Art, Culture, and Progressive Change

Culture is us.  It surrounds us, shapes our perceptions and beliefs.  And it is also our collective creation.  Its impact comes from our core biology as much as our psychological make up.  It is part of the tide that shapes policies and carries us through history.  And yet we are not just passive responders.  We have a role and therefore a responsibility.  As another new year begins, perhaps one of our resolutions should focus on how we contribute to the bottom-up processes that culminate in culture.  Culture is political!  As two commentators recently said:

“[Culture] is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change.  Or to put it another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.  Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Major League Baseball debut preceded Brown v. Board of Education by seven years.  Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out on her TV sitcom preceded the first favorable court ruling on same-sex marriage by eight years.”   (“Culture Before Politics,” by Jeff Chang & Brian Komar, The American Prospect, Jan/Feb. 2011)

Culture is not only the totality of our every day activity but also the way we think about our behavior and our world.  Culture is the set of mythologies through which we give meaning to our lives and relationships.  It is the socially created narrative of our lives that we say to ourselves.   Culture impacts politics not so much through “objectivity, data, and argument” as through “values, images, and stories.”

Culture has many layers: the fine arts, pop culture, movies, digital media, sports and recreation, individual and social behaviors, religious and civic rituals and ideologies, and more.  It has a range of deliberate motivations:  inspirational depiction of beauty or spirituality; forcing recognition of difficult truths; entertainment; profit; and self-expression.  It is driven by changes in the types of energy we use (from animal/muscle to steam/mechanical to electrical/digital) as well as the technologies that depend on it (communication, transportation, and production), and also by demographics, war, and the natural environment.

The modern commercial media is a particularly powerful shaper of culture.  In practitioners’ endless efforts to grab our attention in order to turn it over to advertisers, they tend to focus on the primal emotions – love, hate, disgust, fear.  They also tend to troll the fringes of society looking for new images or trends – which they then indirectly “normalize” by incorporating them into increasingly mainstream venues.  Violent video games and movies are both a diversion for many and a tutorial for a few – while making it much easier for all of us to imagine the possibility of such violence in the “real world.”

It is a testimony to the power of mass media that most Americans think that murder is a common crime and that most of the world thinks every American is rich; that young people are not shocked by the election of an African-American president or the presence of homosexuals in the military; that we’ve become more worried about the growing deficit rather than the exploding levels of inequality.

Culture shapes what we think is desirable or disgusting, what is good and what is evil, what is possible or impossible, even what is thinkable or unthinkable.  Its psychological power is not merely sociological, but biological.  In their new book, two neurologists point out:

“Your brain constructs reality…The brain constructs what it perceives based on… prior experiences and memories….shaped in large part by culture, family upbringing, advertising, peer pressure, and spiritual inclination… People see what they expect to see and believe what they already believe…”  (Sleights of Mind, by Stephen Macknick & Susana Martinez-Conde, 2010)*

Even more radically, while there may be a universal and timeless set of core human emotions and physical sensations, in his 1992 book, From Paralysis To Fatigue, medical historian Edward Shorter pointed out that we express everything from our physical sensations to our innermost emotional pain in culturally-provided language, images, and methods. (Similar points are made by Ethan Watters in Crazy Like Us, 2010.) And the insight can be extended from the “symptom pool” of bodily and mental disease to our feelings about our daily lives and our perceptions about the world around us.  Shorter wrote:

“The surrounding culture provides our unconscious minds with [a pool of] templates, or models….In some historical periods certain items in the pool are frequently drawn upon, in others scarcely at all.  How does the culture of a given period decide which…to select?  It depends on representations of what is thought be to legitimate…”

And those “representations” come from our surrounding culture.  For all of our vaunted individualism, we are pieces of our society.

Given all this, it is both inevitable and healthy that, both individually and collectively, most of us seek to retain what we value from the past as we struggle to deal with the challenges of today.  This is why so many political movements are wrapped around nostalgia – fighting to regain lost dignity or violated values, idealized past community patterns or once-protective hierarchies.  This is why even many progressive movements seem to face the future with eyes in the back of their heads.

At first thought, this leaves us in a very depressing hole.  Few of us will create major movies or TV shows, produce great art or music, write classic books or even memorable poetry.  We are small players in the culture wars.

But culture is not merely a top-down creation shoved into our minds by the elite’s in control of the surrounding society.  It is also the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts aggregation of our individual social relationships, statements, and actions.  This is not a “support your local starving artist” appeal, although as a former actor I would applaud it.  Nor is it a plea for every advocacy group to create a media/education/outreach component, although that is a really good strategic idea. And most of all its not an “we are all artists at heart” sophorific (anyone who’s ever heard me singing would know better.

Still, we are producers as well as consumers of culture in its broadest sense.  Culture happens when we cease to be alone.  It is created by what we do for, with, and because of other people.  To the extent we embody compassion, honesty, trustworthiness, courage, generosity, serenity, wisdom, and joy in our dealings we are shaping the culture.  As is the time we put into parenting, the way we travel, the food we eat, the effort we make for neighborhood improvement.  The big outline of culture is shaped by the big forces shaping our society.  But culture is also composed of small things.  We may be swimming upstream, but if enough of us splash we can influence the flow around us.

* One illustrative way we manufacture our own perceptions is in art.  Writing about the Ghent Alterpiece, Peter Schjeldahl writes (“The Flip Side,” The New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2010): “A seductive softness in the flesh of Mary’s throat owes to one long stroke, indicating a crease, of slightly varied flesh color.  Van Eyck understood that realism doesn’t require verisimilitude but only just enough visual cues to exploit the mind’s credulity.  We know now…that seeing is not a direct register of what meets our eyes but a fast mental construction that squares sensations with memory and desire: what we believe and wish reality to be.  Our science would have seemed childishly obvious to van Eyck.”

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