Art, culture, and epistemology

In the not too distant past, I heard a common argument from a musicologist. He argued that “art was an expression of culture”. The underlying pedagogical theory behind this argument is that in order to understand the specific art object under discussion, it is necessary to have a fundamental grasp of the cultural context from which the art object emerged in order to properly evaluate the object. When I pressed him on the issue, I brought up the idea that in order to take that position, it was necessary to split “art” and “culture” into two different philosophical categories and suggest that the motion always and only moves from culture to art and never in the other direction. He, in an answer that I find typical for scholars of his generation, argued that the only case he could make for art transforming culture was the Beatles. Ironically, we had this whole discussion in the music building of a modern University – a building which would not be in existence without the value of art having affected the culture of our society in some fashion.

I am certainly a big fan of understanding the historical background of an art object for the pedagogical process. It is a big factor in my teaching, but I’m not sure that comprehending cultural contexts is enough to fully explain the wonder of a specific art work. There are a few issues that at least argue against it. I know of one conductor of a major professional orchestra who was raised in impoverished conditions with no cultural reference points to the Western canon. He went to an orchestra concert as a child on an elementary school field trip. The music of Beethoven and Mozart grabbed hold of him and never let go. Even though at that time, he didn’t have any grasp of the “culture that expressed the art.” Whenever we approach an art object, we need to allow it enough room to exist within its own mystery. It often has the power to break out of its specific cultural context and transform the observer.

The second issue comes back to some of the epistemological problems that continue to perplex me. If I argue that art is an expression of culture, then my understanding of that art object is only as thorough as my knowledge of the culture. So, let’s conduct a thought experiment. A little girl grows up singing “Ring around the Roses” on the playground. She becomes a musician. She learns specific notes to play, and can play the song. Now she understands it more than she did before. Next, she takes a theory class. Now she gains a vocabulary to analyze and discuss the song and its musical structure. She understands it a little more. Next, she takes a history class and learns that the song has a dark, and gruesome past depicting the tragedy of the black plague in Europe. She understands it more. The ladder could go on infinitely. Each new discovery gives her the sense that she never really “understood” the song before. She has also not actually sung it and played the game in 25 years. Her relation to the game is tentative and speculative. She cannot give a final answer about the meaning because she lives in fear of the next discovery that will place the song in a cultural context that she hadn’t anticipated. One day, she has a daughter. The daughter grows up and says, “Mommy, let’s play.” For the first time in 30 years, she sings and plays “Ring around the Rosie” with her child and realizes that she did know what it meant after all. The other stuff was interesting, but it was not a mysterious, existential relationship with the art object itself. In fact, the cultural knowledge was wonderful, but in a way, she could use that knowledge to distance herself from the actual object. It wasn’t until the lines of whether art was affecting culture or culture was affecting art got all blurred together in the moment. It’s what Martin Buber describes as an art object “blazing up into presentness.”

Does culture affect art, or does art affect culture? Yes.

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