Tuesday, 20 May 2014


“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” - Mahatma Gandhi

May 21st is the World Day for Cultural Development (UNESCO). Culture is a universal human characteristic and is engendered not only from our social nature but from our intellect and our desire to be creative and artistic. To be human means to not only concern ourselves with those things that we absolutely need to survive, but to also require many things that we want in order to make our survival more pleasant and more pleasurable. The complex of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, music, rituals, and ceremonies, are all together woven together to form the multicoloured fabric that we define as our culture. Our culture encompasses also the material objects used as an integral part of all of the things above and which together define this peculiarly human behaviour.

The capacity for rational or abstract thought, and more importantly perhaps, the ability of the human mind to create symbols and assign to things and events meanings that cannot be grasped with the senses alone is the uniquely human characteristic that is maybe the single most important thing that has created culture. Language is of paramount importance in defining our culture and together with this, our social ties and our religious feelings more than anything else breaks us up into our different cultural groups. Even so, eliminating all barriers are some fundamental cultural characteristics that define us as belonging to the human family.

Culture can transcend race, nationality, language and religion. Music can touch us all with a similar power and raise within us emotions that are universal. Artistic conventions, universal emotional experiences, common social behaviour and shared aims of existence are uniting features that make us able to relate to other humans from widely differing cultural backgrounds to our own. We can appreciate and enjoy culture of a culture widely separated from our own because we share a common humanity.

Albert Einstein remarks that: “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.” The tree from which all of these ennobling values branch is our common human culture. Culture frees us from the mundane existence of mere maintenance of our body. Freedom from our basic instincts of hunger, thirst, sexual drive, desire for sleep is what culture offers us. Culture does not liberate us in the sense that we can do without food or water, or any of our other basic physical needs, but it co-exists with these and elevates them to a different plane.  A wild animal tears flesh from the prey it has just killed to satisfy the basic instinct of hunger. A human being dines, following an elaborate ceremony where the satisfaction of hunger is heightened to a cultural experience, the gnawing instinct tempered with an intellectual satisfaction where the sparkle of crystal glasses, the shine of silverware and the transparency of porcelain offset the subtle flavours of a well cooked meal. Compatible company and stimulating conversation turn the meal into a social ritual that underpins civilized social behaviour.

I watched a young man yesterday out in the shopping centre, wolfing a paper-wrapped hamburger while hurrying down towards the exit, laden with his shopping. The sight was quite off-putting. His fingers were greasy, the procedure of eating reduced to an animal-like satisfaction of a basic instinct: Thoughtless, solitary, devoid of ritual, as obscene an action as defaecating (but even that action of egesting our waste has been ritualised to a certain degree). It is behaviour that seems to be becoming ever more common as our society tends to push us towards patterns of action that are calculated towards a mindless consumerism and an ever-increasing loneliness of experience. How many more people live alone nowadays, not by necessity but by choice? Each person living alone and fending for himself becomes a consumer that is demanding more and more and thereby increases the consumption of goods. A family needs a refrigerator but so does a single person living alone. Ten families of three need ten refrigerators, but thirty people living alone require thirty of them.

Similarly, mating in animals is an instinct driven act designed to satisfy a basic urge so that the continuation of the species is assured. Sex in humans has been ritualised to an extent that it becomes an elaborate ritual, with emotional factors involving love, respect and affection, consideration of one’s partner playing an important role in the enjoyment of what is ultimately the same act as in the animal. “Civilised people cannot fully satisfy their sexual instinct without love.” Bertrand Russell says and one must agree, that culture and civilisation make demands upon us that have become so ingrained in our psyche, that even the most cynical libertine would feel to some extent empty and exhausted after a purely sexual encounter that has satisfied the body alone.

Art, music, literature have “advanced” to such an extent, such that we now have to question seriously whether the dismantled air-conditioner that we see on the gallery floor is really just that or a piece of exhibited art. The music that is now produced is either a computer-written piece of predictable popular nonsense with deplorable lyrics that is churned out on a production line, all to a rock rhythm, or alternatively some dissonant high-flown and pretentious arty piece that resembles highly organised noise. Novels are written to pander to tastes of a sensationalism-seeking public with a heavy handed measure of sex and violence, or once again “literary” works that are morass of platitudes disguised by obfuscating stilted prose.

Religion is another cultural institution, which in western countries at least, appears to be in decline. Dwindling congregations have put many churches out of business and they are being sold to be converted into houses, units, galleries or shops. Basic ideas of Christian doctrine have been lost in the “modern” lifestyle and the values traditionally espoused by the faithful have deteriorated within the new reality of society, with an emphasis on the here and now rather than the hereafter.

One who sees this decadence of much of our cultural heritage in the West can perhaps understand better the concern of many of the other countries and faiths who have become very defensive and extremely resistant against “western cultural imperialism”. Islamic fundamentalism is but a knee-jerk reaction to such a decline in traditional cultural values of the West. Their fear of a deterioration in their culture has prompted them to try and preserve it at any cost, with what the West perceives as a repressive and antiquated regime.

We are experiencing an all-embracing redefinition of culture world-wide. Both in the West and in the developing countries. There are extremes on both sides and any extreme is unwise. We have forgotten the golden mean and we embrace excess in all things. It is this excess that makes us lose our humanity and makes us resemble the wild beasts with the bloodied maws. It is the glut of sensuality and much freedom, or conversely the repression of free expression carried to extremes that makes us desperate and can ultimately lead to a break down of civilization as we know it. Differing definitions of “culture”, the ever-widening social gaps, divergent systems of beliefs and traditions and the increasing fanaticism worldwide.

William Allen White says: “If each man or woman could understand that every other human being is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own… how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.” How true and unfortunately how poignantly it shows our increasing isolation and blinkered view of the world, manipulated as it is by our politicians and demagogues. That is why the internet can be such an advantage to a free, thinking human being. It can demolish barriers, build bridges across gaps and create friendships around the globe.

No comments:

Post a Comment