What Is It About Culture?

Wood engraving after a drawing by Jules Gaildrau, 1857. Old Book Illustrations.

Wood engraving after a drawing by Jules Gaildrau, 1857. Old Book Illustrations.

When the word culture was selected as Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2014, we at The Hedgehog Review took notice. Culture, after all, is our game, and the fact that more and more people are apparently puzzling over its meaning struck us as a matter of some, well, cultural interest.

Merriam-Webster’s editors base their selection solely on whichever word receives the biggest increase of visits on their web site during the course of a year. So what was it about culture that occasioned so much lexical befuddlement in 2014? The editors tried to explain:

Culture is a big word at back-to-school time each year, but this year lookups extended beyond the academic calendar. The term conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a “culture of transparency” or “consumer culture.” Culture can be either very broad (as in “celebrity culture” or “winning culture”) or very specific (as in “test-prep culture” or “marching band culture”).

Searching for deeper significance, Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker saw the uptick of interest  as a sign that people were finding the word “unsettling,” and possibly more negative than positive in its connotations. “The most positive aspect of ‘culture’—the idea of personal, humane enrichment—now seems especially remote,” Rothman surmised. “In its place, the idea of culture as unconscious groupthink is ascendant.”

If culture has acquired a “furtive, shady, ridiculous aspect”—from the ritualized business and bureaucratic uses of the word (“corporate culture”) to the trivially commercial (“celebrity culture”) to the identity-oriented (“gay culture”) to the sinister behavioral (“rape culture”)—Rothman has found at least one thing to cheer about all this culture talk:

“Culture” may be pulling itself apart from the inside, but it represents, in its way, a wish. The wish is that a group of people might discover, together, a good way of life; that their good way of life might express itself in their habits, institutions, and activities; and that those, in turn, might help people flourish in their own ways.

In these less-than-joyous times, one wants to endorse the positive wherever one can find it. But Rothman comes to his optimism a little prematurely. The proliferating uses of culture may indeed suggest a growing, if inchoate, popular awareness that cultures, in the deepest sense, are those symbolic “webs of significance” (in anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s words) that provide humans with meaning and moral order. But we suspect this awareness grows out of an troubled sense of what is, at once, so powerful and insufficient about the deep culture of modernity: namely, its almost exclusive celebration of the autonomous individual loosed from all strong commitments and guided only by his or her (consumerist) appetites and preferences. Social critic Philip Rieff famously dubbed ours an “anti-culture,” and its deficiencies, including its therapeutic ethos, partly account for the multitude of mini-cultures that have emerged from it. These mini-cultures, based on everything from ethnic identities to hobbies to life-stages, do indeed “identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group.” But the affiliations and ties provided by such mini-cultures are ultimately fragile and contingent. None challenge the sovereignty of the individual and his or her elective affinities.

There are those who celebrate the proliferation of cultures, believing that a hundred flowers blossoming are far preferable to a single hegemonic garden. But it seems to us that a true culture—broad but not monolithic, sustained through deep commitments and the cultivation of virtues, but neither static nor rigidly hierarchical—is the only thing that has the potential to connect, and sometimes even unify, fractious humans living in a shared society and polity. Without such a culture, we are reduced to arbitrating our differences solely through such mechanisms as bureaucratic process or the law (and, in the latter case, placing an increasingly heavy, if not impossible, burden on the law’s finite resources).

The proliferation of mini-cultures within our larger anti-culture is but one feature of the modernity that we examine, in one way or another, in each issue of The Hedgehog Review. In the forthcoming spring issue (appearing around March 1), we examine the contemporary  “culture of transparency”—in which everything about us is revealed, and everything about us is used in tracking, appealing to, and even shaping us—and its place in our increasingly insistent “information culture.” Those two related mini-cultures merit a gimlet-eyed examination lest we accept their implicit meanings and moral claims without recognizing their limited and possibly dehumanizing consequences.

Jay Tolson is editor of
The Hedgehog Review.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: January 23, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Instagram’s Graveyard Shift,” Jeff Sharlet
“When I was first drawn into this nighttime Insta­gram grid, I was looking for a distraction, for ­images to displace the thoughts that had agitated me to exhaustion. What I found instead was something that seemed descended from Walt Whitman’s ‘Democratic Vistas,’ his great prose poem of an essay that was really a proposal for a new kind of literature, a way of speaking, a way of seeing.”

“Confronting the Technological Society,” Samuel Matlack
“How did we reach a point where ‘nothing at all escapes technique today’? Ellul offers a long genealogy of technique, from primitive man to the Greeks and Romans, to Christianity, the early modern era, and lastly the Industrial Revolution, when technique finally came into ascendancy.”

