In the pale hours of the morning, on tubes and buses, in kitchens and in beds, just as parents sift through the pages of newspapers and magazines, the young people of the world will open up Instagram and Facebook. I do it too. Even though it’s born more out of habit than from any real desire to learn the latest happenings on social media, it’s a daily ritual nonetheless. As I scroll through the endless mire of Kardashian or meme-related posts, the ominous question re-offers itself to me: is our generation currently suffering from a drought of culture?
Do we crave instant gratification and entertainment so vehemently that we will flit thoughtlessly from visual to visual, sound to sound, without really stopping to engage with what is in front of us? In a world dominated by social media and mass-produced art, do forms of “high culture” still exist? And if it does, would we be able to recognize it? Has the 21st Century ushered in the end of “culture” as it has been defined in the past? With the recent legislation that removed History of Art from the A-Level syllabi in the UK, the reality is that less and less of our generation will have – or indeed will want – access to knowledge about classical literature, music, or art – the pillars of Western culture.
Some might argue that the concept of a uniform culture is at odds with a heterogeneous society. Historically, forms of high culture were exclusively produced and consumed by the elite. In this modern day, it may be both archaic and pretentious to argue that every individual should have satisfactory knowledge of these art forms. This idea of an assumed level of cultural understanding is reminiscent of the kind of stratification that young women in an Austen novel are subjected to. When these women fail to learn what is expected of them – namely, dancing, music, languages and so on – they are ultimately deemed unworthy of marriage. The thought, while certainly outdated, raises a question regarding current cultural practices: would enforcing some understanding of the arts be akin to the strict Victorian ideals that curtailed individuality and hindered freedom in the past? Is it elitist to teach students that certain forms of expression are “better” and more culturally relevant than others?
In order to understand how society values culture, it is first important to understand how the term “culture” is interpreted. Perhaps the most common understanding of culture is as a collection of human intellectual achievements made in the arts and other modes of expression. Matthew Arnold, one of the first prominent cultural critics, spoke of culture as an humanist project, defining it as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Arnold perceived culture as an internal condition that is nominated by the individual, rather than the conduct of an entire peoples or period. T.S Eliot, on the other hand, posits in Notes Toward the Definition of Culture that culture is rooted in tradition and religion, and that with the increasing dilution of religion’s role in society, culture had grown devoid of purpose and essence. While Eliot’s conflation of culture and religion is less applicable to today’s secularized world as compared to Arnold’s theorization, these varied interpretations offer the possibility of a collective, but diverse culture. Since many variables seem to determine culture, such as tradition, religion, and the achievements made through different modes of expression, it is unlikely that culture will “die” for everyone in its entirety. The subjectivity of culture as a concept might suggest that a total “cultural death” cannot fully hold.
Contemporaneously, declinism– the belief that all societies are in steady decline since time immemorial – is an idea that many embrace, regardless of personal perceptions of culture. For instance, the phrase “everything was better in my day,” while perhaps clichéd, holds some truth to it. Scientifically, retrospective glances at our pasts often indulge in rose tinted nostalgia: we forget the bad and remember the good. It is important to remember that there has always been “low” culture and art throughout the ages, or else the critic would not have been born at all; yet it is predominantly the best of the age that is remembered and commemorated. If historically, “high art” has only represented a small layer of what the elite deemed as the best cultural or artistic achievements of the time, then the concept of “high art” is a product of elitist preferences, and therefore only representative of the opinion of a minority. Since “high art” has always been narrowly defined, it is highly subjective in nature, and therefore difficult to outline in universal terms.
The idea of “low culture,” a derogatory term referring to forms of popular culture that have mass appeal, has always existed. But then why does this new age still feel different? The answer must lie, to some degree, in the ultimate facilitators of connectedness and social globalization: the Internet and social media sphere. A momentous platform for information and arts, social media is the opportunist’s dream, permitting widespread and unchecked entry into the cultural market. Artistic niches that might not otherwise have seen the light of day are now given the chance to grow, and intercultural dialogue has given art a place among the forces of globalization. With this perpetual influx of new digital cultural artifacts, the western canonization of art seems to have been lost somewhere amongst Instagram and Facebook news feeds. In this crumbling canon, we see the decline of exclusive forms of high art, and the emergence of a new, widely accessible platform for artistic expression.
Regardless of the advantages that the Internet and social media have to offer, they have brought with them many demons that affect the artist-consumer relationship. While the artist-consumer relationship has become significantly more intimate through modes of “liking” and “sharing” content, an issue of overconsumption tacitly presents itself. Artists of all mediums and genres are able to put their work out into the world without need of patronage or endorsement, only one Instagram or SoundCloud upload away from thousands of potential viewers. Yet these platforms’ accessibility also leads to an overload of artistic information. As a multitude of visuals and sounds flow rapidly beneath our fingertips, we become desensitized to art, constantly over stimulated by various digital media platforms. A tendency for immediate digestion and instant gratification arguably prevents us from truly reflecting on or engaging with a work of art in the same way we would at a gallery or concert. In a similar vein, with the development of technology, one only needs to fiddle on a keyboard to mimic the sounds that at one time, a professional musician would take decades to master. Advances in technology have led to a decrease in skill specialization, but have also been paramount in minimizing the time it takes to produce art. Popular artists churn out single after album after single, and we, in turn, consume at double that rate.
Art has become part of a larger process of mass production and consumption. With increased production, and in turn, increased consumer accessibility, it follows that what society considers “good” art and “bad” art will increase proportionally. This over-saturation of the art-sphere may arguably make it difficult to discern value or quality. Through the use of “like” and “share” options on social media, everyone becomes a critic that is capable of dictation, shifting the authority to judge art away from “professional” critics and towards the general public; therefore, we lose access to a “credible sieve” that effectively determines the good from the bad.
However, while some consider the rise of the amateur critic as futile and unproductive, it is also a form of liberation for both the artist and consumer. Rather than abiding by a narrow conception of what is considered “good” and “bad,” we can let the number of “likes” and “shares” indicate public acceptance or denial of a work, and allow the public to collectively decide what is culturally relevant. The internet, for example, has provided a platform for artistic expression from hugely diverse facets of society, including those of marginalized groups, whose art may not have been as easily visible to the eyes and ears of esteemed critics. Through this, perspectives are shared, a stratified society moves closer to a mutually-understood culture, and “high” elitist culture becomes increasingly outdated.
While we may be somewhat overloaded and desensitized, technology and globalization have the capacities to take art and consequently, culture, to entirely new and exciting levels. And while this may be the end of the Western cultural precedent of “high”, exclusive forms of culture, the age of the “amateur critic” may give us a new, more heterogeneous cultural identity – provided that we take our thumb off the screen and properly digest what we see, hear and feel. Then, perhaps the art that our generation produces today will resonate with future generations tomorrow, so as to prevent them from asking the same ominous question: is this the end of culture as we know it?