Culture and Process

It is always a challenge to talk about culture, but in particular to offer by way of discourse something new on a subject that is as old as civilization itself. This latter point came to mind when I was viewing Werner Herzog’s new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams which is shot in 3D and takes place in the Chauvet Caves in France. The images in the cave are at least 30,000 years old. They reflect an extraordinary desire to picture the world since they were created under very difficult circumstances, most likely with very little available light but by artists with exceptional talent. The images reflect a deep desire to connect aesthetics with form. They are all closely linked to each other inadvertently creating a narrative that may well have been repeated in many other caves and in many other more distant locations. This suggests that not only is the creation of art fundamental to the human psyche, but also that humans could not survive without it.

As Brian Boyd recently suggested: “A work of art acts like a playground for the mind, a swing or a slide or a merry-go-round of visual or aural or social pattern.” (On the Origin of Stories, 2009: 15)

The integration of play with creativity and curiosity seems transparently clear to those of us who have devoted our lives to the arts, but for reasons that I will discuss today, as much as we recognize the importance of art, we also devalue its role, contribution and voice. This could be one of the great golden ages for the arts. My hope is that it will be. But, there are storm clouds on the horizon that we all need to be watchful about.

Over the last fifteen years, the cultural sector along with the small number of institutions devoted to learning in and for the arts in Canada have been involved in a difficult and challenging debate.

On the one side, some argue that culture is essential to the fabric and nature of Canadian society and that culture defines not only who we are, but also how we live and in some instances how we should live. On the other side, are advocates for what I will describe as the economic argument for the arts using the term Cultural Industries as a catch all for culture’s contribution to the GDP and to the economic well being of our society.

I want to talk to you today about why both positions need revision and rethinking and why we have reached a crucial phase in the broad based discussions that our communities are having about culture and its importance.

First, we need to understand that there are many definitions of culture, so many in fact that the term itself has lost much of its power. This is not a minor issue because in its present usage culture encapsulates nearly everything we do, which means that we have no clear definition for it and no way of distilling what is special about creative engagement and the creative life. This has implications for the role and importance of artistic engagement, because we end up replacing the uniqueness of creativity with assembly line notions of production and consumption.   

Second, it is proving to be very difficult to sustain the argument that creative cultures are essential to our everyday lives. As our economic crisis deepens, various elements of our culture appear superfluous even as people seek out alternative venues to relax, learn and be entertained. Although not a given and very dependent on context, creative work is also meant to challenge, sometimes caustically.

What we are seeing today is a separation among various creative forms with some like interactive gaming appropriating the history of aesthetic expression for popular purposes while others in the fine arts continue to rely on an exclusive gallery system for validation. This separation has its own challenges, not the least of which is the decline of serious art criticism in our newspapers and the almost complete absence of art among mainstream broadcasters.     

At the same time, we are undergoing a massive conversion to digital technologies and it FEELS as if artists are leading the way. I say feels because if you take a close look at what is happening you will notice that cultural creators are still for the most part ensconced in the same fragile relationships that they have always had with the state, the business community and the population at large. Despite all of the discussion of DIY cultures and social media and despite the societal recognition that creativity is at the heart of what we do, the gap between artists and their communities has not changed all that much in the last fifty years.


Digital cultures are hugely democratizing because they encourage many different forms of creative output, but this does not mean that the works being produced will find a significant place in our society. In fact, we now need more and more sophisticated curatorial strategies to even understand the range of what is being produced. So much is being created that we are inverting and dissolving conventional notions of high and low culture and this is leading to what I will describe as a series of micro-cultures. Micro cultures are both an exciting development and also full of pitfalls. They reflect the increasing fragmentation of cultural activity into interest groups often driven by very narrow concerns. At the same time, they represent a profound change in the conditions which drive the production of creative work.   

