The High Culture Wars

Scott McLemee George Scialabba reviews Against the Grain, a collection of forty-five essays from The New Criterion:

In its crusade against the politicization of contemporary culture, The New Criterion is -- on the whole, in the main, and not to put too fine a point on it -- right. Notwithstanding the importance of legal and social equality for women, homosexuals, and members of racial minorities, most of the cultural strategies employed in the service of these ends have been -- again, on the whole; and with many exceptions, not always duly acknowledged by conservative critics -- misguided and counterproductive.

Multiculturalist pedagogy; the promotion of “cultural diversity” through arts administration, philanthropy, and public policy; academic departments of Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies; the project of “critical theory”; and in general, the greatly increased weight -- in teaching and research, hiring and funding, programming and grant-making -- given to explicitly political considerations: altogether these things have done more harm than good. They have undoubtedly made possible some valuable work and attracted some people to culture who would otherwise have been lost to it. But they have also generated a really staggering amount of mediocre and tendentious work. And not only do these ideological priorities make for less accomplished artists and scholars; they also make for less effective citizens. Attempting to turn one’s professional enthusiasms and expertise to political account can distract from -- can even serve to rationalize the avoidance of -- everyday democratic activity, with all its tedium and frustration.