You might be aware that we’re currently working through Catholicism in the 20th century – that’s our mood right now, our place of residence. And one aspect of the 20th century that we haven’t really touched on so far is the rise of mass culture. It’s the shift from the parlor room witticisms of Oscar Wilde to Beatlemania. It’s a shift that not everybody liked. Some people lamented the rise of popular culture as pandering to the masses, as the degradation of proper serious art in favour of John Wayne cowboy movies – you know, sometimes it was just whinging about Kids These Days, and sometimes it seemed more like a pure, crystalline hatred of the poor. Take Romano Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como, for instance. Guardini was a 20th century German Catholic theologian, who wrote about modern society, on the conflict between technology and the human. This week, we’re talking about his letter titled ‘The Masses’, where he says:
“Whatever figures of history or art films lay hold of they destroy. They bring them all into the trashy sphere, that is, within the reach of the masses … to me it is as if a terrible machine were crushing our inheritance between the stones. We are becoming poor, very poor … Walter Rathenau has written a terrifying book, Die neue Gesellschaft. In it he speaks of the new incursion of people from below. The destruction this will cause is incalculable because so many of those who are surging up have so little by way of legacy that what repels us as trash seems glorious and attractive to them. I am not hitting at such people. I feel only guilt relating to them.”
So there’s a lot going on here, and it might be worth taking each factor in turn. It’s firstly very funny to note that Guardini’s bugbear in this letter is film, which is supposedly ruining art and history by making it accessible to the masses. And not just any film – he’s complaining specifically about Fritz Lang’s 1924 classic Die Nibelungen – which, in Guardini’s view, is “a horror,” “trash,” and part of the ongoing destruction of the original epic poem as an “intellectual possession of the German people.” He hates the actors, and he hates that “a modern woman novelist [made] a script of its world.” That woman novelist, by the way, was Thea von Harbou, who not only wrote the screenplay for Metropolis, widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, but also wrote the original novel on which the film was based. So – you know, it’s a string of bad opinions – but what we can also see more broadly is a sort of cultural nexus, an expression of half a dozen different sentiments that are still relevant to our cultural context today. Let’s begin with his idea of “the aristocracy of a work of art.”
People maybe don’t fully appreciate this if they haven’t studied the history of criticism in one art form or another, but one of the really powerful guiding ideas around art is that it’s good for us – not just emotionally, but spiritually. According to this idea, art uplifts the human spirit – again, not in any crude emotional sense, but as something that ennobles our nature and makes us a better, higher form of being. It separates us from the animals, you might say. As part of this theory, we have attendant ideas like the canon, which is the authoritative list of the Very Best Art. It’s a sort of collective cultural agreement on the stuff that’s the Most Uplifting, the most beneficial to our souls. Guardini’s comment on the “aristocracy” of art really expresses that idea quite clearly – the best art makes us into lords and rulers, into an upper class – a higher class of being. The language of class here is not accidental: the canon is and was a tool of the upper classes, a way for them to separate themselves out from the masses and demonstrate their superiority by making references to Shakespeare or Donne or whoever. It’s also a tool of colonialism – we have a very long history of rich white men holding up the artistic productions of non-white cultures and describing them as animalistic or bestial – again, drawing on that specific hierarchy that stretches from animal through different classes of humanity and up to God. It’s deployed as proof of the superiority of the West, as a way of validating the decision to subjugate foreign cultures.
Within that framework, a consequent idea is that art catering to anything other than aristocratic tastes is just encouraging degeneracy. If you’re not making high art, art that uplifts us, you’re making art that makes us worse. You’re making art that degrades us as human beings – art for poor people, for the masses, for commoners. Again, the axis of uplifting and degrading art runs along class lines. Art for the masses makes us worse, according to this logic, because it’s for the masses, who are already in the core of their being an inferior type of human.
So Guardini is making out like he hates poor people, like someone very invested in the idea that high art refines and elevates him above the lower class, who are, again, bad. We also see a fear of shifting social norms, which again manifests as class hatred, with the added belief that changing social structures indicate the upcoming collapse of society. “Everywhere we find hybridization. All rankings are lost. We all think we are justified in whatever we do. We are no longed tied to the essence of content or the historical or social dignity of form. Nothing commands respect, and nothing is inviolable.” We see this fear again continued today in various unhinged rants against ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – it’s all the same basic idea. We used to have a firm moral standing, but we got all weird and overly permissive and now people just do whatever and society has no foundation. Note especially the mourned loss of ‘rankings’, which again feels closer to class contempt than anything else.
And – you know, I really want to like Guardini. He reaches for some other points about how mass production under capitalism emphasises ease and convenience over quality and a creative spirit – he talks about how a caskmaker in America had moved from making eighty different types of cask down to a dozen. That’s a genuinely interesting idea. But film isn’t the root of that problem – and neither are ‘the masses’. This is, unfortunately, one of the trends we see in Christianity in the 20th century – in the Catholic church and beyond. There’s a powerful reaction against the rapid social change, against the shift in our cultural landscape. The most obvious reactionaries are the fundamentalists, and the evangelicals in America, but the Catholics do it too, in their lumbering, magisterial way. It’s still official Catholic policy that homosexuality is “an objective disorder.” And the rhetoric used by the Catholics is identical: the problem is our overly permissive society, which is accepting gay people as fine and healthy. To quote again from that letter to the bishops: when homosexuality is accepted, “neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.” It’s the same thing. It’s the worldview of entrenched, bitter people, terrified by social change and convinced that things are only getting worse. The destruction will be incalculable, Guardini says. Better watch out. The poor are coming to get you.