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Customer Review

TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 May 2009
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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2.8 out of 5 stars