January 04, 2013

Derry-Londonderry - City of Culture? What is Culture?

In a recent BBC Radio 4 series entitled The Value of Culture Melvyn Bragg delved into the world of culture. Exploring where the word has come from. What culture means. How its meaning has changed. What mass culture is and where we're going with culture today.
The starting point throughout the five part series was the poet and critic Matthew Arnold who is famous for his celebrated work Culture and Anarchy.

He uttered in 1869 what have now come to be seen as the most famous words written on culture. He said of culture: "(culture is) the great help out of our present difficulties; the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know the best which has been thought and said in the world."

Matthew Arnold was largely referring to philosophy and literature. But as we saw over the 5 instalments is that the meaning of culture is not fixed, it is fluid and ever changing. We have come to see culture as one of the most complicated words in the English language and one of the most multi-faceted concepts in the world.

Talk of culture is a semantic minefield. Open to interpretation but tied to traditional view points, personal conjectures, preferences, bias and collective understandings.

Since Matthew Arnold started discourse on culture in 1869 anthropologists and scientists have taken their spin on the subject; but potentially the greatest turning point has been the arrival of universal education, tv and the internet. These last developments have brought cultural forms to an ever bigger audience - they democratised culture.

But what is culture today? Can it still help the downtrodden individual as Arnold suggested? Can we put a value on it? What does culture really mean to Derry-Londonderry?

What is Culture Today?

One contemporary description is that culture can be divided into two types. Big C culture is, similar to what Matthew Arnold said, all work of artists, philosophers and writers. But we know since Arnold's time the meaning and reach of culture has changed. And so the other type of culture is the small c one. By that we mean everything that isn't nature. So all that we do, wear, practice and hand down.

There is undoubtedly a spectrum of culture and even the explanation above can be seen as simplistic. Others suggest that it can be divided into 3 broad categories: high culture, entertainment and the things that we do. 

Another description is that culture is everything that is not nature. Everything that we inherit from our forebears; it is what your tribe did and does. 

With the modern description of culture given, how does it work today? The most widely accepted view is that big C culture, or high culture has given way to mass/pop culture. So pop and rock stars are venerated whilst the classical works of poetry and literature which had for so long nourished the minds of society have given way.
Can Culture Help People?

Ostensibly culture can help people. Too often people have a poverty of aspiration. But if people can open and study the great works and get involved in the best practices they can make new relations, stimulate new thinking, broaden their horizons, open up their perspective and nourish the spirit. 

However too often culture is closed off to those who need it most. So lets open up the walled citadel of culture. Lets move it beyond the cliques of critics and echo chambers of academia. Lets take it to those who need it most. For by bringing it to them we have the potential to radically change them.

Can We Put a Value on Culture?

Culture lives and breathes across a spectrum. It comes with no simple definition but it is both broad an fluid. However all too often people measure culture according to a hierarchy. A hierarchy that employs a class like structure that divides the world of culture into competing divisions. 

Even though culture is a world that is supposed to include all and exclude nothing.

By and large the traditionalists, middle and higher classes elevate the traditional concepts of culture; and so hey look down on the lower classes who largely ignore their cultural preferences. 

And then the lower classes embrace the most modern and recent and cultural developments. 

The higher classes look down with disdain on those who embrace pop culture and the lower classes look up with contempt on those who embrace the old forms. So can we put a value on culture? Yes in a way but in a perverse sense.

So we need to stop the perverse perceptions of culture and encourage a broader and more inclusive view on culture. So that people across the social spectrum can enjoy culture across its spectrum.
Derry-Londerry and the year of culture - good for Northern Ireland?

What a coup for Northern Ireland and its second city to snatch the title. It's clearly good for the economy, community moral and even the politics. 

But most of all its good for Northern Ireland's arts, music and literature - that is of course, cross-community arts, music and literature. The concern going forward is that we must work to ensure that we do not employ a competing hierarchy of culture. Or, since we're in Northern Ireland, a culture war. We must see the different cultural forms as inclusive and apolitical.

If both protestants and catholics can sit round a room or conference hall and enjoy a poetry reading or music together we will be taking bold and positive steps forward. Cultural steps that can do far more than any fictitious political steps; for culture is of, by and for the people.
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