“The Trouble With ‘It Girls,'” Anne Helen Petersen
“In naming someone an It girl, a publication is either hedging a bet (Gretchen Mol will be all that anyone’s talking about in 1998) or trendspotting (Cara Delevingne is everywhere in New York; you’ll be seeing her everywhere else soon).”

“Artificial Arms,” David Gelber
“England in the time of Shakespeare lived in a state of heraldic enchantment. The spell was cast at court, where participants in tournaments decked themselves in heraldic emblems and carried onto the field specially designed imprese expressing some cherished virtue.”

“The Hunting of Billie Holiday,” Johann Hari
“In the end, the Treasury Department told Anslinger he was wasting his time taking on a community that couldn’t be fractured, so he scaled down his focus until it settled like a laser on a single target—perhaps the greatest female jazz vocalist there ever was.”

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Recognizing Art

The Battle of the Pictures (1745) by William Hogarth (British, London 1697–1764 London), Gift of Sarah Lazarus, 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Battle of the Pictures (1745) by William Hogarth (British, London 1697–1764 London), Gift of Sarah Lazarus, 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 1603, El Greco was commissioned to decorate the chapel at the Hospital of Charity in Illescas, Spain. Up to this point, El Greco had had an enviable life as a successful artist. True, his Mannerist style of emaciated figures and elongated faces did not result in a steady stream of royal commissions, but he lived comfortably in Toledo, renting spacious apartments in a nobleman’s villa and taking the commissions he wanted. He was so well off that he could afford to maintain musicians who played while he dined. His prosperity even allowed him to refuse to pay taxes on this work. So he enjoyed a measure of independence as well.

El Greco, it should be understood, also knew the value of his work. According to the practice of the day, an artist’s fees were determined when the work was completed. The assessment, or tasación, was performed by a group of individuals nominated by the artist and the patron. When El Greco received an insultingly low valuation for his work at the hospital, he launched a long and bitter court battle that quietly changed the perception of artists and art in Spain.

In the case of the Illescas commission, El Greco committed a number of sins. Continue reading

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Miss Manners and Mr. Manspreader

Emily Post (author of Etiquette), 1923. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Emily Post (author of Etiquette), 1923. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s get this out of the way: Whoever came up with “manspreading” should never be allowed to coin another word again, no matter how sorry he or she is.  It’s a terrible word, I cannot endorse it, but somebody made it—so here we are.

The “manspreader” is a man who sprawls in his seat on the bus or on the subway, thus taking up two or three seats instead of one. Such men have become the target of recent campaign from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where “stop the spread” posters take their place alongside helpful reminders to stand up for the elderly and to refrain from molesting others. The phenomenon, for the record, is real enough: The manspreader takes his place alongside many subway pests, like “the person who leans against the subway pole” (also a target of this campaign, along with “women who put on makeup on the subway”). Until they began to be publicly shamed, these men did not have a friend in the world, at least so long as they were on the subway.

Now, however, they have many friends—but, on the whole, not very good ones. They range from Rich Cromwell at The Federalist (“The Rabid Equality Crowd Finally Outright Admits They Hate Testicles”) to David Covucci at BroBible to Katherine Timpf at National Review. All of these writers share a contempt for the entire idea of the MTA campaign, which they interpret, variously, as an act of aggression against men and an elaborate feminist performance grievance. “Stop the spread,” rather than being an appeal for good behavior, seeks, in their view, to impose a “rabid equality.” Such demands for “equality,” in other contexts, are seen as the speech of “bullies,” “neo-Victorians,” and “puritans.”

Puritans? Maybe. Insofar as these feminist critics believe that most of our actions take place in an ethical sphere, they are puritanical in the most praiseworthy sense. Those who care about social mores—a description that fits a least a few of these columnists—share with them, at the very least, an interest in manners. And manners, in America, are also a Puritan endeavor: Arthur Schlesinger Sr. opens his history of American etiquette books, Learning How to Behave, with a discussion of Puritan legal codes. Today, however, when considering how to behave in public, one is more likely to turn to a source little nearer to hand: Emily Post’s Etiquette, now in its eighteenth edition. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: January 16, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“A window on Chaucer’s cramped, scary, smelly world,” Sam Leith
“Chaucer had been skeptical of fame and authorial peacocking; and concomitantly of written transmission: his poems had been read for pleasure and amusement to a small group of friends in London. With his exile in Kent, he lost an audience; and so he channelled the companionable orality of his verse into a polyphonic anthology of stories whose audience — the pilgrims — he invented for himself. Lonely, in other words, Chaucer put the audience for his poem into the poem itself.”

“The Rhetoric of Cowardice,” Kyle Williams
“Cowardice once had something to do with the obligations of community. We used the word when courage faltered and duties were left undone. But now we rarely use or hear it outside of the politics of national security.”

