‘Proust Is Important for Everyone’: High Culture, Mass Culture and Why They Matter
In conversation with the sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky, novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa discusses the relative merits of “high” and “mass” culture in the contemporary world and defends the ideas explored in his recent book La civilización del espectáculo.
Mario Vargas Llosa: La civilización del espectáculo is an attempt to express a feeling of concern, an anguish of sorts, on seeing what we understood by “culture” when I was young, changing during my lifetime into something very different, something essentially distinct from what we understood by “culture” in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The book attempts to describe this transformation and examine the effects of the vagaries of what we call culture today on different aspects of human activity - social, political, religious, sexual and so on - given that culture is something that impregnates all we do in life.
The book doesn’t set out to be pessimistic, but it does aim to be disturbing and to encourage people to think about whether the hegemonic role entertainment and distraction have assumed in our time have also caused them to become central to cultural life. I believe that this is the case and that it has happened with the blessing of wide sections of society, including those who traditionally have represented society’s institutions and cultural values.
In my view, Gilles Lipovetsky is one of the thinkers today to have analysed this new culture in the greatest depth and with the utmost rigour. In his book The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, he has expertly described what this new culture consists of. Unlike me, he has approached it without anxiety, without an undue sense of alarm, but with sympathy, seeing in it features he considers highly positive. For example, the democratizing effect of a culture that extends to everyone, a culture that, unlike traditional culture, doesn’t make distinctions, is not monopolized by an elite, by coteries of scholars or intellectuals, but permeates the whole of society in one way or another.
He also says, and it’s an interesting and debatable point, that this culture has led to greater individual freedom. Unlike in the past - when the individual was, in a way, the prisoner, the expression, of a culture - individuals today can choose between a wide range of cultural possibilities, thus exercising not only their sovereignty and free will, but also their taste and personal inclinations. He argues that this culture is one that permits people to seek their pleasure in activities that are categorized as cultural but that in the past wouldn’t have been considered as such. These ideas are debatable: at times they convince me; at other times they leave me undecided. I think that a dialogue between our two positions - positions that are different but that might, in some ways, be complementary - could be very fruitful.