The Art of Cultural Studies

By Motzkus, Heidi Tolles | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Art of Cultural Studies


Motzkus, Heidi Tolles, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


The emerging field of cultural studies has provided a new lens through which to view and think about the arts and culture. Since its beginnings in the 1960s in England at the University of Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the field of cultural studies has garnered much attention. The field as a whole has traversed a rocky road as it tries to make a home in academia. Some academics have been disturbed by the lack of pureness in the field, as cultural studies is by nature highly interdisciplinary. Drawing upon the theories and practices of disciplines as diverse as anthropology, art theory, social sciences, literary criticism, and linguistics, the field of cultural studies is characterized by the practice of theory. Lived experiences are central to this field.

A distinguishing feature of cultural studies is its insistence that culture and cultural products, such as the arts, must be studied within the social relations and system through which culture is produced and consumed. Therefore, the study of culture is intimately bound up with the study of society, politics, and economics. At its strongest, cultural studies is a comprehensive approach that examines not only the cultural texts, but also their systems of production and distribution and their impact on the audience. Such an approach produces a multifaceted analysis with a range of perspectives. As in postmodernist thinking, cultural studies maintains that there are no absolute truths, but that there is a myriad of perspectives, all worthy of examination. The frequency with which cultural-studies approaches are being used to investigate the arts indicates that cultural studies has finally come into its own.

At the heart of cultural studies is the understanding that "the way we see things is structured by what we know or what we believe." In this quotation from his 1972 book, Ways of Seeing (BBC and Penguin Books Ltd.), John Berger puts his finger directly on the pulse of this field. The statement may seem obvious, but at the heart of cultural studies is the idea that cultural norms are only norms for that culture. These norms change, are relative, and do not themselves contain any ultimate truth. This idea is far removed from that of the formalists in literary theory, who feel that a text is a "well-wrought urn" beyond which no one need look. All meaning was to be found within the text. A cultural-studies approach would entail investigating not only the cultural text of that urn, but also the conditions of its production and the impact on its users.

Berger's book is, in fact, a stellar example of the analytical possibilities inherent in cultural studies. The back cover of the book places it within the category of Art/Architecture. However, it is clear that this book could be placed in any number of categories. In his discussion of the ways in which the female body has been constructed, viewed, marketed, bought, and sold, Berger uses European art from the Renaissance onward, print ads, and economic theory. Another section of the book examines the relationship between European oil paintings from 1500-1900 and the notion of possession. His discussions exist somewhere between art criticism and economic analysis. Above all, Berger asserts the importance of viewing art within its historical and social context.

Crossing the borders of academic disciplines in true cultural-studies style is Performance Studies scholar, Richard Schechner. His interdisciplinary way of viewing theatre takes him on a path that leads from anthropology to political demonstrations, theatrical productions, and the performing arts. Schechner has traveled widely, studying the performance practices of many cultures in the manner of an anthropologist. He studies rituals and performances and ponders the nature of the relationship between performance in Western and non-Western cultures. …

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