How is that the creation of cultural artifacts that are so essential to our sense of community and nation exist in such a fragile relationship with the population and government? If there is a consensus that the arts are important why do most cultural organizations struggle and in many instances rely on government funding and public philanthropy for their survival? The only conclusion that can be drawn from these contradictions is that cultural creativity is not that essential, which is why cultural organizations are always the first to feel the sting of government cutbacks. I will return to this point in a moment.

Third, the move to identify the arts in particular as functional parts of a cultural economy carries with it many dangers. One of the most serious is that we conflate the deeply felt desire on the part of a significant number of people in our communities to satisfy their yearning to create with the outcomes of that creativity. It is so important to understand that creativity does not necessarily mean that there will be identifiable and valuable outcomes to the process. The key word here is process. It is the same with learning. If all we are aiming for are outcomes, then we will end up with a linear process, one that is predetermined by what we anticipate from it. Part of the joy of creativity and learning how to be creative particularly in the arts is that we don’t know exactly where we will end up nor do we often know why we even began.

The joy here comes from the quest. And if the final object, process or event reflects our deepest sense of what we want to say and why, then that should be enough. As we know, in the present context, it is not.

We need to sharpen our understanding of this contradiction. In the 18th century culture meant something very specific, usually related to crafts and to guilds. Although many of the arts were practiced in elite contexts and produced for the elite, the distinctions between creativity and everyday life were neither sharp nor seen as necessary. In other words, the boundaries between the arts and other activities were permeable.

Over the last fifty years or so that permeability has decreased to the point where creative practices are now classified as one of many professions. In fact, from a policy perspective the systems of classification that we have in place are very convenient. However, and quite ironically, if creators are engaged with their work, they are likely to make a mockery of the classifications largely because the voyage of creative engagement often has no clear purpose. This is in fact the opposite of what traditional professions are designed to accomplish which is why the most current word used to explain how people enter various professions is training. Purpose of course has many meanings as well as outcomes. The same issue haunts research. If it is too directed towards outcomes then there will be few surprises and innovation will be stifled.


The Literate Future

At the conclusion of a short piece on text, literacy and the Internet, Nicholas Carr suggests the following about the digital age: "Writing will survive, but it will survive in a debased form. It will lose its richness. We will no longer read and write words. We will merely process them, the way our computers do."

I want to take issue with this pessimistic prediction. At every stage of technological change since the invention of the printing press, similar claims have been made. Most often, these claims originate with those people more likely than others to be both literate and dependent on traditional forms of explanation and exposition. The appearance of the telephone in the 1850's led to predictions of the death of conversation. The growth in the distribution of books and magazines in the 19th century led to predictions that writing, both as process and creative activity would be debased. More recently, the growth of digital tools and their pervasive use led to predictions that creative practices like painting would disappear. (The reverse is true. There has been a renaissance in interest in painting in most Art Schools and a significant rise in attendance at museums showing both contemporary works as well as paintings from different historical periods.) The invention of the cinema in the 1890's led both politicians and critics to suggest that the theater was dead.

In most cases, the advent of new technologies disrupts old ways of doing things. Equally, the disruption builds on the historical advantages conferred upon the medium through its use and modes of distribution. Text is everywhere in the digital age, and while it may be true that attention spans have decreased (although research in this area is very weak), that says nothing about how people use language to communicate whether in written or verbal form.

The example that is most often cited as evidence that there has been a decline in literacy is text messaging. What a red herring! Text messaging is simply the transposition of the oral into text form. It is a version of speech not of writing. It neither indicates a loss of ability nor an increase in literacy. Rather, and more importantly, text messaging is another and quite creative use of new technologies to increase the range and often the depth of communications among people.

The beauty of language is its flexibility and adaptability. The various modes of conversation to which we have become accustomed over centuries have a textured and rich quality that depends on our desire to communicate. That desire crosses nearly every cultural and political boundary on this shrinking earth. Rather than worry about whether text messaging will undermine literacy, we need to examine how to use all of the new modalities of communications now available to us to enhance the relationships we have with each other. That is the real challenge, quality of exchange, what we say and why and how all of that translates into modes of expression that can be understood and analyzed.