Europe as a whole is on a slippery slope towards separating culture and critique. It is an unfolding story beneath our eyes, starkly opposed to what was and is Europe.
One could write an article on the diametrically opposite proposition: that culture has been submerged into mere critique, in which culture undergoes sterilization by way of incessant sensationalism and vulgarization in the name of critique. Just take a look at For the Love of God. An even more apposite example would be Duchamp’s Fountain. It is certainly a part of Western culture, this post-modern cult of provocation as it turns upon modernity and places itself beyond modernity. Its continuity lies in turning against modernism as a form of renewing and reforming tradition, with the sole objective to show how ghastly all preceding traditions have been.
This nebulous point of departure for critique finds its homologue in Michel Foucault’s own critique of society, for whom culture is nothing but «the power-structure of the bourgeoisie». The Foucauldian manner of criticizing reaches its pure expression through the art of respectively, Hirst and Duchamp.
What only rages against, but never halts to speak for an alternative set of values is by virtue of definition nihilism.
Roger Scruton wrote in The Guardian 19th December 2012 that «A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society.» The nihilism of the post-modernists has no such bearing, as it rather leads the life of the mind to a perturbing vertigo in one’s quest to find the inter-relational meaning between the subject I and the the other, through an object of art.
This debasement of culture through ‘critique’ is just what has brought about the insecurity of our European intelligentsia concerning namely what critique is. As the post-modern cult perforce is a vanguard and esoteric club it has not given rise to anything but a general giddiness in our Western understanding of culture and critique.
Even though Hirst and Duchamp, and others of the post-modern camp may seem assertive and wayward in their foible, it is an obstinate myopia in a purely Western phenomenon. This is the malum discordiae today; the way in which Western cultural life turns in on itself in a particularism, banning criticism of the other, in the spirit of anti-colonialism (as any cross-cultural critique is taken as colonialism, if from a Western standpoint). This is really where we find ourselves today: When the post-modernists dislodge critique from being a part and a continuation of culture, only positioned in its adverse opposition, it also renders critique unbridgeable across cultural differences, as they refuse any cultural point of departure. An anti-culture, so to speak.
Isaiah Berlin cites Herder, an old advocate of particularism «Let us follow our own way … Let men say what they like, good or bad, about our nation, our literature, our language. They are ours. They are us. That’s all that counts.» This is what leads Herder to his thought on the principle of volksgeist: Whether a man regards himself as a social being or as a thinking subject man is not his own master; he is expressed through something other than himself. It lies close to think that it is not the brain that thinks in Man, rather his blood. In an interpretation of a text by Herder Goethe writes «Characteristic art is the only real art.» Thus, both Herder and Goethe in their understanding of culture lend their pens to the selfsame particularism as that of introverted postmodernism and multiculturalism: all together profess the inviolable sovereignty of each culture. This is when Alain Finkielkraut says «each culture goes home».
However, half a century earlier the same Goethe wrote «Furthermore I like to find out about foreign countries and I advise everyone else to do the same. The term ‘national literature’ does not really mean much today. We are moving towards an era of universal literature.» and «true merit lies in belonging to humanity.» How to square this change of mind? I would argue that the young Goethe was of the same cultural perception as that of Voltaire who wrote tomes on «cultural world history», rebelling against the preceding Bossuet by starting his recount in China, rather than in Israel as did Bossuet. Voltaire opted for a universal recount of the cultural history of mankind, while never recognizing that the more he made an effort to ‘write universally’ the clearer his French benchmark on the world stood out. In 1771, meeting Herder in the Strasbourg Cathedral and reading the German sounding name of the architect, he understood what intellectual conundrum Voltaire had set up for himself and took refuge in Herder’s volksgeist.
Voltaire’s failed universalism is to think that he is freeing culture from outdated traditions which held it in tutelage, when he in fact betrays all that is cultural identity, in favor of this figment, this purely imaginary entity: Man. While recovering from this, our Promethean delirium into abstractions on who this ‘Man’ is, post-modernists find through the omnipresent process of globalization that each culture must have its own ‘Man’. Thus, as Herder wanted to resist imperialism, to rid history of the principle of sameness and restore to each nation the boast of its unique essence, multiculturalists now seek the same . A cultural ad fontes—back to our roots. In this train of thought the Enlightenment was not the Enlightenment but Western Enlightenment. Through this deterministic understanding of culture, in which everything is dated and limited by ethnicity, cross-cultural critique is anathema our culture undergoes blight, and critique loses its cultural intentionality. The wherewithal for critique as an integral and not adverse part of our culture, and for cross-cultural critique – so essential to our multicultural societies – is now fast fading.
Though intellectually high-minded this discourse might seem it has very real consequences. «I am offended» is now an accepted premise for which you may criticize a drawing. But critique belongs no more solely to the cultural domain and judgement. Today the courthouses of Europe are hosting more and more of these trials, where the indicted is accused of having aroused offense—often because of the indicted person’s critique of another culture. The pandemonium is complete. Europe has lost its sense of what belongs to culture, and what belongs to critique, and therefore she is about to lose it altogether.