Keeping culture in its place

Now that very few people are prepared to uphold the laws of art, what's left is culture with the cultural taken out: primarily therapeutic, with content rendered arbitrary.

Andrew Calcutt

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Topics Politics

Listening to Charles Landry nearly made me believe in Creative Britain – the government-sponsored wish for culture to be the means through which British society reconstitutes itself.

Landry, think-tanker (Comedia), author of The Creative City, deviser-in-chief of cultural strategies for social regeneration, was speaking at a London conference on political disengagement and participation organised by the Institute of Ideas (1). Culture, said Landry, must not be seen either as for its own sake (artistic innovation) or as an instrument of social inclusion (construction of sustainable communities): it is both, and there ought to be continuous negotiation and interaction between the two agendas.

Like a United Nations peacekeeper, Landry had found a way for conflicting definitions of culture to learn to live together. If somebody so cultivated had ‘no problem with the social inclusion agenda’, surely I could stop worrying about the dilution of aesthetic standards and learn to love the social dimension.

Yet Landry’s two coexisting cultures did not comply with my own experience of three competing versions:

  • High culture, comprising highly developed artistic forms and an equally advanced capacity for making artistic judgements [Culture 1: Judgmental];
  • Culture as ‘a whole way of life’ – the cultural studies approach [Culture 2: Descriptive];
  • ‘Culture is for growing people in’ – culture secretary Chris Smith’s quip about what culture is for [Culture 3: Prescriptive].

Also on the platform were Anna Somers Cocks, editor of The Art Newspaper, and Mark Ryan, director of culture and arts at the Institute of Ideas. They agreed that the real relationship between Culture 1 and Culture 3 at present is not one of mutuality or negotiation, but more a case of Culture 1 (the version closest to art for art’s sake) being overshadowed and endangered by Culture 3 (the prescriptive version in which culture is called upon to engineer the people taking part in it). While they were sparring with Landry, I put some of their observations into a narrative of my own.

Once upon a time there were some pictures in a gallery called the Tate. They were revered as expressions of high artistic achievement [Culture 1]. People came from far and wide to look up at them. Then a different generation arrived, which viewed all human experience as equally valid. This outlook was regarded as democratising, because the works of art and the experiences of the people looking at the art were now thought to be on the same level.

Furthermore, the artist and the viewer were both said to be creative. Legend has it that in looking at pictures the viewer creates the text as much as the artist did in painting it. In time, the pictures and the experiences of the people looking at them all came to be seen as ‘a whole way of life’ [Culture 2]. The emphasis gradually shifted away from the achievement of the artist towards the experience of the viewer.

Then the pictures were moved to a new gallery called Tate Modern. A new government decreed that a lifestyle which includes the experience of going to Tate Modern is a healthy, sustainable lifestyle that should be enjoyed by as many people as possible [Culture 3].

In this way, art that was valued primarily because of its aesthetic qualities has been turned into art therapy, an art-oriented experience valued firstly for the well-being which it induces. As Somers Cocks and Ryan pointed out, art is at risk when the state uses it as an instrument of psycho-social policy.

‘Twas ever thus, said a speaker from the floor. Throughout history, patrons have always taken an instrumental approach to art, commissioning work which aggrandises them and legitimates their interests. Yet this has never stopped artists from taking art back into their possession, reasserting its aesthetic and non-instrumental aspects. Landry’s opponents were being alarmist about the consequences of state involvement.

It was a point well put. Today’s think-tankers are by no means the first to recommend culture as a vehicle for social inclusion. Virgil’s Georgics were commissioned by the Roman patron Maecenas in an attempt to root the new Augustan empire in rustic Italy. In ancient Athens, tragic drama such as Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy furnished the sort of shared national experience which Tony Blair would blind himself for.

In the third quarter of the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold recommended ‘sweetness and light’ [Culture 1] as the way to offset anarchy and incorporate ‘the mob’ into civilisation. Half a century ago, the Festival of Britain exemplified ‘the social inclusion agenda’. Yet in none of these instances did Culture 3 succeed in swamping Culture 1. History seems to bear out Landry’s case for mutually beneficial interaction between Culture 1 and Culture 3.

Yesterday’s examples can never account for today’s developments, however. Whereas the historical interaction of Culture 1 and Culture 3 was predicated on their differences as much as their connections, in today’s context it is much more difficult for Culture 1 to retain its distinct character. This is because of the intervention of Culture 2, the non-judgmental notion of culture as a whole way of life.

In this notion there is no place for the distinction between high and low culture. In its application by social critics since the 1960s, it has served to deconstruct not only the canon of high cultural artifacts, but also the aesthetic qualities which underpinned it. Intended as a liberation strategy, severing culture from its traditions has cut it off from its constituent elements.

Aesthetic qualities are the only means through which culture constitutes itself as something different from the rest of society. The degree to which a novel or a painting conforms and reforms the laws of art is one and the same as the extent to which it is cultural. Now that very few people are prepared to uphold the laws of art and construct an hierarchy of art works according to their aesthetic qualities, what’s left is culture with the cultural taken out: primarily therapeutic, with content rendered arbitrary.

Without recourse to the laws of composition, the piper is in no position to wrest the tune back from he who pays. Instead of interaction between Culture 1 and Culture 3, with Culture 2 as catalyst we now face the absorption of the former by the latter. Unless we stand up for culture against society, the balance between the two will be lost, and the cultural is likely to be occluded as well as included in the social agenda.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) See the Institute of Ideas website

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