Saving Culture: On the Importance of “Culture” to Contemporary Cultures


Paradoxically, it is cultural theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu (author of Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste), Jean Baudrillard (author of Simulacra and Simulation) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (author of The Postmodern Condition) that demolished the concept of “culture” during the twentieth century. Writing mostly for an elite audience, they argued in various ways that high “culture” is an artificial, dated and elitist social institution. The greatest irony is that it’s not these elite cultural theorists, but the general public (in its indifference) that is finishing off the destruction of “culture”: not just on paper or in a discourse, but in reality.

What is culture? Culture can mean 1) the practices, values, beliefs and mores of a given society or a “way of life” and 2) various fields in the arts and humanities, including literature, art, cinema, music, poetry, theater, philosophy, dance, literary and art criticism, among others. I’d like to argue that “culture” in the second sense of the term is essential to our “cultures” in the first sense of the term.   I’d like to broach the following questions in this essay: 1) Aside from the institution of the academia and education in general, how do these cultural domains survive and why are they suffering today? My main focus, however, is: 2) Why is culture important to contemporary societies?

1.How does “culture” survive (outside of the academia and educational institutions) and why is it suffering today?

a) Book Clubs. In the U.S. at least, one can’t underestimate the importance of book clubs: both grassroots, neighborhood book clubs that make a difference collectively and those with an enormous impact and readership, such as Oprah’s Book Club. OBC started on the very popular Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996. Each month Oprah and her team of editors selected a new novel to read and discuss on the show, introducing a total of 70 books in 15 years. In June 2012, Oprah started a new book club as a partnership between O: The Oprah Magazine and the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Oprah’s Book Club brought into the limelight the “high culture” genre that usually has the least readership: literary fiction. Some of the most notable examples are: The Corrections in September 2001 and Freedom in September 2010, both novels by Jonathan Franzen, and Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides’s incredible comic epic in June 2007. Since these happen to be some of my favorite novels, I reviewed them on my own blog, Literature Salon:

Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom:

Review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex:

What is so special about literary fiction? And why does it tend to be read much less than mainstream and genre fiction? Actually, I’d have to qualify that the literary fiction that makes it into the canon of literature tends to be more read than most mainstream fiction because it’s often taught in schools. However, that is the exception, not the rule. Most works of literary fiction have a very limited audience, which is why mainstream publishers tend to avoid it unless the author is already very well known or very promising. What sells most, and what readers tend to prefer reading, is genre fiction such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series (fantasy), or novels by Steven King (horror).

Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-paced and engaging plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique, sometimes experimental, style. Genre fiction lends itself to a quick read for a public that has increasingly less leisure time to spend on books and so much audio-visual stimulation to choose from, given the number of cultural shows available on the Internet, TV and radio nowadays. Yet it is the less popular literary and experimental fiction that has greater chances of transforming the field of literature and making us see life—and art—in radically new ways. Unfortunately, the chances for a new novel in this category to gain public visibility by making it on Oprah’s Book Club are probably fewer than winning the lottery. So how is new literature shared with a general audience? This brings me to my next point: public radio and television stations.

b) Culture also makes it to a general audience largely through public television and radio programs that depend upon a combination of government funding and public donations. Unfortunately, during the past few years,  television stations such as the British Broad Casting Corporation (BBC) the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the U.S., Arte (Association Relative à la Européene (a Franco-German TV network) and one of my personal favorites, the Romanian station TVR Cultural are all struggling with the interrelated problems of low or nonexistent profits and decreased funding and viewership. Some of these television and radio stations have adapted to the needs of a modern audience; others have floundered and even gone under. Arte TV, for instance, which began transmission in 1992 in France and Germany, has done relatively well, expanding its programs to Belgium, Austria, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland. Some of the French language shows are available in Canada as well. Adapting to changes in technology, Arte TV now has 24-hour broadcasts available in HDTV, via satellite.  On the other hand, TVR Cultural, the Romanian public television station founded in 2002 and modeled after Arte TV is scheduled to close in September 2012. Some of its shows will move to TVR 2 and TVR 3. Generally speaking, public educational television—the stations that promote “culture”—are not only non-profit, but also a money losing venture, as was the case in Romania. I’ve read several interesting analyses of the subject and I’m including, for those interested, two relevant article links below.

2) Why is culture important to contemporary societies? To my mind, this dwindling support for “culture” is a very unfortunate phenomenon. I’d like to list some of the reasons why I think so by using as my point of departure a few poignant citations by some of my favorite Romanian authors.

a)   “Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds”. ELIE WIESEL

During the most repressive epochs in human history, authors of literary fiction, memoirs and critical essays have been some of the most courageous and outspoken voices of protest. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind, Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape and, of course, Elie Wiesel’s Night took readers into the horrors, the Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general hopelessness that characterized life in totalitarian regimes. Their powerful words of protest reached not only millions of readers, but also entire generations. They echo to this day.  Wiesel also famously stated, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”. It is more difficult to remain indifferent to human suffering when one reads such powerful writing.

 b)  “Literature is a reflexive art”. ION LUCA CARAGIALE

Caragiale was way ahead of his time in so many ways. He’s quoted often, to this day, in Romanian newspapers because  his witty, cynical and poignant remarks about politics apply as much to our contemporary context as they did to his own times. Perhaps Caragiale also foreshadowed the schools of thought—formalism and poststructuralism—that maintain that art and literature are important in and of themselves. This is, of course, not a new conception of art and literature. During the nineteenth-century, Théophile Gautier is credited with coining the notion of “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art). Although art, literature, criticism and philosophy often have moral and social implications, they don’t have to in order to be considered significant. They have an intrinsic value: the expression of human creativity in itself.

c)   “Culture kills naïveté and knowledge chases away ignorance”. GEORGE COSBUC

Philosophy, art, criticism and literature don’t simply  mirror reality. They transform it, along with our assumptions about it. They change our political and social conventions; they make us question others and ourselves more deeply; they help build the foundations of a new reality. Not reducible to mere ideology or polemics, art, philosophy and literature help us interrogate our assumptions about the world and sometimes lead us to arrive at deeper truths.

d)  “The meaning of existence, and every person’s duty, is creation”. MIRCEA ELIADE

This ontological assumption reminds me of an observation that is common sense and repeated often: humankind is the only being on earth that distinguishes himself  (or herself) through the powers of thought (and creation), not merely procreation. Our intellectual and artistic capacities are a large part of what makes us human. We should prize these capacities, express them and maximize them.

e)  “Criticism is a misconception: We must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves”. EMIL CIORAN

Cioran expresses here a fundamental truth about human creativity: Reading–be it poetry, philosophy or literature–is a largely introspective activity. In books we learn so much about human history, about the motivations for human behavior and most of all, as Cioran eloquently states, about ourselves.

In short, we should preserve “culture” because it helps us question our social conventions and transform them; it stimulates to the maximum our creativity; it’s often the first and last recourse to freedom in repressive social and political circumstances; it’s one of the key elements that make us human; and because human creativity needs to be preserved and respected for its own sake.  To conclude with one final quote, as Kenneth Kaunda, the first Zambian president said, “A country without culture is a body without a head”. This basic truth about “culture” applies internationally, to all cultures.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon


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