What does the word 'culture' mean today?

What does the word

Knowledge advances when it discerns. Wherever a word came to designate some object in a generic or indeterminate way, the intelligence , penetrating and incisive as a razor’s edge, is pleased to distinguish new words or invent new meanings to refer more specifically to the richness of shades that this object contains when it is submitted to a more rigorous intellectual analysis. And by dint of progressive discernments, humanity is endowed with a broader and finer discourse and, finally, knows the world with greater accuracy.

Think of the word love . It was formerly applied both to the movement of the planets by their orbits and to the surrender of one’s life for the fatherland, the possessive passion for another person or the copulation of animals. This semantic ambiguity annoys the intelligence, which always wants to divide the object that the experience shows in a confused way, decompose it analytically in its parts and, thanks to these operations, understand it better to, in its case, dominate and transform it. For that purpose the language strives to establish a table of meanings of the word love or to add, within the same semantic family, terms that provide different nuances or contexts of use: falling in love, attraction, sex, passion, fidelity, charity , desire, altruism. An advance of this nature is observed daily in the scientific field: what the ancients called, for example, madness or melancholy , today we diagnose it as bipolar syndrome or manic-depressive illness. Science configures a tree of medical terms that, divided into branches and sub-branches, organizes the variety of psychic pathologies with extremely high clinical precision. Well-established nomenclature that paves the way for healing.

The most transcendental words of a language and with greater symbolic force accuse a load of superior ambiguity and for that reason the need to distinguish between meanings and possible contexts is made in these cases even more compelling.

Culture is, without doubt, one of those transcendent and ambiguous words. When we talk about culture, what do we mean? We observe that the context can mutate the use of the word, often without elevating that mutation to a conscious plane among the speakers, which is the source of many misunderstandings or only apparent agreements. It seems useful, therefore, to state its main uses. They are four.

Image and interpretation

Image and interpretation

We say Western culture and in doing so we mention that set of beliefs and customs, historically decanted and structured in interpretative frameworks, shared by members of the same community. We say ancient culture or modern culture and in doing so we allude to that same set but now in its temporal dimension. Even if there are common elements, no one would deny that a Frenchman and a Chinese belong to separate cultures and that this belonging essentially determines the way in which both see the world. The same can be said about this Frenchman in the successive stages of history: the vision of a medieval French is not the same as that of a Renaissance, enlightened, romantic, modern or postmodern French. What makes that vision different? Culture. When using the concept of culture in this first sense, we often use two metaphors: culture as an image of the world , on the one hand, and culture as an interpretation of the world , on the other. Both designate more or less the same, only that the first puts the accent on the iconic and the second, on the linguistic.

We look at things from an image of the world , a mental constellation of unconscious evidence, historical and social origin. The image of the world of men of antiquity does not match the image of the modern world. The mythical-minded ancient Greeks looked at the Milky Way and thought they saw spots of milk shed by Hercules when suckling from their mother’s womb, while we, the modern, scientific-minded, see there certain formations of matter that we call galaxies. Although they face the same reality, the Frenchman, with all the persuasion of a non-problematic evidence, sees a different world than the one that sees the Chinese and that disparity obeys a lens -the culture- that creates a particular perspective for him. And as with glasses for the myopic, culture is not something that we see but precisely the condition of possibility of vision, that which, being invisible to us, enables us to see things, including ourselves.

The other metaphor about culture assumes that the world is a text that is capable of being read. To this metaphor – the world as a book – Hans Blumenberg dedicated a beautiful essay: The readability of the world (1981). Whenever we read a text we interpret it. The same text is read differently by different people, even by the same person in successive moments of his biography. Hence the plurality of readings that have given rise, for example, the Antigone of Sophocles or the Quixote of Cervantes. To read them is to interpret them in our own way, according to our vital urgencies and our circumstantial environmental conditions. There is not a single unique or authentic reading of these works, because, by their very nature, they open up to many interpretations.

Nothing else happens with the real world in which we live, move and exist. The whole world – from the minerals to the supreme being passing through the intermediate stages – resembles one of those books caused by a plurality of possible interpretations. And we are condemned to know it not directly – there is no authentic, pure or direct knowledge of the facts – but through that detour which are the words that interpret it. And the words of natural and everyday language, to which the senses and meanings with which we construct our interpretation -words such as justice, dignity, courage, truth or beauty- are attached, we have not created them individually, we borrow them from our language maternal: French, Chinese. So that no one knows strictly the naked reality that he experiences every day (the thing itself), but he reads it and interprets it, and both operations are performed within the linguistic universe of his mother tongue, which frames the limited number of interpretations possible of the world for an individual of that community and of that time (a French today, a Chinese today). We say French culture or Chinese culture and with that we refer, then, to that general interpretation of the world that most French and Chinese share because they use the same language to communicate with each other and to understand themselves.

