|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||0. Nr.||August 1997|
|Goals of Culture and Art||
Kim H. Veltman (Maastricht)
As noted above, there is a tendency in the West to associate culture particularly with the fine arts, i.e., painting and sculpture, and the performing arts, symphony, opera, ballet and theatre. One of the interesting paradoxes of the West is that these two strands of culture, the fine arts and the performing arts often exist as if in competition. The audiences who go the performing arts are often different from the "vidiences" who go to museums and galleries. At a more subtle level the themes used are also rather different. The fine arts rely heavily on the Bible, the Lives of the Saints and the great classics of literature: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Divine Comedy. The performing arts often rely on different literary sources. Wagner's operas rely on the legends of the Nibelungen, the tale of Tristan and Isolde. The story of Romeo and Juliet inspired Shakespeare to write one of the greatest theatrical plays, and Tschaikovsky to write one of the greatest operas of all time. These Western literary sources for the performing arts inspired none of the greatest paintings of all time.
||Population, Arts, Artists, Beekeeping|
||Drink, Embroidery, Ceramics, Pottery, Jewellery, Weaving, Basketry, Blown Glass|
||Society, Education, ForeignWorkers|
||Drink, Education, Arts|
||Clothing, Calendar, Arts, Bedouin Gahwa (Coffee Making), Hajj-Pilgrimage to Makkah, A Middle Eastern Lilliput, Jewellery, Miswak- A National toothbrush, Tents of the Arabic Desert|
||Frankincense, Somali the Sub|
||Population, Role of Women|
|Figure 1. List of countries in Arab net(12) and their categories for culture. Compare a Chinese network, which lists mass media, education, arts and sports under culture.|
This seeming co-incidence becomes all the more noteworthy when we realize that the East has very different traditions. In India, Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia and much of South-East Asia, for instance, the greatest literary epics, namely, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have a fundamental influence on the fine arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, illustration) and an even greater influence on the performance arts (puppets, theatre, opera, dance, folk songs, music).(13) In short, the East(14) does not have the same oppositions between fine art and performance arts which are found in the West.
In earlier centuries the English thought of culture as a "refinement of mind tastes and manners," as the "intellectual side of civilisation," while Matthew Arnold saw Culture as "the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world."(15) In the English language, culture is a more widely used concept than civilization. There is, for instance, a story that Dr. Johnson planned to drop the term civilisation from his dictionary. In German, by contrast there are great debates about the relative values of Kultur and Civilization. To complicate matters, most of what the Germans cover under the idea of Civilization,(16) is covered by the English term culture. (Ergo English culture is not German Kultur).(17)
While English refers constantly to other cultures, the nineteenth century Victorians typically frequently assumed that the English tradition offered a model, which all others could try to imitate.(18) In the field of history, for instance, this led to Deacon's Synchronological Chart of Universal History(19) (1890), drawn by Professor Edmund Hull, whose unbridled optimism, spurred partly by Archbishop Usher's scheme for chronology, assumed knowledge of the precise day on which God created the earth, and surveyed all of culture and civilisation in a single chart some five meters long. While international, this chart is still very much from a Eurocentric and indeed from an Anglo-centric viewpoint.
Once we look to cultures around the world the predominance of the fine arts subsides and a much more complex picture emerges. In the National Museum in Taipei, for instance, there is a more recent attempt to draw parallels among all the major civilisations in both the East and the West on three walls of one of their large rooms, which is quite different from Professor Hull's model. A simple search through Arab net confirms that their four most basic concepts of culture are people, language, food (and drink), media and religion. Other categories include arts, artists, architecture, basketry, beekeeping, blown glass, calendar, ceramics, clothing, education, frankincense, population, pottery, role of women, tradition, and even foreign workers (figure 1).
For the purposes of this paper we approach culture in terms of shared experiences, which arise from a small number of different goals for culture and art. At the outset a clear distinction is needed between pre-literate and literate cultures. In pre-literate cultures two goals dominate: connecting and ordering.