“James Thurber Lost Most of His Eyesight to a Tragic Childhood Accident,” Danny Heitman
“Because of his poor eyesight, Thurber was sometimes unsure of what he was seeing in his later years, and this fuzziness of perception underscored his sense that the line between fantasy and reality could be tenuous—a feeling that rests at the heart of his stories and cartoons.”

“When I Grow Up,” Rebecca Mead
“At first glance, the experience offered by KidZania appears to draw on aspects both of symbolic play—the ‘let’s pretend’ aspect of dressing up as a fireman—and of rule-based play, with its enactment of conformity to civic regulation. But by some definitions the activities at KidZania, however entertaining, barely qualify as play at all.”

“To the Office, With Love,” Jennifer Senior
“Say what you want about the future of work, but this much is clear: The traditional compact between employers and employees is slowly fading away, and with it, a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of relating to others and regarding oneself that generally comes with a reasonably predictable professional life.”

“Hollywood Calling,” Christopher Grobe
“Tinseltown’s First Law of Telephone Scenes is about to be put to the ultimate test. There are two films eligible for an Oscar this year that are made entirely of telephone calls: Locke (2013) and The Phone Call (2013). These are obvious star vehicles for Tom Hardy and Sally Hawkins, respectively, and if either is nominated and wins, you can bet Luise’s ghost will be haunting that podium.”

“On Edgar Allan Poe,” Marilynne Robinson
“Poe’s great tales turn on guilt concealed or denied, then abruptly and shockingly exposed. He has always been reviled or celebrated for the absence of moral content in his work, despite the fact that these tales are all straightforward moral parables.”

“Imperfect Tenderness,” Tim Hodler
“Satire is an unusual art form, in that it is designed to be misunderstood.”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: January 9, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“My Life with Charlie Hebdo,” Eve-Alice Roustang
“I wish I could say tonight that we are all Charlie Hedbo readers. I’m proud that for a year or two, I was.”

“Here’s to a More Incredulous Age,” Michelle Dean
“The man responsible for the early Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, was more of a to-the-manor-born type. Carter expends a lot of energy describing Crowninshield as a ‘cultural clairvoyant’ who spent ‘twenty-two roller-coaster years’ atop the masthead. He was, in fact, something more of a genteel, dandyish Boston Brahmin. He just happened to see something in his world to rebel against.”

Marketing Motherhood,” Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
“On any rack of women’s magazines, a number of issues are ready to inform mothers or moms-to-be on how best to carry out the vocation of motherhood.”

“The Pen vs. the Gun,” Philip Gourevitch
“It’s hard to imagine how the Charlie Hebdo crew would have wrung a joke out of their own executions. But you can bet that they wouldn’t have shrunk from the challenge, and you can be sure that the result would have been at odds with any standard of good taste.”

“I Am Almost a Camera,” 
Brett Busang
“It has always been the case that instead of looking at the world, painters and photographers look into it. But by the 1940s Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock openly averred that they cared nothing for replication.… Into this ferment, Richard Estes played both ends—the out and the in—against one another and came up with a captivating solution.”

“Ouster of Editor Points to Challenges for Small Journals Hosted at Colleges,” Peter Monaghan
“Publicity, promotion, distribution. There lie the problems, says Jay Tolson, editor of The Hedgehog Review at UVa’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture: ‘There are no problems with the editorial content; the product is excellent. It should have been more aggressively promoted.'”

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An Abd al-Qadir Christmas

 

The orgy of spending that Americans call Christmas is over. Christmas itself, of course, was never meant to be a commercial occasion, but rather a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. In our secular Christmas, we’ve lost sight not only of the person of Jesus, but of the virtues he embodied. So, this year, let’s consider honoring Jesus by recalling the life of Emir Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (picture above in 1875), a peacemaker, a reconciler, a holy man, and a warrior. As a Muslim, Abd al-Qadir naturally held Jesus in high esteem as a prophet, one born sinless from the Virgin Mary and whose return as the Messiah will usher in Judgment Day. We could learn much from his example.

In 1808, Abd al-Qadir was born in the Ottoman province of Oran (today, western Algeria). His tribe, the Hashem, was dedicated to the study of the Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, and settling disputes among the tribes. He was admired from the Great Plains to Moscow and to Mecca—first as chivalrous adversary of the French after they invaded North Africa in 1830, later as an uncompromisingly stoic prisoner who forced French government to honor its pledge to grant him passage to the Middle East after surrendering voluntarily in 1847. Living in Damascus under a benevolent French patronage, Abd al-Qadir protected thousands of Christians during a Turkish inspired pogrom intended to punish Christians for not paying the head tax.

