The meaning of a word often changes over time. The word 'culture' was first used to for the act of tending to crops or animals.
This original meaning changed to a metaphorical meaning of tending to the development of the human soul and then to the education of the human mind. In the 19th century the English poet Matthew Arnold said culture was "the best of what has been thought and said in the world." Anarchy was seen as the opposite of culture.
Culture became something that could be particular to a group of people and their development. A Nation could be defined by its culture. Linking culture to Nationhood lead in turn to problems of use and the politicizing of the word.
Out of this grew a hostility to the connotations of 'high' and 'low' culture. Culture came to mean superior. This divisive sense has recently lost some of its edge through the use of sub-cultures, thus allowing a more democratic use of this highly charged word. There is now a broader definition of culture, as popular or pop culture, that encompasses a very wide area of activities.
The culture of a Nation is somehow embedded within the individuals that make up that nation. We have no choice of the culture we are brought up in.
The American phrase 'culture-vulture' is useful to describe the way modern culture is often consumed. There is a certain modern need to consume vast quantities of cultural experiences quickly. Culture is now part of consumerism.
Our true cultural experiences are, I think, rooted in the culture we grew up in and that cultural outlook stays with us.
How can we, as artists, express or redefine our own culture for the times we find ourselves living in?
Both scientists and artists are curious, observant, creative and inventive.
Scientists pursue a truth by asking 'Why?' and 'What?' Why is the sky blue? What is colour?
This scientific truth has a value in its own right. Often there can be positive life changing results drawn from these truths.
Scientific truth is built on the knowledge of previous scientists. This means that it is an incremental knowledge that can make progress over time.
Every now and then there is a paradigm shift and scientific models and solutions have to be re-thought.
Artists are also pursuing a truth, but a different truth. For most of the history of art this truth was beauty. Artists try to discover patterns or find order in sounds, shapes and colours. Artistic truth, particularly in Western Art, is not a matter of progress, but of action and reaction. A universal truth defined in a language for the time it is made.
Life is beautiful; but life can also be ugly. Our inner life is also full of conflicting emotions. There is an inherent contradiction in our lives.
Art can unify that contradiction through creating unity and pattern. Art can make connections that unify these contradictions between the beautiful and the ugly and between high and low emotions, to create a passive pleasure which can be deeply felt.
It can be argued that there is a deeper real truth that is a combination of both the scientific and artistic truths. In my mind this is a journey that no one has successfully explored.
In art each type of production, from drawing to writing, music to film making, uses a different method to achieve the same task.
How can we seek the truth in art? How do we not focus too much on the surface beauty of nature? How can we be both true to ourselves and our time?
The greatest artistic creations are never quite perfect. For to be great there needs to be a seed of unease, of tension, of destruction.
It is in this balance, or imbalance, between creation and destruction that artistic unity and greatness can be achieved.
In nature there is a continuous play between life, death and rebirth. Change happens as the life cycle rolls on. Art needs to have the possibility of change, destruction and rebirth embedded within its core. It is when art possesses these qualities that it is truly alive.
Sometimes these tensions are hidden within a form of beauty that is clear to see. Many of the formal elements of design, like colour theory, composition and spacial balance, are ways to hold these seeds of tension within a structure that is stable.
Other times a work of art does not hold the seed of life and lacks the spark of tension necessary to hold the viewers attention.
To enable the possibility of life in a work of art, the artist should take the risk of walking the line between creation and destruction.
Tom McPherson's blog on art and creativity.