In pre-literate times, a first stage of culture emerges as basic needs for survival lead to expressions that go beyond survival: food makes its first steps towards cuisine; utensils towards decorative arts and shelter towards architecture. Precisely because these earliest societies are pre-literate we can have no comprehensive picture of their cultural objects. Indeed our knowledge is limited to materials found in archaeological remains. At this level of culture there is an interesting paradox. On the one hand, these products of food, utensils and shelter serve to connect societies to the earth. On the other hand, as the society advances this connecting function becomes increasingly obscured, as the products of nature are increasingly changed into products of artifice.
Parallel with this linking to the earth (what we now call the profane) and often integrally linked therewith is another sort of connecting with things beyond the individual (what we now call the sacred) as defined by myths and customs, which take the forms of music, dance, song, language and later writing. As the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, the term culture is etymologically linked with cult: with something that one worships.(20)
So called primitive art(21) had a function of connecting a totem in a community with a magical or sacred world beyond it. This connecting function meant that a totem actually became a given deity rather than being a simple representative thereof. A sculpture suited this function much better than a painted representation. Because it served as a bridge between the everyday world of the tribe and a magical world beyond, it had to be sufficiently life-like to be recognizable by its viewers: i.e. anthropomorphism was an inherent part of the system. Yet a fully realistic statue would have linked it too firmly to the present world and thrown into jeopardy its connecting function with a world beyond: i.e. a restricted anthropomorphism was also built into the system. In such a context perspectival realism would have been more of a threat than a goal.
Since these tribal communities were pre-literate there were no canonical texts concerning the shape and meaning of the statue. And in the absence of these sacred texts to establish a sense of community, the sacred statues acquired proto-canonical functions themselves and forged this sense of community directly. Hence any serious deviation in outward appearance was a threat to its connecting function because it introduced the risk that a specific god would not even be recognized.
|Drink||=> Tea, Wine|
|Utensils||=> Pottery, Metalware|
||Animism||=> Myth, Legend|
|Song||=> Opera, Musicals|
|Figure 2. Aspects of the goal of connecting, which is one of the basic shared experiences in pre-literate society.|
Since polytheism was the rule in pre-literate societies these principles usually extended to a number of gods. As the number of gods increased, the powers which could be attributed to a given god decreased. Such considerations meant that there were natural controls to keep in check an indefinite extension of these sacred images. In this context the pantheon of images which would have been possible through perspective was necessarily a threat to be avoided rather than a goal to be sought. The connecting function thus precluded an interest in this-worldly, perspectival space, focussing attention instead on a totem, which would ensure contact with a world beyond.
A second goal which emerged among primitive tribes involved ordering, producing patterns and ornament beginning with simple regular lines and evolving to ever more complex geometrical shapes. In pre-literate societies these patterns were usually restricted in number and had sacred connotations such that they shared partly in the connecting functions of totems. In some cases, these patterns were applied directly to the totems, such that, both the connecting and ordering functions were contained. A gradual distinction between the two functions was inevitable, however. For whereas the connecting function effectively depended on a pre-literate society, the ordering function did not. The advent of literacy simply extended its repertoire as Sir Ernst Gombrich has so eloquently shown in a Sense of Order.(22)
Some patterns could even be given spatial characteristics. The menander fret could, for instance, be given a three dimensional effect through a clever use of light and shade. Yet although some sense of depth was possible, systematic treatment of space was not. Hence ordering was another goal, which discouraged perspective in its full sense.
|Ordering||Basic Crafts => (Luxury)|
|Figure 3. Aspects of the goal of ordering, which is another of the basic shared experiences in a pre-literate society.|
Connecting and ordering are both concerned with making sense of the world, with imposing on the seemingly capricious forces of nature some order and pattern. For this reason they also include a number of basic crafts. And while connecting and ordering inevitably have their origins in pre-literate societies, aspects of these cultural activities continue into literate societies.
