What is culture for?

I am extremely cultured.  I know history and philosophy and I’ve read most of the classics (and can fake many of the ones I haven’t read).  I enjoy opera and theater (but not ballet or symphony, though my sister loves ballet) and old movies and classical music.  I can swim and play the piano and embroider and cook (though I was never able to get over my complete lack of artistic talent when it comes to drawing or painting or my complete boredom with ballet lessons).  #2 and I can trade Gilbert and Sullivan or PG Wodehouse jokes with ease.  I know which silverware to use at a fancy restaurant (pro-tip:  start with the outermost) and how to pretend I know what I’m talking about with wine.  Sadly I only speak two languages (English and Spanish), but I know enough French and Italian to get around as a tourist or to get most literary references without Google translate (ditto Latin).

I used to think that I had all this culture because my parents were sharing what they enjoyed, and culture was something to make it easier for me to entertain myself.  (And part of this is true– my father is a European immigrant who grew up in a fancy US coastal city, so his love of operetta patter songs is as real as his love for Jacques Brel or the Beatles.)

But a couple years ago I was rereading Penrod, by Booth Tarkington (free on Kindle).  In addition to being shocked by the casual racism and animal cruelty that I did not remember from my initial childhood reading (from my mother’s childhood hard copies), I was struck by a passage.  Penrod, who is established as having been from a middle- to lower-middle- class family, takes ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons.  A public school kid, this is the only time he rubs shoulders with the private school children of the town elite.  His mother wants to social climb.  His parents, I realized, are trying to help him advance.

Recent readers of the blog may also be aware of my current turn to regency romances.  In regencies (and in steampunk), women have “accomplishments”– somewhat useless entertainment skills such as embroidery or harp or watercolors that are class markers.  Wealthy tradespeople could send their daughters to finishing school so as to marry up into the aristocracy without embarrassing their impoverished future sons-in-law.

One of my mother’s refrains has always been, “to make you a more cultured person.”  And “to give you opportunities I didn’t have.”

I suspect that many of these skills and much of this knowledge that was poured into me may have been for the same reason we were pushed into math and science.  To improve our lot in life with the next generation.

But… Penrod was written in the 1910s.  By the time he was an adult, the parlor manners he resisted being taught along with the formal dancing would be archaic.  In Regency novels, the landed aristocracy of the early 19th century would be replaced with the age of industry and business would supplant tenant farming.  Eventually, stenography would be a more important skill for young ladies than the harp.

I always thought, growing up, that once I got to college I would meet people who were passionate about opera and history and so on.  (Note, this is one of the reasons that #2 and I hit it off right away in high school.)  But even though I went to a top small liberal arts college, that was not the case.  I would even occasionally have to explain literary references to professors in college and graduate school.  I did spread my various loves to my friends (especially those with cars!) and in return picked up passions for anime and Asian food.  High school also provided me with nerd culture in abundance adding, for example, the entire Monty Python library to my repertoire.

As an upper-middle class citizen approaching middle-age, I haven’t found my elitist skills to be particularly useful.  They still provide me joy, but to be honest, they are not shared by many people.  I don’t have much outlet for them away from the city.  When I am in a city partaking, I’m surrounded by professionally coiffed white hair.  These elite class markers are markers of a previous generation.

Times change.  Social class markers vary.  The approaching-middle-age elite who we rub shoulders with today are also first generation wealthy and formerly from the midwest.  They are not from East coast old money.  And so, my esoteric knowledge that my mother worked so hard to provide me with, those classics I was forced to read to “be a more cultured person,” were not as useful as the love of math and ambition that she also fostered.  In fact, I’m a bit out of place with them– elitist in many eyes.

But fortunately, even when it is lonely, cultural knowledge still provides personal entertainment.  It still makes jokes more funny and deepens appreciation of even modern media (since people in the film industry who direct and design are remarkably cultured themselves).  So maybe that itself is enough in this ever-changing world.

16 Responses to “What is culture for?”

  1. chacha1 Says:

    It’s an interesting question. I don’t think “high culture” can be equated to business skills – that is, I don’t think there’s an expiration date on opera or ballet the way there was on programming a computer using punch cards. High culture, the kind that blue-collar comics and anti-establishment politicians make fun of, exists (and always has) because of the leisured class. There will always be a leisured class, and that class will generally aspire not to lowest-common-denominator cultural artifacts but to those which are perceived to be too advanced or too challenging or too unrealistic or just plain too elitist for the masses.

    Old and even ancient source material continues to be adapted in ways that keep it alive (ref. Moulin Rouge/La Boheme or Chi-Raq/Lysistrata). We currently have a resurgence in dance appreciation (and in the theatrical use of music) thanks to mass-market TV shows. I personally have a hard time taking the contemporary style seriously (maybe it was a mistake to watch the YouTube classic “How to dance contemporary”), from most choreographers, but the fact that the style is presented alongside hip-hop has knocked down a pretty substantial wall, and the fact that hip-hop is presented as just as culturally valid as en-pointe ballet is just as significant. You have to be exposed to both before you can develop a preference that is based on anything other than uninformed bias.

    High culture, like language or science or racial tolerance, is best introduced to the young. There will always be young people who resist absorbing mass-market culture simply because it *is* mass market. I grew up listening to show tunes and Boston Pops and Gilbert & Sullivan, and was into my teens before I deigned to admit that some pop music was appealing. Now I listen to everything (my iPod currently cycles through everything from the Lucky Stars to Busta Rhymes to Doris Day). My reading and viewing tastes are commensurately broad, for the same reason – I started out looking at good stuff and never lost my taste for it, even though my tastes expanded.

