Thursday 21 October 2010

What is the value of culture?


1. It is sometimes suggested that culture has no value. This is partially correct in the sense that culture has no necessary positive value, and may do harm.

2. One benefit of culture is to increase happiness, provide pleasure. Happiness is a good - although it is not a sufficient reason for something - rather, it is a desirable side effect.

3. Above this, culture may provide glimpses of transcendence - for example of transcendent unity, truth, beauty or virtue. These glimpses may be first knowledge, hints or reminders, or an inspiration for efforts. Indeed, for culture to be worth anything more than any other form of amusement, entails a belief in the reality of transcendence.

4. But culture is a form - and its value depends on content. In this world, any form which has power to do good, may also do harm. That which may point towards transcendent good may also point towards evil.

5. Since the romantic era, and exacerbated by modernism, there has been a notion that (properly considered) culture can only do good. That the arts - poetry, novels, the theatre, music; or indeed education, science, medicine - are intrinsically and always  'a good thing'.

6. But if you believe in the reality of transcendence, then you must acknowledge that transcendence can be evil as well as good. Culture may therefore point up or down.

7. If culture can do us real good, it must also be able to do us real harm. And the proportion of good-doing versus harm-doing culture will, presumably, vary according to time and place.

8. Once this is recognized we can see that culture is now and has been for many decades, mostly harm-doing. This used to be recognized clearly - but the net-harmful effect of culture has been hidden and made possible precisely by the doctrine that culture is intrinsically and always 'a good thing' - that funding of 'the arts' is intrinsically and always a good thing, that poetry, drama, novels, serious music - are intrinsically and always 'good for us'.

9. Untrue. I repeat and amplify - most contemporary poetry, novels, drama, movies, fine art, dance, serious music, sculpture, architecture and the rest are bad for us: glimpses not of transcendent good but of transcendent evil; foretastes not of 'heaven' but of 'hell' - but lyingly presented as the opposite. In so far as they do anything, they make us worse, not better. 

10. This explains why 'culture vultures', those undiscriminating mass producers and consumers of contemporary culture, are such shallow, selfish, arrogant, despicable characters.



xlbrl said...

It has been observed by many trenchant individuals that all things advancing are also in decline. But I don't know that the reverse is equally true.

a Finn said...

I would approach this slightly obliquely. Why the internet is so weak force of change relative to the number of people in it, and the quantity of all kinds of oppositional groups? Detailed reasons are many, but one of the greatest obstacle is the one-dimensionality of communication. Internet lacks two levels of communication, which are necessary to start and sustain actions and cooperation. The first is an organizing dense metacommunication, that would make what is happening in a loose internet group sensible, trustworthy, more reciprocal, understandable and predictable. Let's say X is blogging, and his goal is to gather an audience and later to form a group. X gathers 100 followers and he knows about them by their comments, and not much else. Let's say that the number of commenters is relatively stable fairly long time; if there are fluctuations, they will mostly self-correct in 3-4 days. Suddenly about fifty commenters disappear and don't come back after 2 weeks, and X and the rest of the group don't know why this happened. Uncertain situations are a bit unpleasant, so feelings have a tendency to color the observation negatively. X might think they don't like his writings anymore, they don't care about his writings anymore or don't see them as important enough to comment. The fifty still commenting see the situation similarly and take social cues from the situation. Many of the remaining fifty stop commenting. X thinks that this mass desertion is a clear sign of negative feelings towards him, lack of reciprocity and cooperation. In reality the first fifty still read his texts, but they were so busy because of various coincidental reasons, that they took a break, and never communicated it to X. X stops blogging.

I let the reader to imagine the thousands of ways, in which these kinds of shortages and failures in metacommunication can lead to abortion of the loose cooperation of internet groups.

The second, partly overlapping with the previous, is the lack of face to face communication and real life cooperation.

Continued ...

a Finn said...

Part 2.

There maybe a lot of communication in internet, but it is too thin to correspond to the social predispositions and requirements of people. 747 eagerly drives along runways, but it's wings are too stubby and the speed is too low; thus no take-off.

