“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”
--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”
Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute our common world. A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political. It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.
The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects. The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself. The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need. The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.
Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process. She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form. Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.
However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food. We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.
The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise. They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution. And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.
We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us. Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks. Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.” The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.” Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:
In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.
The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience. Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry. Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.
In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.
When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together. The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out. The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude. Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.
“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name. The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality. This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues. It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image: Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix. “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”
For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments. Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics. In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.” Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.” Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared. She writes:
Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.
That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals. The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out. In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.
“That the arts must be functional, that cathedrals fulfill a religious need of society, that a picture is born from the need for self-expression in the individual painter and that it is looked at because of a desire for self-perfection in the spectator, all these notions are so unconnected with art and historically so new that one is tempted simply to dismiss them as modern prejudices.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Crisis in Culture"
Today, within the context of contemporary art, post-Marcel Duchamp, post-Sherrie Levine, it’s no longer interesting to ask the question “What is art?” Anything and everything can now be appropriated into art’s frame or become part of an artwork. In Andrea Fraser’s words, “It’s art when I say its art.”
When we approach contemporary art with Hannah Arendt in mind, however, we must begin by understanding what she means when she uses the word, “art.” She works with a traditional idea of what art is. And she is quick to point out that what constitutes art for her may have little to do with what constitutes art for a given population in a given point in time. When we speak of art today in the current discourse surrounding contemporary art, we speak differently from Arendt. Which is reason enough to consider her definition.
One case in point is the cathedral. It is not a coincidence that Arendt chooses an ornate cathedral to exemplify her definition of art, since art for Arendt is distinguished by having no utilitarian purpose. A cathedral is a place of worship, and thus may serve a purpose. And yet a cathedral itself serves no purpose. The people of Chartres, for example, could gather and worship without their infamous building’s spires and rose window. These elements were made, to quote Arendt, ad maiorem gloriam Dei [for the greater glory of God]. Chartres Cathedral possesses qualities above and beyond any functionality. Art, for Arendt, is this totally non-functional thing that exists in the world merely to appear. Art objects may—and almost always do—have other purposes, yet this is not what qualifies them as art.
Art, as Arendt understands it, must also be free from its commodification in the art market. When art is commoditized, it is subject to becoming just like any other consumer commodity, which can be purchased, consumed, and therefore destroyed. Still, I don’t believe that an art object’s status as a commodity necessarily disqualifies it from constituting Arendt’s definition as art. As many contemporary critics, such as Diedrich Diedrichsen, have pointed out, art is not a regular commodity, and it is not assigned value or circulated in the same way, even if it is given a price tag.
“Beauty”—another fraught term in contemporary art discourse - is the quality that makes something last forever, and constitutes the world of appearance. Obviously, this quality is threatened by commodification, which, in theory, reduces art to dollar signs, making a painting’s value equal to that of a luxury apartment. And like a luxury apartment, when it circulates freely in the market, it is subject to demolition. Although, even when art is not circulating in this market, it is subject to destruction.( In the example hyperlinked, it is merely art’s comparison to monetary values that became “rationale” for its destruction. This museum director is what Arendt would call a “philistine”.)
The term “beauty,” like the question “What is art?”, is contentious mainly because it has ceased to mean anything. As the idiom goes, “it is in the eye of the beholder.” Not so, according to Arendt, who deploys this quality normally defined by its subjectivity and indefinability, in a super definitive and specific way. Beauty is the quality that transcends all needs and makes something last through time, and it is not a subjective descriptor. Following Kant, she argues that the person who judges whether or not something is beautiful must put themselves in the place of others who are judging the work in the same time and place, and they must produce judgments to “woo the consent of everyone else” (here I quote Arendt, quoting from Kant) in the hopes of coming to some eventual agreement about what is beautiful.
Consent about what is beautiful is important because it determines what is preserved over time. What unfolds in “Crisis in Culture,” the essay from which I’m drawing and to which I will continue to refer in these posts, is what happens to art and “culture” (which I will have to save for another week) within “mass society.” Or, what happens to the world of appearances, a necessary condition for politics, when everything is produced in order to be consumed (and therefore destroyed)?
Everyone, so I am told, is watching and talking about "Downton Abbey." It is a TV show, for those living under a bigger rock than I am. So the other day I asked the person charged with keeping me alive to the real world why the show was so compelling.
The answer arrived in my email later that morning in the form of an article: "The Philistine's Guide to Downton Abbey: Why Everyone in the Universe Should Watch Downton Abbey."
A philistine, let us recall, originally named a biblical enemy, a part of a host so large and superior in numbers that it would overrun Judeo-Christian civilization. In its modern usage, a philistine is part of mass society, those who judge all things in relation to their material or utilitarian values.
