High culture, elitism and cultural decline

In the Comment pages of today’s Age under a banner advertising the paper’s ‘Quality commentary’, is a piece by Christopher Bantick, aptly (self-)described as ‘a senior literature teacher at a Melbourne boys’ Anglican grammar school. Unfortunately for Bantick, his opinion (also available at The Age online) only serves to prove aspects of his title, as he sits comfortably purporting the stereotypes of both ‘senior’ and a conservative gentleman teaching at an established, elite ‘grammar school’.

Cleverly, the subeditor – referencing of one Bantick’s remarks – had titled the piece ‘Another brick in the wall of Gen Y cultural decline’. Of course, I was immediately intrigued, but failed to note the commentary’s author before jumping in. What followed was fundamentally an utterly abhorrent dismissal of the entire 20th and 21st centuries, under the principle that Australia’s ‘jingoistic egalitarianism has gone too far’, and we are now all too ‘ignoran[t]’ to appreciate anything the writer deems a worthy contributor to ‘high culture’.

In a few hundred words, Bantick rejects world-renowned screenwriter, director and producer, Ang Lee, Leonard Cohen, the Rolling Stones, Australian writer, Melina Marchetta, and British street artist, Banksy. He claims ‘Young people have lost the capacity to actually know when something is art, and worthy’ and that the only people attending ‘an opera, a concert of searching classical music or an art show that is not a blockbuster’ are those with ‘Grey hairs’. Bantick professes to fear a future where ‘the elders of keepers of the cultural treasures’ will be extinct, leaving only a generation too hung up on ‘selfies’, ‘fanzines and blogs of banality’.

Apparently, according to Bantick, today’s celebrity culture is all-encompasing and so widely ‘pervasive’ that is it altering the way our brains are processing information. Well! If this ‘moronic introspection’ has such overriding power, would he too, not be under its spell?

Bantick discredits any potential value so-called ‘popular culture’ may offer a young person – or any person’s – life, and outright eliminates any factors of contemporary culture that may enrich us humble beings. Furthermore, he states Generation Y are all too ‘vain’ and thus blind, to the beauty of Mahler, Jane Eyre and John Keats, masters of what Bantick qualifies as ‘High culture: fine art, opera, serious drama and music that requires patience and understanding’.

What a load of absolute horse shit.

First and foremost, I am unsure of what elite qualification Bantick holds that he believes has granted him the right to oversimplify and almost objectify my generation. In fact, he has stirred up some controversy in recent times in similar vein, applying vast generalisations to today’s youth and ascribing us with what he appropriates as ‘amoral’ values and obsessions.

Secondly, he writes it is ‘beyond subjective taste’ that teaching Looking for Alibrandi rather than Jane Eyre is just another example of schools ‘pandering to the lowest common denominator’. Yes, it can be hard to obtain objectivity in today’s complicated world, but surely this man’s opinion is no more objective than yours or mine.

Furthermore, I am personally offended Bantick has so little appreciation of and respect for my peers and our mores, so much so that he has predicted the ‘atrophy’ of art, music, theatre and literature predating the 1900s.

Bantick is also a little off on his knowledge of the state of Australian philanthropy. Only a matter of months ago I researched and published a piece at artsHub specifically on the pertinent topic of Millennial philanthropists with a focus on the arts. Unfortuately, the article is locked to artsHub subscribers but I can assure you Philanthropy Australia’s New Gen project is working to ensure the future of all of our arts ‘treasures’ is preserved and sustained for a long time to come.

I may also suggest Bantick lends an eye to the perspective of British teacher, Andrew Jones, who is in favour of engaging students in their learning of religion, of all subjects, through ‘pop culture’.

Also pertinent are the views of this commenter, ‘drjones’ (amongst others):

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I’m left to ponder the following:

  • Do high art and contemporary art have to be mutually exclusive?
  • What is the role of time and reflection in determining high culture?
  • Does generalising the interests of an entire generation actually do them a disservice?
  • And, isn’t beauty in the eye (and ear) of the beholder?

Let me know your thoughts.

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10 comments
  1. Jacqueline Cleverley said:

    Read what he wrote in August about Peter Carey. It’s online. He just comes up with any argument when required. He once wrote about Homework robbing children of their childhood. He would know. He was called Mr Homework in our house as he set more than all the other subject teachers put together. He’s a paid writer and will conjure up any view to fill the paper at a slack time of year.

    • Precisely the way to turn students off literature of any description, no doubt!

  2. Hannah said:

    I felt very similarly after reading the Bantick article and responded in my own way as well. Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this piece and you raise some great questions at the end of it. I very firmly believe that popular culture is culture too, and have employed this line at many times in my life. I doubt very much that “high art”, “contemporary art” and popular culture need to be mutually exclusive, I think that when people insist on their separation they are probably just overlooking how nuanced and varied most human experience is.

    • estherlf said:

      Totally agree, Hannah, thanks for reaching out.

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