What We Talk About When We Talk About Culture (I)

Bill Ivey

March, 2016



In 1952, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum published a long paper by two anthropologists – A.L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn.  The article was well-received and quickly expanded into a Random House hardback, soon appearing in paper.  Now long out of print, Culture: a critical review of concepts and definitions, took up the challenge of parsing the already-ubiquitous term in order to detail the many ways “culture” had, by the mid-twentieth century, been applied to society, civilization, and art.  Strikingly, the authors present 164 definitions of the term, and while many intersect and overlap, the availability of so many notions of what is meant by “culture” indicates clearly that before taking on cultural work, we need to ask, in the words of Robert Redford, “What are we trying to do about what?”

Although the term “culture” today means many things, it is important to note that there exist two fundamental, distinct, mutually-antagonistic notions of what culture is about.

The word “culture,” which exhibits obvious German roots (Kultur), made a relatively-recent debut in academic discourse.  In 1869, Matthew Arnold, writing in Culture and Anarchy, defined culture as an arena or zone of high human achievement.  For Arnold, culture is a human construct composed of art and literature that is the consequence of the “pursuit of total perfection;” it is “the best of what has been thought or said,” offering “beauty and intelligence.”  To Arnold, culture a place of self-liberation, because it is something great – civilization — conceived and constructed by mankind. An individual can aspire to participate in this rarified human construct and, if successful, can “become cultured.”

Just two years later, in 1871, E.B. Tylor presented an alternative concept of culture, one that provided a scholarly frame essential to such disciplines as sociology and anthropology.  In Primitive Culture, Tylor defines culture as “…the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”  For Tylor, culture is not a human invention memorialized in art and new knowledge, but a “given” — a matrix of shared attributes that are woven into the DNA of the human condition.  To engage this sense of culture is to acquire empathy and connection, rather than the distance and sophistication implied by Arnold.

These fundamentally-different understandings of culture — “The Artistic” and “The Anthropological” – are both very much in use today.

The Arnold view of culture as the highest expression of human achievement has justified the global reach of Western European fine arts – classical music and dance, sculpture and painting, theater and literature.  Both private foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts played decisive roles in expanding the footprint of these fine arts in America, helping to shape today’s nonprofit arts sector.

But over the decades, as folk and popular art have gained stature, and as issues of social justice and diversity advanced, culture has increasingly been engaged by policy actors as “a complex whole” that includes art, but does not elevate art above the complex DNA of morals, beliefs, customs, and other “capabilities and habits” that define community.  Tylor challenges Arnold: Blues, not Bach; Hmong weaving, not Warhol.

Thus these two distinct and often-competing definitions of culture present an important question: Can we simultaneous find justification for policies that support the fine arts of civilization while at the same time nurturing the traditions, beliefs, practices, customs, and creative expressions of everyman — those that sustain communities and provide pathways to memory and achievement for all?