So what does a philistine want from "Downton Abbey"? First and foremost, it seems, he wants to be educated. Here I quote from the article on Gawker:
The first season of the show dealt with the sinking of the Titanic, Marxism, and the burgeoning women's rights movement thanks to the Earl's progressive youngest daughter, Sybil. This season is all about the Great War, as the Brits call it. It's teaching history! There are also all those damn costumes and beautiful interiors and characters with complex motivations being penned in by a restrictive society. It's all the best parts of Middlemarch without having to lug around a thousand page novel all the damn time.
For those who aren't afraid to lug around Middlemarch as well, the New York Times offered a front-page story Wednesday with book recommendations for those following the series. According to the paper of record, Julian Fellowes, the show's creator, "has been deliberate about dropping open-ended references into the scripts" that are designed to send viewers to their libraries (or at least their IPads). The show clearly plays into the long-standing cultural demand for entertainment that doubles as education. It seems we are desperate to sugarcoat our need for distraction with the promise that we are actually making productive use of our downtime.
The New York Times article comes complete with recommendations for books of history and poetry, and even other works of historical fiction, each designed to occupy the hours between the episodes of the show. But one essay recommendation was conspicuously absent from the list.
The current mania for "Downton Abbey" calls to mind Hannah Arendt's essay "The Crisis in Culture," Arendt's most powerful explorations of the role of art and the artist in contemporary life. The essay is actually in two parts. Part One addresses the relation between culture and society. Part Two concerns the connection between culture and politics. So this week's weekend read is Part One of "The Crisis in Culture." Next week I'll discuss Part Two. I hope you enjoy it in-between episodes.
In raising the question of the crisis of culture, Arendt is not assuming the mantle of culture warrior. She explicitly refuses to condemn low-brow culture—we all need entertainment. Nor is critical of the masses. The problem she is concerned with has its origins not in mass society but in good society. She is not criticizing those who enjoy their sitcoms. No, her critical eye is focused on the elite PBS viewers of "Downton Abbey."
Arendt's essay begins with a distinction between culture and society. Simply put, artists, intellectuals, and defenders of culture accuse society of "philistinism." The philistine concerns himself only with utility while the cultural artist aims at truth and beauty.
The problem emerges when the philistines come to find that culture is useful. Then the "educated philistine" emerges, someone who seeks to advance his own social standing by monopolizing culture. The educated philistine embraces culture. He collects art, sits on the boards of universities and symphonies, and displays his "contempt for the vulgarity of sheer moneymaking." The educated philistine despises entertainment and amusement, because no "value" can be derived from it. It is the educated philistine, not the artist, who is the snobbish culture warrior committed to demeaning pure entertainment.
As Arendt tells it, culture comes increasingly to be valuable as a currency that guarantees and advances social standing. But as culture becomes valuable, it loses its distinction from the other values of society. Cultural objects lose their distinction—that they can arrest our attention and move us. Arendt offers the example of Gothic cathedrals, which were built for the glory of God. Of course the cathedrals were useful too, but their immense and extraordinary beauty cannot be explained by their usefulness. Their beauty, she writes, "transcends needs and functions."
The beauty of cathedrals lasts through the ages. The cathedrals become part of our world, as do mosques and temples, paintings and sculptures, and all the public buildings and political structures that give form and meaning to our otherwise transient mortal lives. Yes, human beings can live without a culture; many have. But when they do, they live simply to live. For Arendt, that is not a distinctly human life in a human world.
We only live in a human world when "the totality of fabricated things is so organized that it can resist the consuming life process of the people dwelling in it, and thus outlast them." Lasting works of art make our world a human world, they give the world its distinction and its humanity. It is this worldliness that makes the world human. And this worldliness and humanity are born from the work of artists (visual, poetic, and political) who create the lasting institutions and things that give the world meaning as our world. Because culture concerns the lasting and immortal architecture of our human world, it is concerned with art—things made for no other purpose than to be beautiful and true.
The challenge posed by the mania around a show like Downton Abbey is that it is part and parcel of a cultural moment when art abandons its transcendent and protected realm and appeals to the needs of overly busy "educated philistines" who want their entertainment also to be useful. Arendt's examples are rewritten versions of classics like Shakespeare that are made as entertaining as My Fair Lady. There is nothing wrong with My Fair Lady. But the demand to make Hamlet entertaining—or to make entertainment educational—means, Arendt writes, that "culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment." Hamlet as a great work that can stop us and make us think and re-think our lives and our world can survive neglect; but it cannot survive being repackaged into entertainment. And this raises the true specter haunting Arendt's essay: that all the cultural goods that make up our world will be repackaged as entertainment, thus loosening the immortal bonds that tie us together as members of a common world. This means, for Arendt, the threatened loss of culture and with it of the specifically human world. As she writes:
The point is that a consumer's society cannot possibly know how to take care of a world and the things which belong exclusively to the space of worldly appearances, because its central attitude toward all object, the attitude of consumption, spells ruin to everything it touches.
I hope you enjoy "Downton Abbey." But I also suggest you take the time to read "The Crisis of Culture."