Culture Series: Scrutinizing Subjectivity
I want today to put forward my musings on culture by sharing personal experiences. I hope these illustrate the questions I want to pose.
I’ll discuss what sparked my interest in culture, and then the meat of my contribution centres on access and participation in the arts, the reverence we afford culture, and, because all structural issues are bound up in it, the money behind it.
Firstly, how I became aware of competing cultural narratives:
As a nine-year old Brit, I was studying Elizabethan history and the heroics of Sir Francis Drake – the famed English naval commander charged with resisting the ‘Invincible’ Spanish Armada. The Armada set sail from Spain in 1588, intending to overthrow recently established Protestantism in England.
I went home to my Spanish mother to relate this tale of naval might. Her reaction told a different story. To Spanish children growing up, the story was instead about Spain’s Armada being struck down by treacherous weather. Phillip II of Spain famously declared that he had readied his ships to beat the English, and instead he was beaten by the weather.
How could I reconcile competing stories, both taught with equivalent authority by people I trusted?
This conflict brought alive to me how history, and flowing from that, cultural memory, is subject to dominant tastes and national embellishment.
I think it is first important to inspect whose lens you employ when speaking of culture and history. Though trite to say, history is shaped by the dominant, and so if we cannot hear diverse narratives in our collective memory about how we arrived at where we are, we probably have not looked hard enough, or asked enough people.
On experiencing culture, and memory
I have worked as a Tour Manager across Europe for 8 years. I take very seriously the responsibility I have to introduce new students to the best of European architecture, social history etc. Sometimes I talk about slang, or subculture. I am conscious that I am a gatekeeper, and as such I seek to connect students to sites that force us to question cultural norms.
In Spain, I have taken groups to Valley of the Fallen, a site in the mountains around Madrid. It is where the fascist Dictator Francisco Franco built an immense Catholic basilica to honour the dead in civil war – a national monument to ‘atone’, in his words.
Today the site is mired in controversy. Political battles are fought at the highest level as to whether people should be permitted to visit or not. Frequently access is closed off.
When there, I almost whisper when I teach students about the reported Republican prisoners’ bodies that are hidden in the building. We tiptoe around this painful memorial. Our respect for the past is expressed quietly, with appropriate discretion.
Now a few years ago I visited Cartagena in Colombia. I went to a museum that told how the Spanish colonisers had imposed their religious wrath. Torture implements were displayed and accompanied with blurbs of gory detail.
Children were playing on these instruments, re-enacting grisly deaths. Loudly. There was no barrier: one could touch, explore, play.
I ask then, how should we address painful pasts? Is it right to elevate these torture implements in museum settings? Set them apart, behind glass barriers?
In Britain there exists a Victorian tendency to remove violence from the public eye. The process of ‘civilising’ society includes withdrawal from places and sites of violence. It is the reason city-centre prisons have been moved to the outskirts, so that our sensibilities should not be affected.
In short, should we preserve, or tear down these statues and monuments that recall figures now controversial? Should we participate more directly in these histories? Is our impulse towards ‘civilising’ serving to immunise us from the violence of yesteryear?
Culture as performance
I have sat in many a theatre audience. I hope you’ll excuse the expression: many are pale, male, stale.
Aesthetic taste is performative. Anyone who has watched somebody sample a wine with apparent knowledge will understand this: overblown analogies, pompous description. With culture, we often signal what we know, and this coded behaviour grants us access to an exclusive world.
Back to theatre audiences. In the US standing ovations are frequent, almost expected. Have these people enjoyed culture more, felt its material more keenly? Are we Brits, with our stiff upper lips, too cold? Is our taste more discerning?
But why does this matter? Because in boardrooms and corridors of power, often there are special access codes, based on allegiance to a prescribed culture. I worked at UBS - the Swiss bank - for my sins. And part of their explicit strategy in sponsoring great art through Art Basel – and it is a clever one – is to access ultra high-net worth individuals. It takes certain skill to exhibit your understanding of art.
And who controls the access? Where does the money to access this culture come from? There have been certain seemingly progressive policies in Newham, east London, designed to guarantee state-educated children a right to classical instruments. But why not a right to folkloric music? Or grime, a music that developed on their doorstep?
London recently has witnessed growing protest around corporate financing of the arts. Protesters in the Tate galleries tattooed themselves with ‘Art Not Oil,’ a reference to oil giant BP’s involvement in funding public galleries. One of Tony Blair’s great achievements as Prime Minister was opening galleries for all: the state subsidised museum access, so that today visiting our great galleries is free.
But is this fair? Why should taxpayers pay for access to works by Turner, Monet or Velazquez in the National Gallery, when we know that only a sliver of society takes advantage of this? Why do obscure works of Wagner attract immense subsidy? Who sits in that audience?
Do we free culture, or hinder it, by allowing multinationals to invest? Are creative directors then beholden to corporate palates, and is art’s function as a space for critique silenced by the need to stay onside with big money backers?
Here I link back to Appiah’s article. Culture is frequently practiced exclusively, when instead it should be celebrated as belonging to community. We need to ensure the legacy we leave is true to our collective experience.