|OK, college students/grads -- Who's the guy in the photo? If you know, congratulations. If your answer is, 'I don't know and I'm ashamed to admit it," that's remediable. But if your answer is, 'I don't know and I don't care,' that's a bigger problem.
"That the loss of high culture is an international phenomenon is revealed in Mario Vargas Llosa’s recent collection of essays, Notes on the Death of Culture. Along with the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, Vargas Llosa is the last of the international literary figures still at work, and a man with an impressive oeuvre as a novelist and a strong enough political activist streak to have run for the presidency of his country in 1990. He is a man with complex political views: an advocate of the free market but concerned about the downtrodden of the earth, an agnostic but with a keen appreciation of the spiritual values necessary to democratic society that only religion brings. Now nearly 80, he has published this book of essays around the theme of what he calls “the culture of the spectacle.”
The culture of spectacle is an entertainment culture in which, as Vargas Llosa has it, “having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion.” The culture of spectacle is dominated by “playful banality . . . in which the supreme value now is to amuse oneself and amuse others, over and above any form of knowledge or ideals.” This is a culture in which “Woody Allen is to David Lean or Orson Welles what Andy Warhol is to Gauguin or Van Gogh in painting or Dario Fo is to Chekhov or Ibsen in the theatre.” In this culture, “frivolity, superficiality, ignorance, gossip, and bad taste” dominate. Vargas Llosa argues that the simplicities of the visual—television, movies, smartphones, the Internet, the partiality, in other words, for pixels over print—preclude the thoughtfulness, gravity, and seriousness that once were at the center of culture. The result, he holds, is a world “divided between functional illiterates and ignorant and insensitive specialists.”
On the question of why serious literature is no longer being produced, for example, Vargas Llosa argues that it has been replaced by the kind of light reading that is more congenial to the age. The concentration that reading serious writing requires is no longer there. “For the culture in which we live,” Vargas Llosa writes, “does not favor, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers.” In an extreme statement of this case, James Joyce claimed it took him seven years to write Ulysses and saw nothing wrong if it took his readers seven years to read and understand it. ...
In the culture of spectacle, the great figures are chefs and fashion designers, athletes and actors, television journalists. Intellectuals, whose chief interest was in ideas, have been replaced by so-called public intellectuals. These are men and women of no notable depth whose domains are the op-ed pages and the television news and talk shows. The culture of spectacle has no interest in ideas. Nor does television, its main medium, which makes all ideas banal.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s culture of spectacle is unanchored and distracted, and not in the least worried about being so."