The word “culture” gets tossed around quite a lot and in all sorts of contexts. Sometimes it has to do with the arts; sometimes it’s an expression of a way of life (i.e., culture of violence or culture of poverty); sometimes it’s in reference to ethnic effects on lifestyle in terms of rules of conduct, attitudes, and morals.
We can describe someone as being cultured, tell someone else they need to get some culture, and be talking about behaving in a manner that’s intelligent and informed, telling someone to learn about the arts, or act with a little more grace and style. Being cultured appears similar to being marinated, in that you have been immersed in certain things to the point where you can’t help but to have absorbed them.
A culture is usually composed of several items from each facet of the human experience — a core belief system or philosophy that offers an explanation for the people’s existence, a language that articulates the thoughts and concepts that the above postulates, a specific code of conduct or morality that defines everything from interpersonal relationships to the societal contract called justice, and the variety of means in which a group has to express the creative impulse called “art.”
The artist acts as a culture’s spokesperson, articulating thoughts and concepts in both the literal and abstract. Music, painting, sculpture, dance, writing, theatre, and all of their offshoots can be lumped together under the category of the interpretive arts. The obvious observation is that these artists serve as the translators and teachers to the other people in their society and beyond.
Although on the surface it would appear that the artist plays a significant role in a culture, a great deal of artistic effort has existed at the fringes of society. The artist differs from his cousins, the artisan and the craftsperson, in that a good deal of the artist’s output has no practical application in the day-to-day workings of a culture’s society.
The more a culture has turned toward the rewards of real return on efforts instead of the abstract, the less recognition and appreciation that are given to the arts. What “use” is something that has no practical application? It’s only a frill, something to be enjoyed as an amusement and nothing more.
There are other cultures at the furthest opposite end of that particular barge pole, ones where the arts have been thoroughly integrated into the culture’s way of being. The native people of Haida Gwai (The Queen Charlotte Islands) have no word in their entire language for arts.
…we were able to see a different notion of culture, in which there is no word for “art,” so completely does the creative impulse permeate every aspect of lived experience. Miraculously, this is still true today…(The Globe And Mail Saturday, May 27th, 2006)
Everything that the Haida, and many other early cultures, made that was of practical application was also made with regard to aesthetics. From the cedar longhouses, which are the communal meeting places, the masks used in dances and worship, the cedar boxes used for storage, the cloaks and garments that are part of the old way of dressing, and the huge dugout canoes that are used for ocean travel, would all be considered works of art by our culture.
Of course, there are the symbolic works as well, but they too serve a practical purpose. The massive totem poles of the west coast are not just remarkable feats of sculpture and engineering, but serve to inform people of a clan’s affiliation with the spirit world and its animal totems.
In the hierarchy of our culture, the arts are quite near the bottom as a way in which a person can occupy themselves. They are seen as a frivolity with no real application or use in a person’s day-to-day life. They are a diversion, an entertainment, which while pleasing to the eye or the ear, aren’t considered integral to our existence.
The arts in our daily life have been diluted down into function over form. Our places of business and houses of residence are made to serve more than they are to please the eye, with the occasional exception.
With the Haida, their creations are considered an extension of who they are as a people. Everything that they make represents an element of their lives and their cultural spirit. In our case what the artist fabricates has little to do with anything of who we are. Our artists create independently of society, at best offering commentary, via their subject matter, on the world around them.
Have you ever been to a multi-cultural event where people of various backgrounds set up and perform dances that are unique to their people in clothes that distinguish their heritage? What kind of dance, or clothing, or music would people from our culture do?
The closest we would have would be the music brought over by the British and Irish settlers and adapted over the years into what we now know as old time music or country. The square dances that have been played at the barn dances or the Legion halls across North America are offshoots of sailor’s reels and jigs, and step dancing runs a parallel course to Irish dancing.
But all those groups have been sucked into the overwhelming maw of our one world policy, where cultural distinction is looked upon as an aberration and it becomes important to blend in as quickly as possible. Even supposedly multicultural Canada offers only token recognition to minority cultures. Anyway, none of them represent who or what North American culture is, if such a beast even exists, and serve mainly to point to our lack of any sort of distinctiveness when it comes to cultural uniqueness.
When one considers the role that religion or spirituality has represented in the development of the arts — the first plays were the mystery cycles in the middle ages and the majority of scenes depicted in early art were of a religious nature — perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised about its current status. The majority of the people who first founded our countries were those who didn’t believe in the depiction of religious scenes, considered the playhouse sinful, and that man was meant to work himself into an early grave so he could enjoy the fruits of his labour in heaven.
That isn’t the healthiest of atmospheres for the arts to develop in. We still have groups who would try to prohibit art that does not fit into their notion of what the world should be like.
For the Haida, the idea of distinguishing between something being art and not art is alien to their way of thinking. Creativity is integrated into their daily life as a means of expressing their connection with the world around them and their belief system. They don’t call it art because they have no need to separate creativity from their daily existence.
We, on the other hand, can barely see how one relates to the other. Is it any wonder that the arts and artists are looked on as some sort of freak show?