“It would be a tragedy if the arts became mere entertainment”

Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa talks about his latest book, Civilization as Entertainment In it, he examines the way the arts have been reduced to chaos

Mario Vargas Llosa in Madrid last month.
Mario Vargas Llosa in Madrid last month.BERNARDO PÉREZ (EL PAÍS)

Mario Vargas Llosa says that he’s had the feeling that he’s being laughed at for some time now. The Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize winner says the sensation began to grow during visits to exhibitions and arts fairs, at shows, at the cinema, when watching television, and even when reading the press and certain books. He describes the feeling as a growing sense that he was being mocked, that he was “defenseless in the face of a subtle conspiracy” designed to make him feel stupid and uncultured, to make him feel that art was nothing more than a racket.

After writing an essay about his unease, he eventually developed it into his latest book, La civilización como espectáculo (or, Civilization as entertainment), in which he examines the way that the arts have been reduced to a chaos where "there is no way to distinguish any more just what art is, so everything is art, and nothing is art." This breakdown of the cultural order is the result, he says, of the triumph of frivolity, the rule of entertainment.

According to his theory, the impact of the spread of banality is not just limited to the arts. Vargas Llosa concludes that our entertainment civilization has anesthetized thinkers, disarmed journalism, and above all, devalued politics, the latter having succumbed to a cynicism that nourishes corruption. He illustrates his argument with an example from his native Peru.

"In the most recent Peruvian elections, the writer Jorge Eduardo Benavides was shocked when a taxi driver told him that he would be voting for the daughter of disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori, currently serving a 25-year jail sentence for theft and murder. 'Aren't you worried that Fujimori is a thief,' he asked the taxi driver. 'No,' replied the man, 'because Fujimori only stole as much as he needed to'."

Question. You argue that the arts have been reduced to banality, that frivolity has triumphed, saying that eroticism has descended into pornography, that postmodernism is a failed experiment, that journalism tends ever more toward sensationalism, that politics is being degraded, and that in this civilization of entertainment, the comedian is king. Is there any hope left?

Answer. Yes, there is a way out of this. History changes, and can be changed. It is our destiny to live through an age in which we have witnessed some of the most extraordinary changes. If somebody had told me when I was a young man that the Soviet Union would disappear, that China would become a capitalist country, or that Latin America would grow while Europe was plunged into its worst financial crisis in a century, I wouldn't have believed them. So we have every reason to hope that our cultural life, the arts and the humanities can be revived, and that we can abandon this tendency toward the frivolous, which I believe is what characterizes the times we live in. Fortunately, there are still exceptions. Banality also affects every aspect of life: politics, sex, human relations...

My life has been enriched by good books, great art and wonderful music"

Q. And you have been aware of this for how long now?

A. It's a process. It doesn't just happen. I remember visiting the Venice Biennale a few years ago, and after walking round, I was struck by the feeling that the whole thing was a sham. That was a defining moment, I suppose, and that is what led me to start thinking in this way. At the end of my book I explain how my life has been enriched by reading good books, by looking at great art, by listening to great music; how these things have given order to my life and stimulated me. It would be a tragedy now, at a time of incredible technological and material progress if the arts were simply to become something superficial; mere entertainment, leaving a vacuum that cannot be filled.

Q. Yet your book is deeply pessimistic, and seems strange for somebody who has been so successful in life.

A. I hope I am wrong, perhaps I'm just an old man... But sometimes... listen; I lived in England, and I remember being astonished when I first watched the television there. Television for me had always been mediocre, junk, and then suddenly I discovered that television could be used creatively, and not just for the arts, but for news. But then, after a few years, I noticed how British television had descended into frivolity.

Q. You suggest a return to the traditional patrons of the arts. Even leaving to one side the question of elitism, is this possible?

A. The idea of an aristocracy is anathema to many people, but we should remember that not everybody wants to be cultured in the same way, and nor should they. There are levels of specialization that are perfectly worthy, as long as that degree of specialization doesn't turn its back on society, in which case the arts stop having any influence on society, and we lose those common denominators that allow us to discriminate between what is authentic and what is fake; between good and bad; between beauty and ugliness. It is hard to believe that we now live in a world where we can no longer make those kinds of distinctions. Because once we lose them, we are lost in the world of sham, of smoke and mirrors. Advertising replaces talent, and simply invents it.

We are lost amid a sham; advertising replaces talent, and simply invents it"

Q. You could be accused of wanting to return to a bygone age, of idealizing the past, and of wanting to fossilize society, to close it off to change.

A. I am completely opposed to the idea of fossilizing a society. I am not a conservative in that sense. I know that in the past there existed slavery, racism, religious dogmatism, the Inquisition, and burning at the stake for those who disagreed... At the same time, we should not forget that there is much to admire about the past, and things that have shaped our present and enriched people's lives, their senses and their imagination. And that was the role of culture. These days one cannot even talk about high culture; it is considered politically incorrect.

Q. You make an impassioned defense of eroticism in your book, as opposed to what you call stark sex.

A. Eroticism used to be the process by which instinct was converted into something creative, into a work of art, and that was possible thanks to culture. I do not believe that eroticism comes from a pragmatic sexual experience. I believe that it is art, the refinement of our senses produced by high art, that creates eroticism. Eroticism is a manifestation of civilization, of a society that has reached a certain level of civilization. At the same time, it is a respect of rules, of the importance of rules in sexual relations. In contrast, sexual permissiveness leads to a loss of rules, and that simply reduces sex to something primitive and savage. And that is what has happened in our times.

