14. Culture: substance and idols
This post is also available in: Catalan
Joan F. Mira
Institut d’Estudis Catalans
Before we talk about the “concept of culture” or about any attempt to define such an over-used term, we should remind ourselves of a few self-evident truths, like this one: society, the majority of the more or less enlightened population (“cultured” people in all countries, and in each country…) only apply the term culture – in its “elevated” sense, in the dignified, superior sense – to that which is presented and promoted with this attribute by those who have the power to do so; in other words, by the political, institutional, social, “media” or academic power, or whoever else that may be. This is how it is, it’s undeniable, but it needs to be repeated from time to time, because we often forget the simplest facts, especially when they don’t lend themselves to theoretical brilliance. Culture theorists, on the other hand, usually examine their colleagues’ books or papers in great detail, extracting even more theory from them (more contemplation and more ‘spectacle’, which is what ‘theory’ also means in Greek) and they tend to pay little attention to the trivial and very unassuming normal function of people and words. However, we should really be following the advice of Sir Francis Bacon, founding father of the empirical method. He recommended arriving at the knowledge of form or essence by starting with the facts and by means of induction: observing, checking, comparing, and then finally, if possible, reaching some sort of conclusion and definition. It could be, in this case or field we’re working in, that culture doesn’t have an “essence” or a form of its own, but in any case, if it does, it isn’t a substance nor does it have ‘a priori’ any identifiable and definable attributes, it is that which functions socially as “culture” and that receives this name and this recognition. An extremely sad conclusion, empty of content, redundant and perfectly useless, probably because there is no possible definition. Not, therefore, any independent and “objective” idea, let’s say, of culture, but instead an often scattered set of facts and realities that circulate and operate more or less effectively. In the same way that “intellectuals” are a normally disperse set of people who circulate and function as such, who are seen or identified by others, or who identify themselves as such. But if we ask in a survey, “what is an intellectual?” or the person concerned, “are you an intellectual (and why)?” they may not know how to answer, or the answers may be quite strange… They are hazy voices, with no substance. So expressions like “contemporary culture is…”, “the values of modern culture are…”, “today’s society lives in a culture that…”, “cultural trends in the late 20th century and the early 21st century are…”, and so many others in the same vein, are little more than a ‘flatus vocis’. But there’s a lot of theory and many texts, and very well qualified ones at that, on “culture, etc., etc.”, that without these puffed up voices would deflate until there was nothing, just an empty appearance, a coloured balloon.
Let’s remember. Who thought, at the start of the 20th century, that machines, locomotives or factories ‘were’ culture? Nobody. Well, soon afterwards, Marinetti and the Futurists thought it, but in a very particular way: they thought that they were art or the subject of art, the powerful art of the industrial future. In any case, industrial infrastructure a century ago was not “culture”, and now ‘those same’ factories, locomotives and machines are ‘cultural objects’ in museums of industrial archaeology, they are the topic of discussions and conferences, of beautifully illustrated books and major exhibitions. All organised by departments and institutions that administer ‘culture’. The objects are the same ones, but whereas before they functioned simply as industrial or transport objects, they now function as cultural expressions, presented with the added value of history and aesthetics, and therefore worthy of a new form of appreciation and contemplation. This is the issue: they’re presented (by intellectuals, those in the know, experts, specialists, etc.) as worthy of intellectual respect, and that means they’re already “high” culture and their agents are highly respected. Up until the 18th century, musicians were not “high” or “respectable” for example, and until the second half of the 20th century, neither were cooks, dressmakers and hairdressers, etc.; now they are personalities who people listen to, high culture, members of the “intellectual class”. They do the same things but they aren’t perceived or seen in the same light, now they’re part of the “high” level of culture (as well as in terms of money, social presence and contact with “power”), now their words, actions, products and ideas all exercise public influence via the media, etc.; they’re intellectuals! Aren’t they? And why not? Let’s look at idols…
Clearly, for Sir Francis Bacon, Earl of Verulam, the “idols of the tribe”, the “idols of the cave”, the “idols of the marketplace” and the “idols of the theatre”, which he criticises in ‘Novum organum’, were false images and false forms of perception, preventing us from getting to the reality of things as they really are. But precisely in this field of culture things ‘are not what they are’, but what they appear or are represented to be: their cultural ‘reality’ is their presentation, or representation, or image, or appearance. So, their recognised value is as solid or as shifting as shares on the stock exchange or currency converters, it depends on credit, on confidence, on institutional support, maybe on speculation, perhaps on expert opinion (another plague, pest or epidemic – another idol). And this, evidently, doesn’t prevent, but rather enables, monumental frauds occurring from time to time (three quarters, no less, of so-called “contemporary art”, including a considerable proportion of exhibits in the most prestigious galleries of museums in this sphere, are a perfect fraud, I have absolutely no doubt about it, fraud with a multitude of accomplices and beneficiaries; the other quarter is probably a solid and well thought out investment. In terms of examples, anyone interested can find them in practically all the cities in Europe). This also doesn’t prevent what often happens on the stock exchange or in publishing fashions, that, to use physically noisy terms, we can go from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’, or from explosion to fart. We already know that the visible use of idols is to attract, unite and congregate believers around images and representations familiar to the community, and thereby – with worship, veneration, ritual and in short, faith – consolidate the cohesion we normally call “social”. This is why the people of Israel had so many problems remaining united over the centuries, because Yahweh insisted that they should be tribes without idols (and if they did not completely disintegrate it was thanks to the Ark, the Law and the Temple, which all played an equivalent role). It’s a role that Imperial Rome was very clear about with the cult of images of the Emperor, or Christian Europe with saints and holy mothers of God. Now we think, what would a contemporary country do with no “cultural” works and names commonly or mainly recognised as valuable role models? To whom would it attribute this ‘worship of culture’ – the worship of universal gods and of the particular gods of each country – that has become necessary in every human society that regards itself as modern and more or less well run? Whether idols are divinity itself or simply a representation of it is largely irrelevant, the same as whether this divinity is “true” or “false”: what counts is the extent of public devotion, the impact and effectiveness of the rituals and the strength of faith.
The most visible result is that, in the same way that (five centuries or two centuries ago or one, or in many cases and circumstances more than half a century) “the people” of any country we would call western, ‘lived’ in an atmosphere “loaded with religion”, surrounded by religion, breathing religion, saturated by religion, now breathe culture; now we’re saturated and surrounded by culture, we ‘live in’ “culture”, whether we search for it and whether we like it or not. I mean that the presence of what we usually call “culture” (whatever its content…) is so abundant, dense, vague, every day and penetrating – even publicly imposed and you might say compulsory – as it was “before” the presence of what we normally call “religion”. With its temples, hierarchies and ceremonies, with public and private worship, and with the occupation of the mental and emotional space of both individuals and groups. The idols of culture (and especially the people idolised) are not only obstacles to knowledge, as Francis Bacon would say, they are not only images and representations, they also frequently appear to be divinities themselves – in human form, or living in eternal glory – worthy of the most diverse forms of worship, worthy of idolatry. Who is, then, the brave one – the heretic, the excommunicated – who practises a healthy and moderate form of iconoclasm and dares to say in public that, for example, that this building by this famous architect is a pretentious piece of nonsense and out of place, that most of the work by this celebrated and extremely expensive painter is complete rubbish, or that many texts by this great writer are actually meaningless and of no interest? When we think about doing it, we can think of a good many reasons but we might perhaps lack the courage…