Art and Culture in Society

This article, loosely arranged around a theme of the development of art and culture in society, is perhaps a contribution to those outlooks that are positive and progressive in life today. The inclusion of quotations from various famous and not so well known people hopefully will fire a few shots at the pessimists, the  faint-hearted, nihilists, hedonists and sybarites, and reactionaries – who apparently see nothing in the wold today but hopelessness, degeneracy, social and moral decay. Admittedly contemporary society is complex, and at times perplexing. Yet at the same time mankind is not on a losing streak. After all, individuals come and go but society as a general whole develops and continues. Humankind as individuals are not entirely responsible for history, they do not choose and decide as they please or think fit, but make history out of the circumstances directly found and transmitted from the past.

Humanity in its infancy was guided by the instinct of self-preservation and engaged in a virtual bare-handed struggle for survival against the forces of nature. The peoples of those prehistoric times were very under-developed economically and of low technological levels – and stood in awe and fear in the face of nature and their environments. Through their fears and their desires to struggle these primitive humans created religion. Here the term religion is used in a general sense, as the religion of these ancient communities was in reality a type of magic.

Religion to earlier populations was their poetry, their folk art – and virtually the sum total of their experience and accumulated knowledge. The main factor to note here is that early humans did not struggle alone, far from it, they lived and world as part of a collective. Bearing this in mind it is easy to see that their ideas, cultural and artistic-religious activities were all derived from the tribe or group and its environment. It is a fallacy to assume that artistic creation or expression is an individual or original creative activity. Nobody can create things that are not influenced by their social and environmental conditions, whether conscious or unconscious of the fact.

Society therefore developed from tribes and nomadic groups into various types of communal organisation – thence into slave society, further development led to feudalism which was eventually replaced by capitalist society. During this growth and development of societies and communities there arose the position where the basic unit was no longer a collective with communal spirit – there arose the situation of the raising of individuals into positions of reverence and authority. Such positions as priests, kings, witch-doctors, spirits and gods. Art then became utilised  for the purposes of these individuals.

In times of upheaval individuals play a part within the broad mass – and perform a specific function, consciously or not they become a focus, a rallying point for many wills, many desires – thus can now be seen the true status of artists such as Byron, Balzac, Zola, and Gorky to name only a few. All of these had a direct relationship with their environment and expressed the ideas of the masses. There are many others thrown up by the people in times of stress and development – all of whom are lit up by the aspirations of their peoples, class or groups.

Therefore it can be seen that art in general terms is a collective expression because the mass (for the want of a better term) channels much of its creative drive and inspiration through its artists. The masses also produce other social figures, such as politicians, reformers, radicals, scientists and also its revolutionaries. Without this relationship – so vital in the true development of culture -Dickens would not have put into his novels the social comment that he did; and Shelley would not have put the fervour into his poetry about the people of England. Again, Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of peasants in his earlier works would not have had their conviction without a close understanding of those people. Further proof of this connection between the masses and culture can be seen in mythology, folk-lore, and nursery rhymes. No individual created Robin Hood ballads, or tales of William tell – they are the sum total of aspirations of peoples in literary form.

However, an opposite situation can and does exist – what of the times when there is no upheaval or readily discernible change? In times of depression and stagnation people do not fade out and become dead and useless. It is in these low periods that people learn, consolidate, and crystallise their experiences. In situations such as these there are individuals who break way and choose to ignore the people and their experience. It can be seen to this very day that individuals or factions do break off and isolate themselves from society (intellectually that is) and in doing so they deprive themselves of their vital inspiration. Evidence of this is the existence of pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-scientific and obscurantist outlooks, abstractions in panting, drama, literature and films. Emphasis upon defeat and pessimism, with excesses of violence and corruption, and cacophony.

From this point then we can discuss the attitudes of certain and various people in contemporary society, whether they are of some, little or no social position. Naturally one of the favourite topics is of course the ‘uselessness of modern youth’. Another is that ‘everything has gone to the dogs’, or perhaps we will hear or read that everything we do is futile, or ‘what is the point?’ Whereas many people do not all feel this way there exist many who do. There are so many people who reiterate the sad, hopelessness of the philosophical doctrine of existentialism. A pessimistic outlook on life that seems to permeate so much of literature, cinema, drama, poetry, and the personal opinion of individuals. Part of the criticism of young peoples misunderstood and wrongly analysed behaviour is based upon the concept that ‘…things were better when we were young…’. The myth of the so-called ‘good old days’. Obviously then if we look back at previous eras it may become apparent that much of the past social comment is still very much pertinent in the present day and age.

Much of what people do may be wrong or unnecessary but not all people can be branded in this way, there may be many who fit well into a poetic description by Sergei Yesenin – “At last new men have come to birth,/With new ideas and emotions/ to set astir the stagnant earth.”  Again, with so much war and conflict in these contemporary times this same poet could epitomise the attitude of some of these world problems by writing “Dying is nothing new in our lives/ But then, living is nothing newer.”  Of course some people in positions of importance or privilege and who realise that ideas in other heads are coming up to challenge them try to stem the tide by any means, stalling the call for changes and improvements. Again, there is the question that covers this predicament, stating well the feelings of those whose future is hampered or manipulated. Accordingly Rukavishnikov wrote “Daring seem our words and verses/Yet condemned to death are we/The premature precursors/Of a springtime yet to be.”

Considering these things in the light of contemporary society, especially that of Europe and America, there was the great French writer who produced a serious perspective of life in his times that today is still very pertinent, almost prophetic in relation to the pressures of today. Especially poignant are his remarks about those people who spend much of their time and effort – often to the detriment of others – in pursuit of wealth, position and power, or perhaps all. Therefore the words of Honore de Balzac are still a biting indictment of these sad and selfish individuals who would even sell their own mother perhaps in order to obtain a job or promotion, thus “Where is the man in hot pursuit of power and wealth who has been known to stop?”, and furthermore “The possession of great power, no matter how enormous, does not bring with it the knowledge how to use it…Power leaves us just as it finds us; only great natures grow greater by its means.”. In Balzac’s view “The thought of all whose interests are thwarted by any law whatsoever is how to set the law aside in their own interests.”,  and just as pertinently “Our age is lenient with those who cheat.”

The result of such aims in life, or purpose, or manner of conduct is admirably summed up by Upton Sinclair who said “It is a world of money, all other powers deposed, all other standards a shell without a life inside.”. As a literary summary of the latter day outlook of  ‘I’m alright Jack’, or ‘Bang the bell, I’m on the bus’  can be supplied by Doctor Johnson who opined that “Wealth keeps out only one of life’s evils, and that is poverty.” From hence we can progress to dwell upon those in this world who spend much of their waking hours giving forth utterances of pessimism, of hopelessness, pointlessness, punctuated by pious remarks about it is not on earth we will find peace and happiness. Perhaps it is as well that the world produced in it literary history such a man as Thoreau who said “Men will lie on their backs, talking about the fall of man, and never make an attempt to get up.” Finally, from the pen of Francis Bacon “They are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea.”

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