During his lifetime, Abd al-Qadir’s name would be given to a settlement in Iowa, a ship built in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and a champion race horse (Little Ab) in Ireland. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about him as a model of reconciliation. William Makepeace Thackeray dedicated poetry to him. The citizens of Bordeaux put his name on the presidential ballot in 1849, even though he was by then a prisoner of the French government. Abraham Lincoln was one of many heads of state to honor the emir’s humanitarian actions while he lived in exile. Upon his death in 1883, the New York Times eulogized: “The nobility of his character won him the admiration of the world.… He was one of the few great men of the century.” Continue reading

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Art for Data’s Sake

 

Whatever happened to contemplation? One of the last bastions of quiet reflection used to be the art museum. Once through the museum’s heavy doors, past the security guards and the moneychangers at the admission desk, one could enter the galleries where beautiful objects offered edification, pleasure, and even repose. First stop, the favorites, and then on to a serendipitous encounter with something around the next corner.

And then came the audio guides. Plastic headphones clamped to their skulls, the dutiful strode through the galleries, stopping dead center in front of the museum’s star pieces. Immobilized by the honeyed narrative, the spectators stood, a frenzied buzzing emanating from their heads. Occasionally, they called to their companions in comically loud voices. But most of the time, they just blocked traffic and took the best vantage point.

Now, we have the inevitable advent of the smartphone into the museum gallery. This one-stop portal has mostly replaced the audio guide and visitors now read or listen to downloaded guides through their own earbuds. But just like every other form of access that we allow via smartphone, this is a two-way interaction. From the minute you enter the building—before, if you bought tickets online—you are also contributing personal information to the museum’s newly minted “engagement” department. Don’t be surprised if, while you linger in front of a Caravaggio, a coupon for a cappuccino in the museum café pops up on your phone.

In addition to what we volunteer by visiting websites and completing surveys, many museums are learning more about us through a new form of data mining technology: digital beacons. These small wireless transmitters, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, for example, can track how fast visitors move through the galleries and which pieces draw the greatest crowds. The Polish developers of the Estimote digital beacon call their product a “super small computer,” one compatible with all major smart devices and energy efficient. The pastel-colored, irregularly faceted carapace also makes the Estimote uniquely recognizable, a design improbably incorporating the organic and the high tech. The beacons work through a combination of Bluetooth signals and cloud-based data storage. Suddenly made aware of their “innovation deficit,” museums find themselves rushing to hire data analysts and IT departments to crunch numbers and troubleshoot servers.

The pressure to exploit new technology is strong for museums, as one official noted in a recent Wall Street Journal report, to discover not simply “what’s significant art historically but also what’s perhaps on trend.” Big data can be used to point curators toward what people really want to see in exhibitions. “The customer is king” is marketing’s most basic lesson, but in this case only practicable if exhibitions are assembled like products plucked off of a warehouse shelf. Most museum exhibitions are the product of years of planning and negotiation, not to mention navigating logistics, customs, and insurance complications. And let’s not even think about placating private donors or ensuring that artworks are real and have uncontested rights and provenances. To add to these challenges the pursuit and identification of fleeting trends hardly seems a way to enhance the museum experience or to help it fulfill its educative function.

The connection of one’s phone with the museum doesn’t end, however, when you exit through the gift shop. The newly hired data analysts at art museums in Dallas and New York are tasked with finding ways to bring visitors back, to encourage them to invite friends, and to entice long-term revenue in the form of membership fees, or—jackpot!—artwork donations or corporate sponsorships.

Museum officials admit that they are trying to find ways to minimize “the creepiness factor,” but the fact remains that none of this technology would be viable were we not willing accomplices. In thrall to our smartphones, we are inviting new and ever more intrusive invasions of our privacy in the name of convenience, points, and rewards. When data mining turns a museum into a frequent-flier program, the result is commerce not culture.

It used to be that museums were satisfied with allowing the art to speak for itself. Have museums lost confidence in culture to be self-sustaining? Can we no longer trust our institutions to fulfill their mission of enrichment unless there also be a monetary incentive? For years, the arts have struggled to assert their value to society strictly in terms of education. Learning, however, is a reciprocal experience for which the individual is just as much responsible as the orchestra, the opera house, and the art museum.

Big data’s priority is quantifiable information. It is not unreasonable for museums to want to improve the visitor’s experience and to seek to understand why crowds are reliably huge for Impressionist shows and modest for those centered on the Czech avant-garde. But to reduce a museum experience to the laws of supply and demand devalues not only the art itself but also the curators’ years of education and expertise—connoisseurship on which we rely in institutions that position themselves as cultural arbiters. This age is frequently called media-saturated, yet here in the art museum—a singular repository of edifying images—we may be quickly losing the ability to see.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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