In earlier essays I have written about the virtues of optimism versus pessimism, on multi-ethnicity rather than multi-culturalism (for example, here), and on the nation-state versus internationalism (for example, here). I remain firm in my preferences there, but in this essay I retreat a little from a related past position. I have come to see some further virtues in ‘diversity’, or perhaps some further justifications for it, which had previously passed me by. ‘Diversity’ today is mostly code for people of different ethnic origins, religions and gender. But it can and should apply to cultural styles as well.
I start with some personal history. From an early age I have been fascinated by what we call ‘classical music’, or Western art music. There is a whole radio station devoted to it inside the ABC, Classic FM, and I turn it on in our house when we wake up, and turn it off when it is time to go to sleep. For more than fifty years I was a subscriber to the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s annual seasons, and for shorter periods a subscriber to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Musica Viva, the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet. I saw these arts as the highpoint, or one of the highpoints, of Western culture, as I did Shakespeare’s plays and the best literature, philosophy and history of Western societies. I enjoyed going to concerts and performances, but I also felt that I ought to go to them, and I supported these organisations financially as well, when I could afford to do so.
Of course, I had done an arts degree, and these highpoints were not only what I studied but what all my teachers seemed to see as highpoints as well. If you had asked me, I could have given you a decent account of why all this ‘high culture’ was important to humanity. As I grew older I realised that not everyone shared my virtuous views. For some years I was in a position to argue strongly for the building of a large theatre for the national capital, one in which opera and ballet could be staged properly. If theatres are too small you cannot stage major productions as they ought to be staged, and you will need several nights of performance to satisfy your likely audience. But putting on an opera for several nights will increase your costs too, and besides, the large companies don’t have much spare time. So, in general, no big theatre = no big productions.
I had puzzled over why contemporary governments were prepared to spend billions on sports stadia, which reminded me forcibly of the way in which Roman emperors appeased the masses, along with keeping bread prices low. At length I was able to argue my case to the relevant Minister, a good man and an excellent politician. He heard me at length. And when it was his turn, he asked some questions about ballet. I pointed out that the last time I had seen Swan Lake in our theatre, one of the little swans had disappeared behind the drapes, which caused the audience to laugh. Tchaikovsky would not have approved.
He stroked his chin. ‘Ballet,’ he said. ‘It does nothing for me at all. I’ve seen a bit of it. Now Rugby League, on the other hand…’ and his face broke into a smile. This was not the time to talk about high culture and its civilising effect on the masses, partly because I knew that the masses were not interested in opera or ballet. In fact, Classic FM gets a tiny share of the radio audience, and classical music, combined with screen and games music, gets only about five per cent of the market. The masses like pop, rock, country and western, rap and other forms. I’ve thought about why this is so. It’s not simply the short time space of such music, because most classical music relies on repetition to get its message across. I’ve read or heard that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has around 180 repetitions of the dit-dit-dit-daah figure in the first movement. People remember that figure. No, pop and related styles are popular also because they have memorable rhythms, harmonies or lyrics, and their appeal is direct and immediate. Art music takes longer to appreciate.
In any case, carrying on about the higher values of your own personal taste doesn’t really cut it. People like what they like. If you give them an opportunity to hear or see other possible cultural forms, they will make a choice. You mightn’t like their choice, or wish they had chosen your favourite form, but they have chosen. Maybe they’ll pick up your preferred form later. As the Romans liked to say, de gustibus non est disputandum — there’s no arguing about tastes. My mother banned comics in our house when I was young, and then relaxed the ban if the comic was one of Classics Illustrated. It didn’t matter. We boys read the banned comics at our friends’ places, and in any case we were into books much more than comics, which were a short phase in my life.
Maybe in all societies there are people who want to tell others what they should do, read, listen to, dance, paint. There seem to be a lot of them today. Some of their effort is sensible. What we teach in schools needs finally to produce adults who can read, write, count and think. It would be nice if the adults also had some history and geography. But that kind of teaching is best reserved, I think, for children. I’m not at all sure about whether others besides parents should teach about ‘good behaviour’, since my feeling is that we learn best about that through experience. We all try to instill modes of good behaviour into our children, who in any case will model their behaviour (including their driving) on what they see us do. Treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself is a good rule, but it comes through experience. What is best to eat, how much exercise you should have, how much grog — these are matters that you will learn about through experience. Maybe you will never learn. That does happen for some.
If we are an aspiring democracy in which each adult has much the same capacity to decide what to do and how to do it, always with the proviso that what one wants to do should not prevent others from doing what they want to do, why should we try to instruct others in what we think is best for them? My position here is that of J. S. Mill in On Liberty (for a summary, try here), and for Mill liberty or freedom is the condition that allows a person the opportunity to learn what is best for them. Telling adults what they should do, when that is not the adult’s preference, is to tell them that you know better than they do. We have a lot of that about today. Perhaps we always have had a lot about. Ironically, the instructions are more diverse that they once were, and the instructors now rely on ‘science’, not religion. The supposed ‘findings of science’ are employed in matters of food, smoking, health, climate, road safety, mining, transport, you name it. Unfortunately, science is a dynamic form of knowledge-generation, and what is true today may not be true tomorrow. Science once proclaimed that butter was bad for us, and we shifted to margarine. Now, apparently, that is no longer the case. Over the years I’ve come to the view that adults should be left to make their own decisions about all of these things, always remembering Mill’s warning that such freedom is constrained by our need to respect the equal freedom of others. Provide advice, yes. Make it clear that such advice is contingent on the advance of knowledge. ‘At the moment…’ you might begin. But leave it at that.
And what has all that got to do with opera and ballet? There was a time when opera houses, libraries, art galleries and large theatres were built, in all our big cities. That was the 1960s. Time has moved on. Governments make decisions about how to spend public money guided by their sense of public sentiment. In the 1960s there was some sense that we were uncultured, and we needed to show that we weren’t. Premier Joe Cahill, whose determination enabled the building of Sydney’s Opera House, was convinced that until Sydney had one, no one outside our shores would take the city seriously. He was persuasive, partly because his view was widely shared. Those days have passed.
Contemporary governments plainly prefer building sport stadia to opera houses. Quite reasonable people prefer to go camping or fishing, play computer games, attend football matches, or go to movies, the club or the pub, rather than go to museums, concerts or art galleries. And there are lots and lots of those reasonable people. Those of us, a very much smaller group, who have the desire to see properly staged large operas and ballets, will be at the end of a long queue, unless we campaign hard, widely and over time, and perhaps even then. The irony is that those who value what is sometimes called ‘the high culture’ are now mostly university-educated (Joe Cahill wasn’t), but even in that group the opera-lovers are not at all a majority. Nonetheless, the university-educated elite are happy to tell the more benighted what they should do in all other aspects of life.
I would have thought Shakespeare, Bach, da Vinci and Jane Austen were more valuable to the human spirit, all things considered, than food-miles, plastic-bag avoidance, wind turbines and the paleo diet, but perhaps that is because I am an old (white, male) fogey. In any case, I think there is a case for those who want to make others good people remembering the diversity cuts both ways: we don’t in fact have, for example, an ‘obesity crisis’, though the news presenter talked about it the other day. What we have are people who like to eat a lot. They can afford to. Let them. There are many, many other examples.