When we say ‘culture’, what do we mean?

Image of Peter Aspden

With an admirable high-mindedness that borders on the perverse, BBC Radio 4 is celebrating New Year by pondering a weighty question: what is it that we mean by culture? The Value of Culture, whose five daily episodes begin on New Year’s Eve, is presented by Melvyn Bragg, who has made a rightly garlanded career out of this very theme. Bragg has celebrated a vibrant and diverse range of cultural forms in his broadcasting for television and radio, which gives an extra edge to his finally succumbing to the existential question at the heart of his researches: what has he – and what have we – been talking about all these years?

In the first programme, a zingy prelude to the counting-in of 2013, Bragg turns to a currently unfashionable name from the past: that of Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet, educationalist and essayist whose 1869 publication Culture and Anarchy can be seen as a starting point for the debate.

Arnold is too easily ridiculed these days for his Christmas-card approach to the purposes of culture. Its principal aim, he said, was “to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light”. Without delving too deeply into individual examples, culture was “the best that has been thought and said”. It had an inspiring, and also a palliative effect: it could be a “great help out of our present difficulties”.

To laud the benefits of culture is commonplace these days (not least in the past few years, when there has been a Cultural Olympiad to sell) but Arnold’s pleas for its abiding relevance were considered controversial. Politicians satirised the feyness of cultural types, who were lambasted for their selfishness, indecision, pedantry, exclusiveness and vanity. Regard for culture was not what made Britain great, they said: it was the growing economic might of the empire that fuelled national well-being.

But Arnold would have none of it. He regarded culture – in essence, an inventory of worthy canonical works that satisfied the “sheer desire to see things as they are” – as a self-evident social and moral good. Indeed, he was sceptical of the industrial machismo that saw value only in material things:

“What an unsound habit of mind it must be which makes us talk of things like coal or iron as constituting the greatness of England,” he wrote. Culture was the only thing that could guarantee dignity in the face of the social injustices of capitalism. It was “men of culture [who were] the true apostles of equality”.

Arnold’s fervent writing may act today as a reliable springboard for Bragg’s inquiry, but it was also an end-point. In the years following his death, there would be political uprising, Marxist revolution, the jarring challenges of modernism. Arnold’s dream of basking in sweetness and light would be rendered foolish. His insistence on the harmonising effects of culture turned out to be a rearguard action. No one much believed in it once the 20th century began its bloody march; certainly not after Auschwitz.

Furthermore, just two years after Culture and Anarchy, the appearance of EB Tylor’s Primitive Culture, a founding text of social anthropology, began to change the meaning of the word “culture” forever. It was not some kind of enlightening creed to be placed on a metaphorical pedestal; it was a complex cluster of social mores that included more or less all human activity. It was to be studied, compared and contrasted. When we talk today of “multi-culture”, it is myriad different customs and activities that we are talking about.

The two senses of culture – as the body of semi-sacred knowledge that improves us, and the loose-knit anthropological term – are freely interchanged in argument today, leading to a muddled debate over its benefits. The muddle is something that goes beyond the contrast between “high” and “low”: it confuses aspiration with mere description. The elision of the two meanings produces no end of rotten arguments. For example: because culture is good for you, exposure to lots of different cultures will be even better for you. It may be true, but not necessarily.

I can’t help feeling that Arnold has had the last laugh. Because his view of culture, traditionally regarded as staid and conservative, was actually more radical than even he realised. Arnold also regarded culture as a process, one that transcended the works of art and literature that he held so dear. Even without books and reading, he wrote, it was possible to be cultured, by “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”. Culture was no reading list after all. It was interrogation; challenge; the endless spirit of inquiry.

In this, Arnold seems to have anticipated the 21st century. Our notions of the best art and literature involve precisely that sense of dislocation and conceptual play, which is where that stream of fresh and free thought leads us. Remarkably, unlike the vainglorious experiments of modernism, this is no longer an elite concern: millions flock to Tate Modern’s puzzling installations, to pop-up happenings, to open-ended readings and screenings.

We have outgrown the need to cling to a comforting canon of received wisdoms, because we know that sweetness and light is no longer a meaningful aspiration; it too quickly succumbs to darkness and bitterness, and then back again. Culture is the expression of that terrifying ebb and flow of human affairs. We are resigned to it. In that sense, we are more cultured today than ever.

‘The Value of Culture’, BBC Radio 4, December 31-January 4


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