What we affirm about the metaphor of the image has to be repeated now with respect to the metaphor of interpretation: that culture, in this first sense, allows us to know but we hardly know it. It structures our mind and heart, but the structure itself remains silent, behind our backs, working in silence. That is why the French interpretation of the world seems to him to be the most natural, not less than the Chinese interpretation of his. And to each one, on the other hand, that of the other gives rise to a sensation of strangeness.

The works

The works

We also call culture to certain works produced ( poiesis ) without utilitarian purpose, mainly for entertainment, disinterested pleasure, aesthetic-moral instruction or pure knowledge. Sometimes these works are created by an anonymous collective (the people): sayings, stories, romances, oral epics, songs or popular festivals. But, although the line that separates popular culture from cultured culture has been shown to be less clear than previously believed, in most cases we call culture, in this second meaning, artistic works – works of literature, music, artistic, philosophical or scientific- with personal authorship.

In the first sense, then, the culture belongs to the totality of the members of a given community (all of them without exception share an image-interpretation of the world), while in the second, on the other hand, the concept is reserved for works made by a very small portion of individuals from that same community: poets, novelists, dramatists, philosophers, painters, sculptors, architects, filmmakers, composers, scientists. In the first meaning, the culture is identified with an unconscious, impersonal and natural vision of the world, while in the second, culture is the result of intentional, personal and artificial work -produced according to the rules of art- of the author of the work. In this second assumption, the field of culture, far from universally extending to the entire human condition, is contracted to a tiny minority: everyone interprets the world, but only a few write a novel, enunciate a scientific law or compose a symphony.

In fact, the vast majority of citizens expect to earn a living practicing a profession or a trade: they produce goods or provide services to satisfy a market demand, which pays them in return for their benefit. Only a small minority, in a certain sense straying from the general channel, feel the inner need to dedicate the best hours of the day, the best days of the year and the best years of their life to something that nobody has demanded: the literary, artistic work or scientific Naturally, these literati, artists or scientists also aspire to make a living in some way. But such an exhaustive dedication to a work does not have as a priority the placing of another merchandise on the market to earn a living. It responds rather to a private infatuation for the perfection that the author of the work imagines intimate to it even before creating it.

The phenomenon of total absorption of the author by the loving gestation of this kind of work is called vocation . The author feels called to apply the totality of his creative energies to generate an original and new work moved by a fascination towards the dignity that he intuits in it, without his intention being, in the first place, the calculation of the price that maybe some day receive in exchange. He knows that his work will be sold, but in the vocational author this is a reflex effect with respect to the main purpose: to enrich the world with a form of perfection that did not exist before.

The most perfect works produced by this minority attract, with the passage of time, sometimes not without initial hesitations, the admiration of people of good taste and, later, they arouse the general acclamation of society, which receives them as models and integrates with pride in the glorious patriotic canon. The linguistic metaphor of the first meaning of culture presented this as an interpretation of the world formed by words of the natural language that each individual borrows from society. Now this language is in permanent mutation, like society itself. Who promotes this renewal? Those few men and women dominated by a useless vocation, who enrich the flow of common language by founding new words or inventing new meanings for them. Through this innovative work, this minority helps to update the future interpretation of the world of the community: they define the dictionary of the words that future generations will borrow.

As Mallarmé writes in Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe , the role of the poet is, in the last analysis, to “give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe” ( donner a sens plus pur aux mots of the tribe ) . Purity understood here as words stripped of anachronism. Purity, in short, as contemporaneity.

The cultural industry

Other times we talk about culture -third meaning- in the sense of cultural industry . The market is the place of the exchange of merchandise. The vocational author produced the work attending mainly to the perfection and dignity of this, anticipated in his seduced imagination. But, once finished, this work in most cases is put on sale and, from that moment, is assimilated to a commodity and is subject to the laws of the market. And promoting exchanges, in the chain of distribution and sale of cultural goods, there appear then the mercantile companies that operate in this sector, such as publishers, auction houses, art galleries, theaters, concert and cinema halls.

