Culture: whither and whence

What is culture and why should we care?

These are questions that don’t get asked often enough when we discuss such inflammatory issues as government funding of the arts and humanities.

To many people, culture simply means a lot of wealthy people going to the opera and sitting through a hare-brained story in a language they don’t understand while listening to a soprano shriek so loud their elbows go numb.

Or it means drinking bad white wine from a plastic champagne glass at an art gallery opening or long, dense scholarly papers deconstructing Little Red Riding Hood.

We too often talk about culture as if it meant only long Russian novels and evenings in the theater with the plays of Edward Albee.

But what would happen if all these so-called “high” arts suddenly disappeared? Do we actually need them?

To understand the answer, we need to understand what culture is.

Culture is broader than just the arts.

It’s what you eat for breakfast and whether your trousers have cuffs.

It is who you are allowed to marry and what happens to your body when you die.

Culture is the set of rules — mostly in the form of traditions — that society runs by.

It is the software for our social lives.

In fact, far from being a luxury, culture is something you cannot live without.

It is religion, art, laws, ethics, history and even our clothing.

Culture is who we are.

And who we are at this moment: No culture is static. It is an evolving thing — to keep up with the computer metaphor, there are constant upgrades. Culture 2.7 gives way to Culture 3.0, as the circumstances of our lives and our cultural needs change. The culture of the clipper ship means little on a jumbo jet.

This plays out in our politics: Those who want define marriage one way, and those who believe things have changed and that we need a new definition. Those who define government in 18th century terms and those who recognize that history has bypassed those narrow terms.

Yet, it needs to be remembered that culture is passed on through tradition, through doing the things that worked for our parents and forebears. We hesitate to change our ways: In fact, we think our ways are the only ways, that trousers are for men and that dinner is served at 8.

Culture is inherently conservative. It changes very slowly. If we need periodically to upgrade our software, nobody wants to get caught with a beta version.

Patterns from our ancestors persist in our lives. Because our (mostly) right-handed great grandfathers carried their swords on their left hip and to keep them from getting caught up, mounted their horses from the left.

When the “air cavalry” of World War I began flying their biplanes, there was a “stirrup” on the left side of the fuselage that pilots used to mount their aircraft.

Now, at every airport in the world, we cross the ramp to the left door of the jumbo jet.

These things tend to persist, even when we don’t think about them, or rather because we don’t think about them.

How many children today play with “choo-choo trains,” although not even their parents ever lived in a world with steam locomotives.

The patterns stick with us even when they no longer make sense.

But culture does change. The three-minute song is still the cultural pattern, although Dinah Shore has given way to Taylor Swift.

And churches still sport pointed arches, although they are more likely mullioned with wood than stone tracery.

Songs from our agricultural past, lauding springtime and the moon, make little sense to our urban present, where nocturnal lighting is more likely neon.

So we change. Slowly.

And where does cultural change come from? The single biggest contributor to cultural change is art, the fine arts. This is what Shelley meant when he said “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

The arts try out possible ideas on stage to see if they might make sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But the best minds and imaginations give it their best.

Science is the test we give to hard fact; art is the test we give to everything else.

That is why we think of theater as “culture.” Or literature, or painting.

If the old idea of marriage is due for an upgrade, it is in the arts we should look to find the experimental evidence for what form the new versions will look like.

Yes, there are some people who want to keep their old software version, and some who want to return to earlier versions. But culture cannot stand still.

Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for meaningful directions to go in.

Art is our investigation of our values, testing them and throwing out some and reinforcing others.

Without art, culture ossifies and the people become emotionally and spiritually dead.

So, if we mean to maintain a vital culture, we must support the best in the arts.

There is another computer saying: GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. In other words, if we don’t care for the changes in our culture, we are likely to wind up with the lowest common denominator. We are likely to wind up with nothing more than Keeping Up With the Kardashians and cheese in a squirt can.

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