Thoughts on Culture… or is it culture with a little c?

Think of Culture. What to you think of?

Opera? Art Galleries? Fine Wines? Theatre? Poetry? Classical Music? Foreign Literature? Architecture?… yep, when we think of culture, we tend to think of Culture with a Capital C – high Culture.

But what do these things represent? They say nothing about a city like Portsmouth, for one. For the most part, they represent what Culture is for a very small part of the population. Usually, the very top 5%, perhaps, of people in society. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of ordinary working people – and I’m thinking about past ages, not just the present – simply aren’t bothered about listening to people warbling in Latin, or abstract art. I cannot imagine your average Dockyard worker being too worried about reading the latest book by Emile Zola, but rather popping to the Pub, or how Pompey will get on on Saturday. If they had a painting on the wall, it might have been of a nice local view.

So how is, considering so few people are interested in high culture, and it says so little about society, that it overshadows all other forms of culture? There’s something very undemocratic about high Culture. Something snobby, almost like ‘we know most people dont like it, but what would you know?’. How is it, in a supposedly consensus society where we elect Governments by unversal suffrage, that a small select part of society dictate what we should like? As if its something that the rest of us should aspire to, like a kind of social Premier League?

Not only is it about choices, but also money. Look at the funding that is given to institutions such as the Royal Opera House – yet how many ordinary people, who have indirectly paid for it, can actually afford to go there? And even if you can, is it welcoming to all walks of people? Somehow I think not. And how many high-brow Museums and Galleries are full of exhibitions designed for curators and high-brow aficianados, rather than the general public? For some reason, Culture is one of those areas that is still the preserve of the well-adjusted, a hangover from a different age.

Personally, I think that culture is not about lumps of pottery, or random smatterings of paint on canvas. Its about ways of life, ways of thinking, unique words or food or drink that you wont find anywhere else, the spirit that you find in a city that makes it what it is. With the best will in the world, Portsmouth is not a Cultural City with a Capital C. But in terms of broader culture, spirit and way of life, it has that in spades.

So what makes Portsmouth culture? Heres a few thoughts of my own… The view from Portsdown Hill… The Fratton End… Mother Kellys… Still and West… Guildhall Walk… Southsea Common… The Pompey Chimes… The Pompey Sailor… Pompey Royal…

Any more ideas?



Filed under Local History, social history

2 responses to “Thoughts on Culture… or is it culture with a little c?

  1. Kim Carson

    Have you turned on the television recently? If “a small select part of society” really do “dictate what we should like” then does it not strike you as odd that they have left one of the leading forms of entertainment so resolutely in the hands of the masses? Television programming concerned with Culture with a capital C is seriously underrepresented. BBC4 is perhaps the only place where it is given serious air-time.

    If “people warbling in Latin, or abstract art” aren’t your thing then you aren’t going to be forced to engage with them. However, if pop music and garish advertising aren’t your thing (they are not mine), it is nearly impossible to avoid them without remaining hermetically sealed in a house lacking all forms of communication. And that, not high Culture, is undemocratic.

  2. James Daly

    They’re not my thing either Kim. Come to think of it, what you might call ‘low’ culture is a variation on the same theme, or perhaps what happens when things go too far the other way – channels putting on any old drivel just because people will watch it. I think there are still some strong but subtle ‘top-down’ policies in places such as the BBC, for instance some of their more ‘PC’ policies.

    I know I’m not forced to engage with anything that I do not want to, but what I disagree with is the inherent feeling that unless you can speak latin or understand abstract art then you’re a philistine. I remember one of my lecturers saying once about Chichester Festival Theatre that ‘there are more actors off the stage than there are on it’, and whilst that might be an exaggeration I think there is a point there. For some people the opera or the theatre might be more about being seen than really engaging with it, whereas if i fancied seeing a play or hearing some classical music (I do like classical music) I might not feel comfortable going to see it.

    I’m all for breaking down barriers. It would be good if people could just enjoy what they enjoy and to hell with all the associated baggage. I’ve said it before in other posts: the main thing is that people think about and talk about these issues, whether they agree with me or not doesnt matter at all. I’m just thinking out aloud 😉

    Anyway what got me thinking along these lines was an article I read about the misrepresentation of local history in Museums, how its only recently that working class social history has been featured in a lot of Museums.

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