The mercantile society pursues the profit and the maximum business benefit through the exchanges of goods to which, like any other merchandise, they are priced. This law is not an exception for companies that offer goods to cultural consumers. It is true that the workers of this specific sector tend to be individuals receptive to the dignity of cultural works, admirers of their perfection and friends to deal with their authors and with refined people eager to acquire those works, possess and enjoy them (bibliophile booksellers, collectors antiquarian , musical music lover, etc.). But the company, if it wants to continue operating in the market, must first try to become viable and know how to put a price on the works, turn them into merchandise, sell as many as possible and obtain an honest income in the exchange.

When jumping from the workshop to the market, the work supports the tension between two antagonistic poles: on the one hand, the fidelity of the author to the vocation and his devotion to the perfection of the work; on the other, the law of the market, the uses of the business and the maximum business benefit. The tension, in short, between what has dignity and what has a price.

This tension remained in equilibrium for many centuries because, in poorly literate societies, the market for culture had traditionally been national and elitist, limited to an enlightened and largely accommodated consumer. But in the last half century this balance has been broken as a result of the globalization of the market and the democratization of the public.

At the end of the 19th century, for example, only a literate and cultivated minority could read a novel and was a potential buyer of it. In the late twentieth century, the Harry Potter series has been sold in all corners of the world, after a global advertising campaign that uses all imaginable forms of marketing, including expensive and spectacular Hollywood productions. Dickens earned money with his novels while JK Rowling with his own has become one of the greatest fortunes of his country and has triggered the benefits of multiple companies that have negotiated the rights to his work.

It is not a unique case. The cultural market is no longer minority and elitist; now it is global and massive, as it can be the financial or automotive. Multinational corporations have abandoned their respect or their traditional indifference to culture (whose production in many respects still followed artisanal patterns), have colonized their territory and made it a part of the very profitable entertainment industry. And this is how it has spread to culture, once ruled by the rationality of vocation, that other rationality characteristic of this kind of industry: the rapid circulation of ephemeral merchandise, the positive value of novelty, the media show and, in last term, the sacralization of success understood as the maximum sales volume (best seller).

As culture can generate extraordinary business benefits, the industry now produces goods designed from their origin to be placed and sold in this specific market, following a process similar to that observed in the other more conventional markets. Here is the risk of mystification. Nothing to object to the existence of cultural goods , a consumer good like any other: shoes, a computer, a tourist trip. The problem lies in the attempt of the cultural commodity to usurp the halo of the authentic culture; that is, that what is done by price is presented to the public as having the aura of a dignity that does not correspond to it.

Let’s think about the book format. In the same shelf of novelties of a bookstore can live a collection of poems written over a long decade, delayed and delicately, by an author who lives in each verse and, with him, the latest historical novel signed by a presenter of a television contest and composed by a team of editors after taking into account the recommendations of the sales department of the editorial stamp and the surveys commissioned on the changing taste of the readers and the general tendencies of reading. Although their nature is opposed, before the public both present the same form of book. Moreover, they share the same distribution and sales channels, and sometimes even the same page in the literary supplement that reviews them.

Cultural policy

Cultural policy

The classic typology of the action of the public administrations distinguishes three modalities: actions of police, of promotion and of public service. Applying these three types to the cultural policy, the legislation on the matter, the surveillance of the sector and the sanctioning power are examples of police activity; subsidies, scholarships and sponsorships are for promotion; and of public service, the management of museums, auditoriums, theaters, libraries, orchestras and publicly owned companies, the care of historical-artistic heritage or the organization of fairs and festivals.

All public actions, in accordance with the legal system, must be presided over by the principle of general interest. The general interest, in this fourth meaning of culture, is defined in terms of the previous two. From this perspective, the mission of the different cultural administrations should be to propitiate the favorable conditions for the creation of cultural works (second meaning) and for their conservation, distribution and business diffusion (third meaning). Although forced to adjust to budgets, cultural policy, unlike the industrial one, is free from the servitude of economic profitability, because its focus is exclusively social profitability. If, on the one hand, this privilege gives it a space for independence, on the other, it is always at risk of losing it. Because the administrative action is subordinated, in fact, to the strategies and priorities of political partisanship, regulated by the law of friend / enemy, the short term of a legislature and the electoral rationality.

Cultural policy raises the interesting theoretical question of its own legitimacy: as long as there is only one unemployed in a society, why not increase the provision of public benefits for unemployment instead of subsidizing the opera house? As long as a single citizen lacks decent housing, how can we explain the restoration of medieval monuments or the financing of astronomical observatories? Before, home and food, then everything else, some will argue.

