What is culture? It’s a word that comes loaded with many different meanings. Yoghurt, sauerkraut, wine and cheese are all cultured foods, produced by introducing bacteria, fungus or yeast into a particular food in a particular way. To speak of a person’s culture is to speak of their heritage: the food, clothing, art, architecture, dance, rituals and so forth that form their past and inform their present. In anthropology, ‘culture’ is the particular knowledge, norms and behaviours that a person needs in order to function as a member of their society. ‘Popular culture’ is the sometimes-derogatory label given to the music, clothing, television shows and prevailing societal norms and concerns of the moment.
And then there is Culture with a capital C. Art. Music. Literature. Poetry. Philosophy. Wine. These things, and these things from an unashamedly Anglo-centric (because I am, after all, English by birth and proud of my own cultural – small c – heritage), are the subject of The Culture Project. They are subjects that I know very little about. They are subjects that I almost without exception knew nothing about before I took it into my head to find out about them. That was about two years ago, and I’ve started this blog as a place to share some of what I’ve learned on my journey so far and the journey to come, in the hopes of finding or inspiring some fellow-travellers.
Culture is not a dead thing stuffed away in museums and libraries. It is a vital part of the Western tradition, which is part of the global tradition, which continues to inform our society today in ways that are hidden from us until we begin to delve into our (and if you want to share it, it is yours, no matter where you may hail from) rich cultural heritage. It is also a language all to itself: in Brisbane in June 2015 I visited the Gallery of Modern Art – a place which I probably would have passed by completely were it not for The Culture Project, and which I’m very glad I did make time for – where the work of New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai was on display. Viewing modern art is an exercise in interpretation, and as I explored Parekowhai’s work I found myself drawing on such diverse areas of prior knowledge as New Zealand history, Maori culture, Judeo-Christian scripture, hip-hop music… and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, which I had finished reading only a few weeks before. No doubt there were many other subtleties which I might not have missed had I only known more.
More than two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero said that ‘to know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.’ Never heard of Cicero? Welcome to The Culture Project.