The Meaning of Cultural Power

Nov 26th, 2012 | By | Category: Uncategorized

Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living. ― T.S. Eliot

Extract taken from The Age of Nixon, by Carl Freedman, published by Zero Books

ISBN: 978-1-84694-943-2, $24.95 / £14.99, paperback, 295pp

EISBN: 978-1-84694-9449, $9.99 / £6.99, ebook


First, however, it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the term and the concept through which we will revisit the career and the era of Richard Nixon: cultural power. It is not a familiar phrase, and to many people its two components will seem to make little sense when joined together. We tend to think of power as something raw, solid, and above all practical: whether it be the economic power of a large corporation, the political power of a president or prime minister, or the military power of an armed force. Power may not be pretty or edifying, but it is, we feel sure, inescapably actual. Power does real things in the real world.

Culture, by contrast, is often considered to be refined, insubstantial, and far removed from the world of gritty realities. Culture—especially in the sense of poetry, art, music, dance, and the like—is, we generally suppose, above all impractical: gloriously impractical, as some (but by no means all) would add. People who otherwise hold very different attitudes toward culture frequently agree on this particular point. On the one hand, there are those who cherish culture precisely because it does seem to them to exist on a different and higher level from the mundane practicalities of getting and spending. They might acknowledge that such practicalities are necessary to sustain life itself, but they would immediately add that culture gives life a value beyond the scope of the merely practical. T. S. Eliot, for instance, once defined culture simply as that which makes life worth living. On the other hand, there are those who also see culture as impractical but think that its impracticality is sufficient reason not to take it seriously. They may grant it a certain decorative value, but they feel certain that anything so insubstantial as culture, anything so evidently lacking in urgent claims upon the here-and-now, is nothing worth the full attention of a really grown-up person, and especially not of a really grown-up man. Culture, from this viewpoint, is not just refined but probably “soft” and effete as well, the province of ineffectual and pathetic “culture vultures”. The phrase “cultural power” may therefore seem like a contradiction in terms.

Yet is that really the whole story? Our modern political history is littered with clues that strongly suggest the opposite. Even if we restrict culture to the narrow meaning already suggested— “high culture,” or the fine arts—we find it turning up in the political news surprisingly often. Consider the “culture wars” over which so much journalistic ink has been spilled and so many partisan speeches made. One prominent concern here has been a matter hitherto unsuspected of being a question of widespread or burning public interest, namely the literature curricula in institutions of American higher education. One briefly well-known study, for example, claimed to show that the African-American novel Song of Solomon, by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, was more widely taught in the English departments of American universities than Paradise Lost. The claim turned out to be false— the product of a right-wing disinformation campaign, in fact— but the really interesting thing is that so many people seemed to care so passionately about the issue: including (indeed mainly) people not generally distinguished by a profound concern with literature or education, and who, indeed, were frequently ignorant of both texts. Or recall the ferocious controversy that raged (and to some extent still rages) over the grants given by the National Endowment for the Arts to support, in one way or another, such works as the homoerotic pictures of the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; or Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s celebrated photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine; or the often sexually charged performance art of Karen Finley, best known for appearing on stage with chocolate smeared over her body. It is easy enough to understand why many—or most—Americans might find such art not particularly to their taste. But why all the political outrage over it, generally from citizens not previously known for their interest in contemporary avant-garde art: outrage so intense that calls for the abolition of the NEA itself have become commonplace?


Piss Christ, Andres Serrano

The answer certainly does not lie in the sums of government money involved. The total amount of cash disbursed to Karen Finley and other controversial recipients of NEA patronage has always been vanishingly tiny, not only as compared to the overall budget of the federal government but even as compared to that miniscule percentage of it allocated to the NEA itself (the overwhelming majority of whose grants have never upset anyone, save perhaps unsuccessful applicants for those same grants). Nor does a somewhat different answer often suggested—the principle that, regardless of the sums at stake, Americans should not be taxed to support art they find morally offensive—hold water. The main problem with this superficially plausible logic is simply that the federal government spends an almost unimaginably large amount of money every year on an almost uncountable number of diverse activities. As several wits have pointed out, if your government is not daily spending more money than Finley and her colleagues ever dreamed of on projects that deeply offend your moral standards, then that can only be because you have no moral standards at all. If Congress declined to appropriate money for purposes deemed objectionable by any significant number of citizens, then the federal budget would shrink to a small fraction of itself pretty quickly (and the entire military budget would be wiped out overnight).

If neither money, then, nor fiduciary principle is really the issue at stake here, neither even is art itself—in that what we are looking at has almost nothing in common with aesthetic controversy in any strict or usual sense. Of all those whose blood boiled at the thought of Morrison being taught in more college classrooms than Milton, how many, for instance, could retrieve from memory even a half dozen consecutive lines of Paradise Lost? One can imagine a genuine argument about which text should have priority over the other in the college English curriculum, with plenty of rigorous and interesting things said on each side. But this argument never took place, not, at least, on anything like the scale on which the public furor was played out.

