The purpose of this essay is to address the nature of Culture and I have chosen to discuss it with relation to its effect on people, society and with direct effect on our aspirations. I will briefly outline the concepts of ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ whilst discussing their definitions in conjunction with various publications and ideas.
I find that whilst ‘culture’ is an ambiguous term with a wide variety of definitions, it is most accurately discussed when in relation to the people it affects and who experience it. Through its various mediums, I will discuss whether culture can mean different things to different people. I will address the issue of whether culture is an intellectual pursuit or the interest of the everyman whilst discussing its effect on class movement.
What Is Culture?
Culture is a truly indefinable part of our society. It has evolved out of our creativity, our strides towards civilisation, our desire to be entertained and our willingness to express ourselves as Individuals – as human beings. When we discuss culture, we could be discussing the traits and formalities of a particular area of society or we could be referring to a culture in the all-encompassing sense of music, theatre, film, art and so on. The ‘Creative Exchange’ website succinctly sums up culture as depending on your background and gives the example that in the United Kingdom, culture refers to The Arts, whereas in a developing country, culture can refer to who you are, what you believe and how you express it creatively. In order to truly define culture, we must choose a particular view point from which to define it: for biologists, culture can refer to a cell of bacteria, anthropologists may say culture is a “full range of learned behaviour patterns” (O’Neil, 2006). However, for the purposes of this essay, we will discuss Culture, with a capital ‘c’, meaning that we will discuss it in relation to the arts and to what is deemed intellectually stimulating.
According to the Director, Richard Eyre, “Culture is everything that is not politics… Culture is leisure.” (Eyre, 2011) and in a sense, he is correct. Arguably, Culture is an un-necessary aspect of our lives. If politics structures our society and education prepares us for society then culture is surely what keeps us interested in society. The traditional paradigm of ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ is surely never more relevant than when in relation to culture. Culture is to the individual what the fingerprint is to the finger: different every time and it is this uniqueness which makes Culture such a hard medium to pin down as our experience of it is always different. The teenager tapping on the handrail of the bus whilst listening to The Prodigy will argue that their experience of Culture is as important as the middle-aged couple leaving a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and, they would be right to.
Whilst we may feel keen to immediately discuss ‘high culture’, it is this canonistic point of view which prevents culture to be at its truest, most fluid form. Jarvis Cocker claims that culture should “spark off other ideas that lead to something else” (Cocker, 2011) and with this definition in mind, the argument is there to be made that simply focusing on fine art is not enough when we pass creatively genius works of art every day in the form of graffiti. This is more widely known as ‘popular culture’ which John Storey defines as being “culture which is widely favoured or well-liked by many people” and goes on to discuss how quantifying culture through book sales, album chart positions and box office takings may satisfy some people but argues that it “may tell us too much” as unless we can agree upon a fixed point where something becomes ‘popular’, then the data is meaningless. (Storey, 2006) He almost certainly has a valid point too as the term ‘popular’ is almost as vague as its bedfellow, Culture. However, when we take the idea of popular culture and apply it to our own understanding of Culture, we are much more able to comprehend what it might mean because we tend to personalize it: our favourite band, a book we read in college, a midnight showing a foreign film.
Philip Daniel Smith opts to take the term back to its etymological roots and discusses how its early uses were more associated with the “cultivation of animals and crops” (Smith, 2001) and arguably, culture is still a cultivating influence; only now, we are the animals and our interests are the crops. There is a view of culture as being solely for the upper classes: those with the time and money to afford high culture and for the middle classes, this has become part of our aspirational values. Simply owning a few Pedro Almodovar films is not enough; cultural aspiration dictates that we must have opinions about them and an understanding of how the director presents passion through the eyes of a young man who was born on a bus. Culture has become something which we define ourselves by: ‘are you cultured? I’m cultured – I went and saw Cats last year’ can either be viewed as someone who knowingly indulges in popular culture or as someone who desperately aspires to be respected as a theatre-goer. So, culture is also a social thing which defines our own social standing as either high culture, intellectual types who genuinely enjoy the opera, people who aspire to be the previous type or as someone who ignores all the hype and simply goes with what feels right for them.
As discussed, Culture has an aspirational quality to it but equally, it can open us up to brand new experiences and ideas: a prime example of which was the discovery of writing. Once upon a time, if you could write a short letter, you were considered to be at the top of your intellectual game but much like I mentioned earlier, culture should spark inspiration and never more so than with writing. According to Jens Brockmeier et al. writing has “produced a revolution in the human sciences.” (Brockmeier et al. 2002) If it were not for a number of forward-thinking individuals over the centuries, we may still be living in caves and culture has carved our path forward through our ever-developing approach to conversation, life and expression. Postmodernists argue that nothing is new (Sim, 1998) and with the ever growing list of sequels, re-makes and ‘films of the book’, they may be right but culture continues to grow within each of us meaning that our own, personal experiences of music, art, books, plays and films will continue to be different each time. Just because we dislike an album now, does not mean that in a few years’ time, we won’t have grown, developed and had new experiences which allow us to appreciate its art then.
Culture will continue to be a vague term which will inevitably mean something different to everyone; it will continue to be a term bandied about at middle class soirées, and it will be a buzzword that is ever-evolving much like our appreciation of it. Culture is experience, expansion and excitement; it is the best and worst of us; it is our aspirational self who attempts to ‘better’ us. Culture, whilst a difficult term to give a finite definition to, is in itself, the definition of who we are as individuals and as a society.
- Cocker, J. (2011). The Culture Show: Culture Is… Retrieved February 6, 2011 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/cultureshow/cultureis/
- Eyre, R. (2011). The Culture Show: Culture Is… Retrieved February 6, 2011 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/cultureshow/cultureis/
- Storey, J. (2006). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: an introduction. England: Pearson Education Limited.
- Smith, P. D. (2001). Cultural Theory: an introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
- Brockmeier, J. et al. (2002). Literacy, Narrative and Culture. Surrey: Curzon Press.
- Sim, S. (1998). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. New York: Routledge.
- Eyre, R. (2009, November 13). Art Of The Matter: Richard Eyre On The Meaning Of Culture The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/art-of-the-matter-richard-eyre-on-the-meaning-of-culture-1819476.html
- O’Neil, D. (2006). What Is Culture? Retrieved February 6, 2011 from http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_1.htm