    If a child is only exposed to a small range of things – whether these are foods or cultural artifacts or ideas – that child will nearly always resist expanding its interests and tastes. It’s much better to throw everything at everybody and let them actually decide what they like, instead of just liking-by-default the few things they’ve ever experienced. But in order to do that effectively, you have to keep the high culture alive. The sponsors of city ballets and symphonies often make exactly this point in their marketing. :-) You can’t learn to appreciate something that isn’t there.

  2. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    My parents took the same approach to religion, of all things. They sent us to all kinds of religious instruction for an anthropological and cultural learning experience and I appreciated that because it was quite relevant when I was growing up. Not least when certain people tried to evangelize at me and I’d be able to almost comfortably tell them I’d already gotten to know the lore of Jesus or whomever was being trotted out, and that I was just fine with my own religion (not much of one) thanks.

    Peer pressure was, oddly, more in the religious arena than anything else. I sure was a target for conversion several times over more than I was a target for drinking or drugs!

    We didn’t have much in the way of musical culture, we were too poor for that, but I discovered a fair amount in the books I could scrounge or that our limited library stocked. And nerd culture was satisfyingly contagious among my age set.

    What’s it for? For me, entertainment. Whether directly enjoyed or shared, there’s something unique about sharing a beloved story or show or sketch with someone and seeing them learn it and love it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I had to go to Catholic Sunday school for years for the same reason. I had forgotten that particular torture.

    • Rosa Says:

      my child is so intensely ignorant of religion. Last year we were shopping for a first communion gift for someone and he couldn’t remember if the cross or the moon was for Christians and which part of the their story was Christmas and which was Easter. I’m partly glad and partly feeling like I should have included more Bible stories in the wide range of folktales & myths we used to read to him, if only for future literary references.

      • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

        Would you start teaching him now, purely informationally, so he understands a bit more about how religions work and how they use story and so on? I always liked being able to spot Bible references (like, the loaves and the fishes) even if it wasn’t my belief. Though I COMPLETELY missed the Christian allegory in The Lion and Witch and the Wardrobe series, growing up.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        When I was going to Sunday School, it was actually pretty good about teaching other religions (particularly holidays in other cultures). That was a couple of popes ago though, so I don’t know whether or not they still do it.

  3. xykademiqz Says:

    I don’t think I would call myself particularly cultured. I have a good background in classical literature, philosophy, and some in art. I like classical music and theater, but do not care for opera or ballet. My music taste is quite broad and I like to think that I am not a music or art snob — people like what they like. I speak English and my native language fluently; I speak German some; I am rusty, but could probably regain fluency with a couple of month of immersion. I had Latin in school. I can also read a little Russian. I think I have a good grasp of popular US culture, especially considering that I didn’t grow up here.

    I am gastronomically fairly adventurous and enjoy very spicy foods, as well as unusual taste combinations (in sharp contrast to my DH, who has a very conservative palate). I cook well and varied (not as varied as I’d like since family doesn’t share my extreme tastes), and I enjoy wine. But I also have lowbrow tastes and am perfectly comfortable at a sports bar, having a burger, drinking beer, and watching football. I actually prefer beer to wine. I am also quite nerdy, to the delight and disbelief of my students (both undergrad and grad) — my love for Star Trek and science fiction in general seems incompatible with being a middle-aged matron (as if I was born this old). Actually, I think I am overall comfortable at a more lowbrow level than many of my colleagues; for instance, I have a number of colleagues who would not be caught dead drinking beer or eating pizza/burgers.

    My parents were not fancy people; my mother has only an associate’s degree and dad was a first-generation college student from a rural area. I grew up and went to college in a big cosmopolitan city, where I really enjoyed theater and concerts (both classical and popular) and art exhibits. These were more a function of the friends I hang out with than my parents. Some of my friends came from families that were in the big city for several generations, lived in downtown apartments, were “cultured,” I was definitely more of a plebeian among them. Throughout my youth, giving and receiving books as gifts was the norm; I miss that custom here. I loved browsing bookstores in search of a present for a friend.

    [C]ultural knowledge still provides personal entertainment. It still makes jokes more funny and deepens appreciation of even modern media

    Most definitely. Or, as they say, Mos Def.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I believe that in the US coming from Europe automatically makes you “cultured”.

      Nor does a love of beer and burgers make one uncultured. More knowledge/experience is better.

    • undine Says:

      nicoleandmaggie, you and xykademiqz both sound mighty cultured to me. I am passionate about history and various arts, but not opera. I have finally, at this late stage, decided that I am not cut out to like opera any more than I am ever going to like lima beans or cinnamon buns and am giving myself a pass not to do so.

  4. ralucacoldea Says:

    Knowing about PG Wodehouse can change lives. The word must be spread!

    • Anu Says:

      I’m reading a Blandings omnibus at the moment – the perfect antidote for all the election stuff.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Though a warning re: Wodehouse. Do not, repeat, do not read all of his out of print stuff available on Project Gutenberg.

        The first Jeeves book is fine, but there’s a whole lotta racism in much of the stuff that didn’t get reprinted.

  5. First Gen American Says:

    I live in a very cultured area. I can walk to see the Boston symphony and we go every year. We just went to a live play last week (2 of our friends were in it). My older son was in a Shakespeare production at a world class Shakepeare theatre that is down the street from our house. This is an arts Mecca so my kids get a lot more than I ever did.

    The super rich love the arts and culture support them locally. I think at some point, you as a very rich person, run out of things to Do with your disposable income and in comes culture and the arts.

    Ps. I didn’t know Monty Python was a nerd thing. I must be so nerdy that I didn’t even notice.

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