Or again, what, really, is the meaning of Piss Christ? If you look into the critical literature on the matter, you find that Serrano’s picture has been seriously and rather persuasively celebrated as a deeply religious work, which aims to peel away the veil of familiarity through which we habitually look at images of the Crucifixion, and so to restore a sense of shock at that terrible act by protesting against the world’s filthy ruination of Christ’s teaching. In other words, the title signifies not, “Let’s piss on Christ,” but rather, “How awful that the world constantly pisses on Christ”—a message exactly congruent with that of the New Testament. Of course, this interpretation can be challenged. An art critic could argue that the picture is indeed the deliberate blasphemy that most journalistic accounts automatically assumed. For that matter, it could also be maintained that it is just in the impossibility of deciding between the pious and the blasphemous meanings that the main significance of Piss Christ lies. The real point, though, is that hardly any of those who reacted to Serrano’s vision by carrying signs saying, “Defund the NEA”—or who, watching the news at home, identified with the sign-carriers—ever displayed the least interest in participating in actual debate over such rival interpretations.

Despite superficial appearances and claims, then, the hot political disputes of the culture wars have little or nothing to do with either economics or aesthetics. What has been at issue is neither money nor art, but cultural values. Mapplethorpe’s photographs and Finley’s performances both actively challenge the received sexual norms in which tens of millions of Americans try to believe, and which they desperately wish to be placed forever beyond dispute: Mapplethorpe by implicitly asserting the legitimacy (and indeed inevitability) of homoerotic masculine desire, Finley by forcing awareness of the symbolic and physical violence visited upon women when they are constructed as objects of male lust. As for Piss Christ, it may be an emphatically religious or an emphatically irreligious picture—or even both at once—but in any case it upsets the bland, unreflective, semi- Christian religiosity that constitutes the quasi-official creed of mainstream America and that it is generally considered the most offensive breach of good manners to transgress. As for the controversy over the teaching of Song of Solomon and Paradise Lost, it seems clear that the Morrison text functioned simply as a figure for an “alien” and threatening blackness, an “intrusive” presence in an increasingly multicultural America that many Americans ardently wish to think of as still essentially white and Eurocentric. Contrariwise, Milton’s epic, as a long established British classic by a white male author, functioned as a reassuring reminder of conservative white male dominance—ironically enough, to be sure, since, in his own time, Milton was far more radical and politically subversive than Toni Morrison has ever come close to being.

It is clear, then, that, however marginal culture may superficially seem to be, huge numbers of people do care about it passionately: not because they are genuinely worried about the government money spent on cultural projects, or because they are interested in participating in real aesthetic debate about the meaning of particular works of art, but because they often feel— very strongly—that cultural productions can outrage (or, conversely, reassure) their deepest emotions on such considerable matters as race, religion, gender, and sexuality. We need, in fact, to move beyond the merely aesthetic meaning of culture with which we have been working thus far— the meaning by which culture is more-or-less synonymous with the fine arts—and embrace a more anthropological sense of the term, a sense that encompasses nothing less than the totality of intellectual and emotional frameworks that groups and individuals use to orient themselves toward the world. To be sure, the aesthetic and anthropological meanings of culture are interrelated in complex ways. It may well be that—as the controversies about Mapplethorpe and Serrano and others tend to suggest—works of “high” art are often capable of challenging or confirming our most deeply held beliefs and prejudices with a special force and intensity. Indeed, many aestheticians would argue that much of the value of great art resides precisely in this ability to condense common emotions with uncommon power, to articulate (in Alexander Pope’s words) “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” But we need to be clear that culture, in the larger sense, is not only something that happens (for instance) in art galleries and opera houses and classrooms. It is equally something that takes place in churches and shopping malls, on baseball diamonds and in movie theatres. Culture speaks in the sort of sexual desire we feel, in our preferences for casual television viewing, and in the impulses that move us in raising children. We provide clues to our culture in the food we eat, in the games we play, and in the design of the houses in which we live. Even those departments of life that are primarily something other than cultural—the economic production that takes place in a factory, for instance, or the military destruction wrought by an army at war—are always heavily influenced by the culture of those who produce or fight. Our culture is, in the end, very nearly the same as our way of life in general—or, more precisely, the conscious and unconscious ways that we adapt ourselves to our way of life and our way of life to ourselves. Culture, in this sense, is roughly synonymous with “ideology” as used by the French philosopher Louis Althusser, and with “discourse,” as used by his most famous pupil, the historian Michel Foucault.

Author Bio:

Carl Freedman was born in North Carolina and educated in the public schools of Chapel Hill and Raleigh. He received his higher education at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), Oxford University, and Yale University. He has taught at Yale, at Wesleyan University (Connecticut), and, since 1984, at Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge), where he is the James F. Cassidy Professor of English. He is the author of many books, articles, and reviews that cover a wide range of topics in modern thought and culture: most notably Marxist critical theory, science fiction, film, and US electoral politics. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, an attorney, and has one daughter, a student, and one stepdaughter, a librarian.

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