On the Topic of Culture (1)

(This is a reedited version of a speech to the Arts Umbrella Community on September 7, 2011 in Vancouver, Canada)

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.

Part Two can be found here……