If these are not corrected, "inertianet" is just one of the places where people stay safely atomized and please the liberal elites, despite the good quality of knowledge.

People need stable and meaningful groups to preserve good standards of beauty and quality. The high achievements of Russian traditional culture were created partly because icons and liturgy preserved the high standards. Icons are painted according to certain formulas; the use of materials, techniques, certain picture themes, and symbolic postures and signs. They were never meant to be expressions of unimited creativity. Other, more creative products of culture could be reflected on the massive conglomerations of beauty meanings embodied in icons, producing other kinds of beauty. Icons prevented long time the sickly and nihilistic contortions of culture.

Without factors like these culture at all times is just a decline to the bottom, whatever the present low happens to be, whether renaissance decline to distorted unpleasant bodies, or our pop-culture's talented massive decline in all fronts.

The formula of cultural decline is mostly and approximately the following: Pure basic instincts and feelings, one at a time + chaotic competition between artists and art companies/ art producers + (the need of high status groups to differentiate themselves from the masses).

The masses and their artists decline towards simplistic illusions of (not necessarily quite reaching) kinky orgia porn (Sex in it's different forms, e.g. singer Lady Gaga); feelings power, e.g. the maximum noise of heavy music; feelings of euphoria; feelings of melancholia; etc.

Intellectuals decline towards, not necessarily quite reaching, noise/ pure chaos, from which they pretend to discern the signal to show the high quality of their organs to their high status social group and to separate them from the masses. Atonal music, modern art mess, abstract theater, modern dance, etc.

a Finn said...

Addition: The icons were not normal things in traditional Russia, but were connected to many religious processes, and through them and in connection with them they could sometimes acquire supernatural qualities, but always at least strong symbolic and connecting meanings, according to the Orthodox. Icons were almost in every home, and all prayers were done in front of them.

Thus icons are totally different things than normal paintings, and they can't be separated from the religious social reality.

Anonymous said...

Almost exactly the same points could be made about religion, which is also sometimes seen as a good thing as such. (As in Eisenhower's famous statement that "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.")

Bruce Charlton said...

@wmjas - Good point. The next King of England, for example, (Prince Charles) has made statements about people needing 'a faith' of some kind, but apparently it doesn't much matter. And we also - in the UK - talk about 'faith schools'.

To me, this is on the level of all government bureaucracy - which invariably funds black-box categories. Naturally the bureaucrats want to be left alone to build their empires, so enquiry into the content of the boxes, or the effects of the funding, is strongly discouraged.

e.g. This week the UK increased 'aid' for third world countries - inside the black box this means British taxpayers funding African dictators to re-arm their bodyguards with machine guns instead of machetes, and buy them new jeeps - the better to rob, rape and kill.

@ a Finn. Thanks for these ideas. The strength of internet groups is limited by their open-ness to inspection. Pseudonyms are an indication of the dangers - but also often imply a wish to take psychological benefits from the group without risking costs or making committment.

a Finn said...

Charlton: "Pseudonyms are an indication of the dangers - but also often imply a wish to take psychological benefits from the group without risking costs or making commitment."

- Immaculate knowledge about psychology (based on the available information this time). This can be seen in other comments also. You are not a professor without sufficient reasons.

However, I would point out that information based on pseudonyms and political etc. discussions here is insufficient knowledge about the personalities here. The mind abhors a vacuum, and fills in "the missing information" to insufficient information; creates a whole story.

Having been in the "line of fire" in my living area, streets and politics, and observed others, pseudonyms etc., acting in these same areas, most of them, if they have participated a local group, are willing to take risks and make all kinds of sacrificies for the group and cause. I am generally positively "surprised" by how heroic ordinary people are and can be. To start these positive processes often requires at least some face-to-face contact, to add to the effect of letters on the screen.

If this was the only issue, Finns would not have problems at all. I am sure generally the same applies to Europeans in Britain, America etc.

If this topic happens to become the subject of an article, I can give more detailed information and advice.