would be to depart from the function of a review. The point is that reading this book has helped sharpen and clarify my own ideas on these vexatious issues. I think I've given enough of an outline for prospective readers to determine whether they're going to enjoy or abhor it.
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on 23 April 2006
The author starts by giving a definition of the concept of culture and states his intention to pursue an "archaeological" method in studying his subject. He then discusses the difference between cult and culture in which he sees religion as the guarantee of social knowledge and asserts that there can be no scientific culture because culture addresses the question of what we feel. Mr Scruton then proceeds by defining the Romantic movement in art and literature and linking it to the decline of Christian faith and the Enlightenment, the aesthetic thus replacing the religious. And so art and literature ceased to be recreation and became studies. Since the aesthetic is the realm of value, the question of taste arises. He underlines the importance of fiction in high culture because it is the product of the imagination. Art being the product of the human spirit, it is higher than nature and apart from it.

Mr Scruton then concentrates on Romanticism which had nature, erotic love and the world before Enlightenment as its dominant themes. Works of art also pose the question of the importance of fantasy and imagination. Modernism is also discussed with the example of Baudelaire, then avant-garde and the concept of kitsch in which advertising is important because it creates a fantasy in which value can be purchased so that price and value are one and the same.

The author then discusses the issue that the relationship between a painting or a novel and its subject is an intentional one, not a material one as opposed to photography.

A further topic is modern music in which it is not the music that is the focus of attention but the singer himself. In the music of youth, the music is at the service of the performer and not the other way round.

Finally the author concludes that culture is rooted in religion and that the role of modern high culture is to perpetrate the common culture not as a religion but as art.

An interesting study of modern values and of the importance of aesthetic principles which shows that "culture" does not merely denote every kind of collective habit.
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on 28 May 2002
This book tells it like it is, although perhaps a bit too nostalgic in parts. It is however a fair and accurate analysis of the society we live in. It probes deep into the problems of modern society, and addresses fundamental issues that are often overlooked by both the media and policy makers.
I found the section on youth culture particularly interesting since it offers a partial explaination as to why the youth of today lack direction and act as they do.
However, I do feel that the book will not appeal to the masses, which is a shame really.
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on 12 April 1999
This book is a wonderful clarion call to common sense that, all of a sudden, helps trends and modern nonsense fall into perspective! I cannot recommend it too highly. It is written in a style that is easily accessible to all and manages to put the finger on what is really happening in our culture at the moment.
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on 11 June 2015
Some good points but some sad references to youth. Perhaps dated to be kind
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