Culture is about life, not just art

March 31, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

THE PRATT library was the scene of a lively discussion last week on the topic of culture in Baltimore. The talk was thoughtful and good-humored, and the audience that sat in the Edgar Allan Poe room of the library's main branch downtown was attentive. Still, the panelists, who included this reporter, never quite got around to agreeing on exactly what Baltimore's culture is -- or whom it's for.

The panelists included three arts writers, a museum administrator and a library official. Moderated by Mark Steiner of WJHU, the event was sponsored by the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Libraries for the Future, a nonprofit library advocacy group.

There's a tendency to equate culture with the arts, but the concept actually encompasses quite a bit more than that. Broadly defined, culture includes all the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc., of a people or group that are passed down from generation to generation. It is everything from how we dress and cook our food to how we educate and entertain ourselves, from how we worship to how we make war. Obviously, there's no single culture in Baltimore or anywhere else today.

Instead, we have a great diversity of ways of living and thinking, all of which are vying with one another for recognition. This

probably has always been true to some extent, though historians and art critics traditionally have identified the culture of a people or nation with the manners, tastes and habits of the dominant group.

For a long time, that way of looking at things seemed more or less satisfactory, at least as a historical perspective. Most of the past cultures we study, after all, were relatively homogeneous societies in which the dominant group was able, by force if necessary, to impose its values and tastes on the rest of society.

So we view an exquisite Japanese porcelain from the 17th century as representative of the culture of that time and place, even though we know only a tiny elite enjoyed such luxury. The same is true for an elaborately carved chair or gilded table from the time of Louis XV.

If the idea of a single cultureseems problematic today, it is because the elite groups of our time no longer have the power to enforce standards and tastes that they once enjoyed. In the arts, this devolution of power has given rise to a popular culture that rivals in influence and prestige the high or serious culture that traditionally represented society's dominant groups.

Today's mass media have enabled formerly subjugated groups to disseminate customs and folkways that once were suppressed or sharply circumscribed, allowing them to compete directly with elite culture. Paradoxically, though the media are controlled by elites, the cultural content of the media is not. Instead, it is dictated by the marketplace, which in modern societies is a mass market.

'Contested culture'

The democratization of culture probably has gone further in America than anywhere else, and so it is no accident that the clash of competing cultures is felt most keenly in this country. Today we have what anthropologists call a "contested culture," in which different groups lay equal claim to the right to determine standards of behavior, taste and manners.

But although we pride ourselves on being an egalitarian society, the distinctions of class and caste that have marked other times and places are no less evident here.

That is why before we can talk about cultureculture we are referring to. For we can no longer assume that a single culture can or even should speak for us all. Is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, playing Beethoven, more representative of Baltimore than a metal band at Hammerjacks? Is a baseball game more characteristic than a ballet?

As an arts writer I am encouraged by the fact that Baltimore, despite its well-advertised problems, has managed to maintain a vibrant and diverse cultural life anchored by a multitude of institutions, large and small, that sustain our economy and nurture our spirits. And I view it as a hopeful sign that both high and popular culture seem to coexist at virtually every level of our civic life.

Yet I am also troubled by the continuing social divisions that our contested culture reflects. For example, last week the Maryland Arts Council announced that the impact of nonprofit arts groups on the state economy rose to more than $600 million last year.

While a cause for celebration, it should also prompt us to ask how that impact reinforces the ties of community and makes our city an attractive, interesting place to live.

It is not enough for the arts simply to reinforce the class and racial divisions that already exist. Bridging those gulfs ought to be one of the main goals of all our cultural activity in this city, whether we think of it as high or low, serious or popular. We can hardly expect the arts to remain vital here or anywhere else unless ultimately they succeed in bringing us together.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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