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 as a text about the patriarchal hegemony.
We too often talk about culture as if it meant only evenings in the theater and long Russian novels.
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 — by which society runs.
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.
Yet, although culture changes, it is inherently conservative. It changes very slowly. Nobody wants to get caught with a beta version of untested software.
Patterns from our ancestors persist in our lives. We enter the jumbo jet from the left side because our great-grandfathers wore their swords on their left sides and consequently mounted their horses from the left, to avoid entangling their swords.
You can see the history of aviation change from the stirrup on the left side of a World War I biplane to the door on a 747.
And 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 remains the cultural pattern, although Dinah Shore has given way to Taylor Swift.
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? More often than not, from the arts.
The arts try out possible ideas onstage to see if they might make sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But the best minds and imaginations give it their best.
That is why we think of theater as ”culture.” Or literature, or painting.
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 Duck Dynasty and microwave pizza.