“Your City Has No Culture!”

That’s what I often hear from “folks” who live in places like New York City. They also happen to be “folks” who earn upper-middle-class livings and define culture based on “high art” standards. Anything that doesn’t have a marquis or high price tag for access doesn’t count as culture. And I venture a guess that patronage by white people is also a big part of the ethnocentric experience that shapes their definitions. I could, of course, be jumping to conclusions. But, this narcissistic anthropologist believes she has been noticing enough to know better.

I am going to go ahead and let the misuse of the word “culture” slide for now. Because whether a city like mine that is portrayed in media as having a primarily “Boughie” consumer culture instead of an artistically or cultural-tradition based culture….”culture” is still present. Culture is the human reaction to the constraints imposed upon us by our environment and our sociopolitical situation.

Here are some other attempts at defining culture (thanks to Texas A&M University):

  • Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
  • Culture is the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.
  • Culture is communication, communication is culture.
  • Culture in its broadest sense is cultivated behavior; that is the totality of a person’s learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmitted, or more briefly, behavior through social learning.
  • A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
  • Culture is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group’s skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions.
  • Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning influences upon further action.
  • Culture is the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.
  • Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.

Definitions aside, however, I know what the point of criticism is referring to.  But when I look at my city I see a vibrant grassroots arts community.  I could spend days photographing the public and street-level art that runs rampant through pockets of my city.  There is a pronounced culinary and ethnic food culture here as well.  It actually is known for being a “food” city.  I also see a vibrant gay and lesbian community that shapes our popular culture here.  Then there is the “dirty south” hip hop scene, a thriving DJ culture and a very distinct nuanced social order that comes from the intersection between the old south (that lives just moments away) and the thriving metropolis of the city.   When I drive through town I also see tons of students walking to and from various universities, a quirky hipster-bicycle culture and various other pockets of curiosity.   Not to mention a couple of museums, a botanical garden, a mainstream theatre that hosts touring shows, several other amateur and professional theatres, an opera and a ballet.

I think it’s important for those who have access to “higher” forms of art as a part of their insulated city life to take a moment to notice what’s happening on the ground.  Every city has “culture”…that’s unavoidable.  But most cities, even if they don’t have a high-profile, public-facing creative scene, have a lot art and nuance going on if you care to look deep enough.  And once enough people go deep and take the time to excavate the artifacts of art from beneath the surface of their city, they have the power to put their city “on the map” as a “cultural center”.  Lets just go ahead and take a moment to recalibrate our definitions and then there will be no stopping the advancement of human “culture”.

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One thought on ““Your City Has No Culture!”

  1. An interesting list of definitions of culture. Reminds me of Kroeber and Kluckholm’s classic study “Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions” only a very light version.

    These definitions are descriptive attempts to define what to look for or where to look for something we call culture. Identifying the object may be the first step, but more important is understanding what the object does in the large system of reality/experience. From a biological perspective, Culture is life’s second replicator. Culture replicates that which has lead to a successful mating of the past experience with the present necessity and improves the odds of a future for a human society.

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