This objection, convincing to the naked eye, invites us to introduce the philosophical distinction between values ​​with weight and values ​​with height. Because in the context of personal life we ​​do not find a before and after , but the most important values ​​(the most elementary, economic-social, such as food or housing) coexist inseparably with those of more height ( beauty, perfection). It is not necessary exhaustively exhaust all the heavier values ​​to rise to the highest, because the latter are those who, with their dignity, lend existential meaning to the former. It is not only about surviving as a species, but about living as individuals with rectitude and nobility, which is what makes life worth living.

The State has to attend to this double dimension of its citizens at the same time, without allowing the urgent to take the noblest front with the alibi that the latter can wait. The largest share of public budgets, in all known states, is directed to satisfy basic needs, but without excluding other items of cultural policy. And this is because if cultural policy promotes the creation of works by their authors (second meaning) as well as their dissemination and distribution in society (third meaning), in the long term it favors the advance of -in terms of Norbert Elias- the process of civilization, leading to a more refined, more cultured and more intelligent image-interpretation of the world of citizens (first meaning). And among all imaginable public actions, none could exhibit greater general interest than this one.



Here, then, are the four main ways of saying culture . Of course, they are ideal forms and in experience we find people or institutions that embody with great purity some of those four forms, but more often a hybridization of several of them. We all know masters in one of the fine arts who prove to be additionally in the art of earning a living and self-promotion as the most industrious of entrepreneurs would do with one of their products for sale. There are those who feel their vocation, but this does not challenge them with an intensity that absorbs all their energies and consequently fill their lives with other occupations that do not result in their own work but revolve around that of third parties. Or those others who do experience a totalizing vocation, but their fidelity to it is cooled by the seduction of rapid success, a passing media notoriety or the anxiety of a good mercantile contract. It may happen that a work, the excellent fruit of a genuine vocation, obtains a sensational sales success: dignity is then linked to the price and the industry exploits the vocation until it almost exhausts it. An alliance of this kind is observed, for example, in the re-edition of the classics of universal literature, which are defined as authentic long sellers . Finally, the mention, as an eminent expression of this mixture of forms, of the activity carried out by cultural foundations and other analogous institutions of the nonprofit sector must not be absent: they participate in the techniques of industrial management but ideally they are encouraged by an interest general, not private, analogous to that which, by law, the administrations of cultural policy must follow.

Therefore, in experience we find the four ideal forms and their mixtures. However, the classification exposed maintains its usefulness. Because the answer to the question about the state of culture depends directly on which of the four meanings of the word is being used at that moment. Each of the four forms has its own rationality, its distinctive laws, its specific purposes. And also his tempo . The time of the cultural industry is marked by the annual balance; the one of the policy, the four years of the legislature; the one of the vocation, the whole life of the author that consumes to slow fire in the gestation of the work; the new interpretation of the world, finally, takes generations to crystallize.

From this multiplicity of meanings and tempos, many misunderstandings arise in the discourses on culture, which invites recourse to the discernment of intelligence. In what situation is the culture ?, they interrogate us. It would be necessary to answer differently according to the meaning with which the word is used. How did the economic crisis affect the culture? The same open response. The cut in the budgets of the public administrations has a negative impact on their promotion and public service activities (less subsidies and scholarships, less contributions for cultural institutions of public ownership). The cultural industry, meanwhile, in a time of general contraction of consumption, suffers the decline in demand, including that from the administrations (remember that a high proportion of the cultural industry is still subsidized).

On the other hand, the creativity of the author does not necessarily diminish during a crisis, sometimes even the negative circumstances, which strangle him by putting him to the test, fan his imagination. The collapse of the country would have been very severe for an inspired poet who lacked a piece of paper to sketch his verses with a pencil. Even a musician does not need more than paper laid down to compose a symphony. The difficulties arise in a second moment, at the time of publishing the poems in an editorial or, much more, of premiering a symphony in an audience. Other manifestations of culture, such as scientific research or film production, require by their very nature a high financial investment and this requirement adds even more budgetary and organizational difficulty to the complexity that is already immanent to the cultural work.

But who really live for culture and no culture, who, in love with the sensed work in his imagination, has agreed to devote the best of their existence something no one has asked, who maintains his fidelity to the vocation to Finally, without being discouraged by the thousand insults of fate, he never surrenders and ends up overcoming obstacles, because time conspires in favor of the perfect work, adorned with high dignity.