Culture




Folk culture (left), popular culture (centre), and “high” culture (right). The photo of the blue handmade pottery cup at top left is by “Wildfeuer,” and the photo at bottom right is by Jessica Spengler.

I recently read a book discussing the now-traditional distinction between folk culture, popular culture, and “high” culture (see pictures above). Folk culture includes traditional arts and crafts, hand-made objects, and fairy tales or recipes passed down from generation to generation. Popular culture is characterised by mass-produced objects made from cheap materials or ingredients, aimed at immediate gratification and at the lowest common denominator of taste. “High” culture consists of things that only the well-educated cognoscenti can appreciate. “High” culture should be distinguished from what is simply the more expensive end of folk culture – craftspeople have always been able to produce more sophisticated items, made with more expensive materials and more elaborate decoration, if they were paid for the extra time and cost (“for you, my lord, I can fletch the arrows with eagle’s feathers instead of hen’s feathers”).


Bristol Cathedral

Now, I think this classification is missing a few things. For a start, there’s the important category of religious culture, which includes things like the great cathedrals (or, elsewhere in the world, temples and mosques) and the religious music of, for example, J. S. Bach. Such cultural artefacts were aimed at ordinary people (not the cognoscenti), but they were dedicated to God. They were meant to inspire devotion, and quite literally to point to heaven.

The Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass in B minor, sung by Kathleen Ferrier

In Bach’s case, this intent was genuine – he was a deeply religious man, who ended his musical manuscripts with the phrase Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone), or with the initials S.D.G. In religious culture, it is neither the artist nor the listener/viewer to whom honour is intended to accrue. In a weaker form, this attitude can be found in, for example, movie soundtracks, whose primary purpose is not to be appreciated on their own, but to help the audience enter into the story.

In many cases, what we call “high” culture is actually folk culture or religious culture that has lost its original context. Folk-culture artefacts from the past (like the Greek vase at top) first enter the antique store and then, as they become even older, move to the museum, where they become objects of “high” culture. Folk-culture artefacts from other countries appear to become objects of “high” culture as soon as they are transported from their place of origin. Religious music becomes “high” culture when it shifts from the cathedral to the concert hall. When a degree of context is restored, some objects of “high” culture can actually become extremely popular, as in movie adaptations of Shakespeare or of classic novels. Other objects of modern “high” culture bemuse even well-educated individuals outside the cognoscenti.


Traditional slit drums from Vanuatu in the Australian Museum, Sydney (my photo)

Movies are a key part of popular culture. The chart below relates the “percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film” from rottentomatoes.com to total revenues (as at a few years ago – data is from here). It is not clear, however, exactly what the “professional critic reviews” are measuring. The relationship between revenues and quality is hazy as well, although some really terrible movies do seem to make a great deal of money.

For several decades now, a growing rebellion against popular culture has been emerging. There was the Arts and Crafts movement around 1900, and since then a steadily increasing interest in traditional forms of music, hand-crafted objects, and home cooking. There have also been a number of other interesting movements. The slow food movement attempts to resurrect a comprehensive folk culture of food, and offers a superior alternative to “fast food.” The maker movement (as defined by e.g. Make magazine) merges modern technology with traditional crafts. It seeks to ally modern technology with folk culture, rather than with mass-produced popular culture. At the simple end, maker culture includes minor customisations of high-tech devices, like this Macbook sticker:


Macbook sticker (photo by Denis Dervisevic, slightly modified)

At the more sophisticated end, there is this classic steampunk computer monitor and keyboard by Jake von Slatt:


Steampunk computer monitor and keyboard (photographer & maker: Jake von Slatt)

Steampunk culture also rebels against the cheap plastics used in so many popular-culture artefacts (although Robert M. Pirsig notes that “Mass-produced plastics and synthetics aren’t in themselves bad. They’ve just acquired bad associations. A person who’s lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it’s also the prime material of sculpture, and a person who’s lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly”). Steampunk culture prefers older materials like brass and copper, as in this 1994 Jules-Verne-inspired steampunk makeover of the Arts et Métiers Métro station in Paris:


The Arts et Métiers Métro station (photo: Stephen Butterworth)

Aspects of the emerging maker movement can also be seen in the solar cars developed for the World Solar Challenge, where high-tech electronics and solar panels are combined with carefully engineered and hand-crafted car bodies made of quality materials like carbon-fibre composites, resulting in vehicles of aesthetic beauty as well as practicality and speed.


Solar Team Twente’s solar car Red One (photo: Jérôme Wassenaar)

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