The modern definition of ‘culture’ is the ‘art, literature, music and other intellectual expressions of a particular society or time’ (“Culture,” Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English). There are two principal concepts in the study of communication and culture – the materialist and the idealist view of culture. The materialist approach concerns itself with the literary criticisms of Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, and the Frankfurt School where culture is constituted by class relations and social structure, whereas, the idealist approach concerns itself with literary criticisms of Matthew Arnold (Arnoldian), F.R. Leavis and Q.D. Leavis (Leavisite) where it discriminates between high culture and low culture. This essay seeks to examine how the concept of high culture is used and its alternative counterparts.
Idealism, by Oxford’s definition, is ‘the practice of forming, pursuing or believing in ideals’ (“Idealism,” Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English). The idealist approach in the anthropological study of culture lays its prominence on the ‘informing spirit’ which informs the interests and values of the people by the higher society, the educated minority through language, styles of art and kinds of intellectual work (Williams, 1981). This view was first developed by Arnold’s theory of high culture and later Leavis’ theory of mass society in the determining what integrates ‘culture’ hence discriminating between ‘the best and the worst of culture’ (Barker, 2009:41).
Arnold, as famously quoted, referred culture as ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ (Arnold, 1960:6) where moral perfection and social greatness can be achieved through ‘reading, observing and thinking’ (Barker, 2009). The idealist view believes that the educated minority arbitrates what ‘culture’ is as culture determines a model to evaluate and regulate civilisation. Therefore, only the best of a specific field actuated by the educated minority will be considered as culture. For example in the field of art, an artiste’s talent cannot be thought or acquired by all individual therefore a talented artiste automatically possesses dominion in the field they are expert in. Culture, in Arnold’s view, represents a ‘whole way of life’ which reflects the norms, the civilisation and the customs of its people.
In contrast to Arnold’s high culture theory is the mass society theory – the culture of the ‘uncultivated masses’ (Barker, 2009: 40). Arnold extricates this part of culture as the ‘bad’ culture because it fosters anarchy, which can only cured by the ‘good’ culture produced and evaluated by the ‘educated minority’.
F.R. Leavis and Q.D. Leavis further support Arnold’s concern on the anarchy of the ‘uncultivated’ masses and the importance of the ‘educated’ minority by arguing that capitalism is bad for society because it fosters the separation in society (Swingewood, 1977:6).
According to both Arnold and Leavis, the...