Culture and Society in France, 1789-1848

Culture and Society in France, 1789-1848

Culture and Society in France, 1789-1848

Culture and Society in France, 1789-1848

Excerpt

The word culture is customarily used in a passive sense, as in phrases like 'a man of culture' or in Matthew Arnold's celebrated but question-begging definition of culture as 'the acquainting of ourselves with the best that has been known or said in the world'. For present purposes, however, it is the active sense that concerns us, in other words culture as meaning the production of works of art, of literature, or of music. And the first point to notice is that the products of cultural activity are not intended for consumption or application in the same way as are the products of human activity in other spheres. The artist is not a grower of crops nor an inventor of machinery. What he does could be called useless, since the things we call useful are always the things that can be put to use. The shepherd of today who whistles his dog is using a musical note for a specific purpose. The shepherd of the legendary pastoral age who played on his pipes was engaging in this activity for its own sake, and the air he played was a cultural product. A policeman's or a referee's whistle is utilitarian, a flute is not.

But the flute was invented, fashioned and perfected by men, and one must therefore suppose that it came into existence in response to a human need. The need for cultural stimulus and aesthetic satsfaction has been with us ever since the struggle to stay alive ceased to be so overwhelming that it absorbed all man's time and energy. From that point on, culture started to impinge on society, and vice versa; for it is one of the marks of a fully civilized society that the arts affect every activity, leaving their imprint on even purely utilitarian objects; the wine-jar is decorated, the sword is given a jewelled pommel; poetry, music and song turn mere mating into a congress of ravished spirits.

Strictly, the swordsman needs but a good smith to forge him a stout blade; in battle, the gold filigree work on the hilt might as well not be there. Because of the intrinsic uselessness of art, its practitioner always risks feeling himself to be, or even finding himself to be, an unassimilated outsider moving uneasily round the fringes of the society which supports him. In antiquity, and to some extent in medieval times, this fear of alienation was kept at bay by the religious significance that attached to cultural activities. Orpheus, the sweet singer, founded a sect of mystics . . .

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