Q. What do you think a 25-year-old Vargas Llosa would make of your book?

A. I have no idea. We have lived through an age in which the generation gap is greater than at any time in history. This extraordinary technological revolution makes it impossible to imagine how young people experience the world. There are many things about the past that we need to leave behind, without doubt. But one thing we must preserve is culture. A civilization that produced Goya, Rembrandt, Mahler and Goethe has nothing to be ashamed of. This civilization established importance parameters that while open to criticism, must be maintained. Civilizations are in danger of collapsing when the arts are diminished, and relegated to the world of entertainment.

Eroticism is a sign that a society has reached a certain level of civilization"

Q. Your book is deeply pessimistic; it paints a picture of a deeply apathetic society, bored and hostile. When you see the emergence of movements like Occupy Wall Street or 15-M, do they give you cause for optimism?

A. To an extent, yes. But it depends on which direction they are headed. There is a certain element of conformity in being non-conformist. But these kinds of youth movements are interesting. Actually, I am not a pessimist; I'm really an optimist. I believe that things can get better. But there are times when it is important to be radically critical of the symptoms of decadence.

Q. You also believe that politics has descended into decadence.

A. Yes, and what is worrying is that we have come to accept corruption among politicians as something normal, as Jorge Benavides' anecdote shows: as long as a politician doesn't steal too much, that's okay. We are seeing a sharp fall in values, in values of all kinds. Politics isn't about honor anymore; it's about efficiency. It is as though honesty were an obstacle to running for office. If we reach that point, then we are truly lost. I don't think we have yet, but we do tend to associate politicians with trickery, with dishonesty. That leads us to a belief that democracy is pointless, which means that sooner or later it collapses.

Q. But there are still countries able to protect themselves against corruption.

A. Of course. The big difference is still between the democracies and the authoritarian states. Corruption exists in the democracies, obviously. We see it. But that is the point, it is eventually flushed out, and there exists a justice system that is still able to sanction the guilty. Spain is an example of this. There are many corrupt politicians, but a number of them have been brought to justice. That isn't the case in China or Cuba, where we suddenly learn that such and such has been executed because he committed a crime, and was a politician. I remember when I lived in England, the biggest corruption scandal was when a member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet lost not only his job, but his career because he spent a weekend in the Ritz Hotel at the expense of an Arab sheikh. In other words, a matter that involved a few thousand pounds. During the Fujimori era in Peru, that is what the mayor of a small town would steal all the time. That is without getting into the matter of the millions of dollars that Fujimori and his associates stole. There was virtually no sense of outrage on the part of Peruvians about that. He paid no social price: in the last elections he came close to returning to power. It is important to remember those kinds of differences. So, yes, there are still models that offer us a hope that we can protect ourselves against apathy toward corruption.

A civilization that produced Goya and Goethe has nothing to be ashamed of"

Q. There is obviously more corruption in dictatorships. But there is also an inverse phenomenon: intellectuals in those societies often have more influence than in democracies. Take the example of China, which has imprisoned a Nobel laureate.

A. Absolutely. When freedom is taken away, it becomes very important. And when the struggle for freedom becomes a priority, intellectuals, writers, poets, novelists and artists suddenly become central to the fight for freedom. This is a phenomenon that we are seeing in China: the case of Ai Weiwei is very interesting. He has become a symbol of the spirit of resistance, or the need for greater openness, of modernization and democratization.

Q. On the subject of declining standards, you also refer to growing sensationalism in the media. Do you think self-regulation is enough to prevent this?

A. I believe that it is the only way. The media has to accept its responsibilities. These problems cannot be solved through censorship. But I also believe that this sensationalism is an expression of our culture. The media is part of the cultural life of a country. And if our culture encourages this kind of muckracking, and makes that its sole purpose, then in the end, the market will impose its rules on journalism, regardless of how serious and responsible the media tries to be. We are seeing this everywhere. The more serious newspapers, for example, are trying to hang on in there, but sooner or later their survival is at stake, and they have to make concessions. The roots of the problem are not in the media, but in the dominant culture, which demands frivolity and sensationalism.

Q. You too have suffered this tendency toward sensationalism...

A. A while back, in Argentina, I was congratulated by a lady about something I had supposedly written in praise of women. I thanked her, but pointed out that I had not written anything praising women. I assumed she was mistaken. Soon after, she sent me the article in question, which had been published on the internet. It was an embarrassingly bad piece of writing, signed by me, and put out into cyberspace by God knows who. How can you defend yourself against that kind of thing? It is terrible. Suddenly you lose your identity: these days it is incredibly easy to fake things. I think this is very worrying. What's more, you can't spend your life publishing rectifications. In the end you stop writing and you stop reading. This is one of the more worrying side effects of the audiovisual revolution.

Society encourages muckraking; the market imposes its rules on journalism"

Q. At the same time, the internet allows for a much broader dissemination of an artist's work...

A. And also to sidestep censorship, which is definitely a step forward. But at the same time, the internet spreads confusion, which can have a negative impact on the arts, and on information in general. Too much information means that we lose the ability to discriminate, we risk losing our sense of priorities. Everything seems equally important, simply because it has made it to the computer screen.

Q. You don't attack religion in your book, but it is clearly the work of an atheist. You seem to be arguing that the arts can fill the vacuum left by religion.

A. The traditional liberal argument was that knowledge, or science, will gradually replace religion. That has proved not to be the case. Most people, wherever they live, and regardless of their social or cultural position, need something transcendental in their lives, something to help them believe that when they die, something continues, and that is the role of religion. Those prepared to try to fill that void with culture have always been a minority, and always will be. But it is pointless trying to fight religion. It has a role to play, and that is to give people the hope that there is another life. We have to accept that. At the same time, we have to limit the role of religion in public life; it must be separate from the state. Religion is, by definition, dogmatic; it establishes absolute truths, and doesn’t like living with contradictory truths. But if we want a democratic society, we have to accept that religion will continue to play an important role in many people’s lives.

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