The sense making dimensions of connecting and ordering are so fundamental that they continue to the present day. In China, for instance, utensils evolved into a complex set of cultural artifacts including bronzes, cloisonné, jade, lacquer, macramé, pottery and porcelain. In the Islamic tradition where there is a strong tendency towards iconoclasm, ornament plays a greater role than elsewhere. Here the geometrical patterns in architecture, on ceramics and pottery, in carpets, tapestries, and embroidery often have an overtly religious and metaphysical meaning.(23)
© Kim H. Veltman (Maastricht)
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(12) See http://www.arab.net
(13) In China, for instance, performance arts include: acrobatics, dance, drama, festivals, kung fu, music (classic and popular), opera, and puppetry.
the West, the Bible also inspired performance arts in the
form of both theatre (mystery plays) and music (the Gregorian
Mass and other hymns). This more or less popular tradition led
to an ever more elitist approach culminating in Handel's Creation,
Messiah and the Masses of Mozart and Verdi. By contrast
in the East the great religious epics continue to inspire popular
and "low culture" responses across the spectrum of performance
As a whole the West has seen a curious tendency to limit the definitions of culture to high culture, dismissing the importance of popular and everyday culture. High art is the subject of art history: copies, versions etc. are low art and not the subject of art history. Or thus the rhetoric until recently. For a fascinating study of the rich resources available in popular culture in Italy see the study of Italo Sordi, Teatro e rito. Saggi sulla drammatica popolare italiana, Milan: Xenia Editore, 1990.
(15) Matthew Arnold, Dogma, 1896, xiii according to the OED.
(16) This is again quite different from what the French understand by the terms culture et civilisation.
colleague Heiner Benking has kindly drawn my attention to a rather
dramatic example of this difference between languages. A book
by Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the
Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996
has recently been translated into German as Krieg der Kulturen.
On this subject see also Roman Herzog, Amitai Etzioni and Henrik
Schmiegelow, Preventing the Clash of Civilizations: A Strategy
for Peace for the Twenty-First Century, 1999. Somewhat happier
is Heinrichs' concept of Gastfreundschaft der Kulturen.
Cf. the book by Norbert Elias, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation,
Bern and Munich, 1969, 2 volumes, which was translated as: The
Civilizing Process, vol. 1: The History of Manners
and vol. 2: Power & Civility. (both) New York, 1982.
Cf. Norbert Elias, On Civilization, Power, and Knowledge: Selected
Writings. Edited and with an Introduction by Stephen Mennell
and Johan Goudsblom, HOS 1998.
Recently, postmodernists reading Kant via Adorno, tend to link culture with aesthetic and civilization with reason, and see the history of culture as a "making pleasurable of domination". See: Thomas Huhn, "The Kantian Sublime and the Nostalgia for Violence," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 53, 1995, pp. 269-275. In his approach, Huhn links civilization with aesthetic pleasure/domination and culture with reason.
(18) It is significant however that that same society produced some amazing Victorians such as Captain Sir Francis Burton, who travelled throughout the middle East and India, throughout Africa, helping discover the mouth of the Nile as in Burton and Speke.
(19) London: Deacon and Co., 1890. The Wall Chart of World History, drawn by Professor Edmund Hull, London: Studio Editions, 1988.
(20) A fuller study of this subject would have to examine in more detail the important distinctions introduced by Sir James George Frazer in his classic work, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1922 (Abridged edition 1929). One of his key points is that in truly primitive societies there is a simple use of magic. It is assumed that if the magician or intermediary does something, something else will inevitably follow. Frazer (1929, p.12) shows that this approach can be reduced to (mis-) applications of associative thought, which he terms sympathetic magic (based on a law of sympathy) which he divides into Homeopathic Magic (Law of Similarity) and Contagious Magic (Law of Contact). At an earliest stage the objects of nature are themselves inhabited with the power. At a second stage these powers become associated with spirits, which inhabit the objects. Hence it is no longer the tree itself but the spirit of the tree which needs supplication. In a later stage it is assumed that these spirit powers can be influenced. It is at this stage where magic evolves into religion. While all this is of great importance in general, our particular story is concerned about the later stages in human expression where art becomes both a means of praising these external powers but also a way of gaining distance from them.
(21) Cf. Franz Boas, Primitive Art, New York: Dover Publications, 1955. On the problem of primitive mentality see: Ernst E. Baesch, Das Magische und das Schöne. Zur Symbolik von Objekten und Handlungen, Stuttgart: Froomann-Holzboog, 1983.
(22) Sir E. H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order, London: Phaidon, 1979.
(23) Cf. the Celtic tradition which also devotes great attention to ornament: G. Bain, Celtic Art. The Methods of Construction, London: Constable, 1977.
last change 30.1.2000