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Current research interests: cultural significance - intangible culture - what is culture? - history of visual culture - history of irrationalism

Ancient Greece marks the beginning of Western culture. Shown above is a 1872 snapshot of the Partenon located in Athens, Greece. It has been restored since.

There are two contradictory views of culture. The first holds that culture is the very best (see perfection) that a society produces, the second holds that culture is everything a society produces, even ordinary and ugly phenomena. In my opinion, both views are right. But at the extreme ends, both high culture and low culture are minority cultures; the combined influences and the cross fertilization of both 'high' and 'low' (or Dionysian and Apollonian) strains constitute mainstream culture. In this sense, mainstream culture equals culture.

high culture vs nobrow culture vs low culture

cultural optimism vs cultural pessimism

popular and mainstream vs subculture and underground

genre fiction vs literary fiction

art music vs popular music

originality vs genre

art film vs exploitation film

haute couture vs street fashion

"body genres" vs "mind genres"

art - cultural criticism - cultural history - cult - culture theory - culture wars - dark culture - dance - education - eroticism - everyday life - fashion - fiction - film - genre - lifestyle - literature - music - popular culture - publishing - underground

Bibliography: Lipstick Traces, a Secret History of 20th Century (1989) - Sexual Personae (1990) - Camille Paglia

Recorded culture: architecture - books - documents - ephemera - films - music - newspaper - photographs - poster - websites

Related: alternative - art - behaviour - canon - civilization - common - content - convention - counterculture - cultural revolution - expression - establishment - group - human - knowledge - language - mainstream - mass - mass media - meme - nature - people - scene - social - subversion - taste

Theory: anthropology - communication - cultural criticism - cultural studies - culture industry - culture theory - economy - hegemony - high culture - identity - lifestyle - low culture - media - politics - religion - representation - society - sociology - government funding of culture - culture and technology

Sensibilities: avant-garde - camp - classic - decadent - eccentric - eclectic - erotic - experimental - gay - gothic - grotesque - kitsch - macabre - modern - perverse - postmodern - snob - queer - transgressive - underground


The word culture comes from the Latin root colere, (to inhabit, to cultivate, or to honor). In general it refers to human activity; different definitions of culture reflect different theories for understanding, or criteria for valuing, human activity. In 1952 -Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of over 200 different definitions of culture in their book, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.

Presently, the UNESCO defines culture as the "set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group". Culture encompasses "in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs".

Popular use of the word culture in many Western societies can reflect the stratified character of those societies. Many use the word culture to refer to elite consumption goods and activities such as fine cuisine, music. Some label this as "high" culture to distinguish it from "low" culture, meaning non-elite consumption goods and activities.--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture [Sept 2004]

Culture as civilization

Many people today use a conception of "culture" that developed in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This idea of culture then reflected inequalities within European societies, and between European powers and their colonies around the world. It identifies "culture" with "civilization" and contrasts the combined concept with "nature". According to this thinking, one can classify some countries as more civilized than others, and some people as more cultured than others. Thus some cultural theorists have actually tried to eliminate popular or mass culture from the definition of culture. Theorists like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) or the Leavises regard culture as simply the result of "the best that has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold, 1960: 6), thus labeling anything that doesn't fit into this category as chaos or anarchy. On this account, culture links closely with social cultivation: the progressive refinement of human behavior. Arnold consistently uses the word this way: "... culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world". [Arnold, 1882]

In practice, culture referred to élite goods and activities such as haute cuisine, high fashion or haute couture, museum-caliber art and classical music, and the word cultured described people who knew about, and took part in, these activities. For example, someone who used 'culture' in the sense of 'cultivation' might argue that classical music "is" more refined than music produced by working-class people such as punk rock or than the indigenous music traditions of aboriginal peoples of Australia.

People who use "culture" in this way tend not to use it in the plural as "cultures". They do not believe that distinct cultures exist, each with their own internal logic and values; but rather that only a single standard of refinement suffices, against which one can measure all groups. Thus, according to this worldview, people with different customs from those who regard themselves as cultured do not usually count as "having a different culture"; but class as "uncultured". People lacking "culture" often seemed more "natural," and observers often defended (or criticized) elements of high culture for repressing "human nature".

From the 18th century onwards, some social critics have accepted this contrast between cultured and uncultured, but have stressed the interpretation of refinement and of sophistication as corrupting and unnatural developments which obscure and distort people's essential nature. On this account, folk music (as produced by working-class people) honestly expresses a natural way of life, and classical music seems superficial and decadent. Equally, this view often portrays non-Western people as 'noble savages' living authentic unblemished lives, uncomplicated and uncorrupted by the highly-stratified capitalist systems of the West.

Today most social scientists reject the monadic conception of culture, and the opposition of culture to nature. They recognize non-élites as just as cultured as élites (and non-Westerners as just as civilized) - simply regarding them as just cultured in a different way. Thus social observers contrast the "high" culture of élites to "popular" or pop culture, meaning goods and activities produced for, and consumed by, non-élite people or the masses. (Note that some classifications relegate both high and low cultures to the status of subcultures.) --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture#Culture_as_civilization [Oct 2005]

Ambiguity of the word culture

[t]he fatal ambiguity of the word "culture" itself--which simultaneously has an organic, biological resonance (growing plants, germ cultures etc) yet also signifies the antithesis of earthy natural-ness (the civilized, the non-instinctual, the artificial, the sublimated). --Simon Reynolds, Springerin, 2001

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