Sauk Valley Community College

Humanities 210


Art and Culture: Who We Are
© 2001 Kris Murray



Many books and articles on art begin with the question- What is Art? Not that that is a bad place to begin, but the answer that is usually given can be as confusing as the question itself. For example, Susanne Langer, in her essay, "The Cultural Importance of Art," gives the following definition of art-
Art is the practice of creating perceptible forms expressive of human feelings.  Langer goes on to explain that she is talking about the feelings which we all share as a culture, not just those of one person. Therefore, it might be a good idea to take a look at the term culture. After all, art is a large part of culture. Or is it that culture is a large part of art? 


Culture has several meanings, such as that stuff that grows in the bottom of a petrie dish in biology class. It can also refer to a large group of people (sometimes entire nations, even several nations) who share ideas and ways of doing things; for example, the Hopi Indian culture, or the "drug" culture, or the culture created by everyone who watches MTV. But, another sense of the word culture is the one we use when we talk about those ideas and ways of doing things that are shared by those groups of people. 

To make these last two uses of the word culture a little clearer, let's use this class as an example. As a group, we make up a subculture which we could call the Sauk Valley educational culture. We all share certain things- we all live in the Sauk Valley Community College district, we all come together at Sauk to learn, we all know where Northland Mall is and what Northwestern Steel and Wire is. These are all things we have in common and can use to, among other things, make conversation- they make up our culture. But more importantly, they are also all things thought of and/or made by humans. In other words, the Rock River is also something which we all know about, but because it is part of nature, the river itself is not a cultural thing the way the Mill is. But what we do with the river is part of our culture because human thought went into deciding what to do. Any activities we engage in on the river are cultural because they were created or invented by a person or a group of people. So the word culture can also be used to talk about the things humans do, build, talk about, think, or feel. 

So, people belong to cultures-- that is, groups of people-- which can be named: Americans, Midwesterners, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers. But the thoughts, feelings, activities, objects, etc. that make these various groups different from each other make up that part of our lives which we also call culture. And it is this use of the word culture which we will be talking about the most in this course. We will be concentrating on this aspect of culture because it is through culture that we create our lives. That is, by being born into a certain culture, we automatically know certain things but not others, have certain experiences but not others, and have certain objects, technology, and stuff available to us but not others. But, most importantly, we also have choices about what kinds of cultural objects, experiences, and thoughts we will make a part of our lives. 

For example, as Americans, we have TV in common, especially in terms of how we get some of our information about the world. But that information may be slightly different depending upon whether you are an MTV kind of person or whether you prefer Public Television. That is, someone who gets their ideas about life from watching "Bay Watch" or "MST 3000" is going to think the world works differently than someone who watches "Masterpiece Theatre" or the Discovery Channel, because we do get our ideas about what life is like from the cultural experience of TV. But we also get ideas from the cultural expressions called politics, religion, education, next door neighbor, and, of course, school. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out-

Undirected by cultural patterns- organized systems of significant symbols [like politics, religion, education, or TV] - man's behavior would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless. Culture, the accumulated totality of such patterns, is not just an ornament of human existence essential condition for it (1973 46).

In other words, culture is all of the man-made ideas and things in our "world" which help us to understand ourselves and what is going on. It also helps us to organize our social groups and give us a sense of belonging to a community. But- and here's the point- we also have the power to shape our culture. After all, we invented it, so we should have the ability to make it into what ever we want it to be. Therefore, it also makes sense for us to know something about how culture works. That is where Art comes in. As Geertz explains it- 

In order to make up our minds we must know how we feel about things; and to know how we feel about things we need the public images of sentiment that only ritual, myth, and art can provide (82). 


LaocoonThe Laocoon











The Cultural Activity Called ART

First, let's make clear what kinds of activities fall under  the cultural category of Art. Painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music and dance are the main historic art forms. All of these art forms have been around since the beginning of humankind and it has always been clear that art is very important to people. Before we had towns and cities, before we had  economics or politics, even before we had agriculture, we had art. Art is the most obvious connection we have with ourancestors, with the first truly human inhabitants of this planet. When, as little kids, we drew on the walls of our room, we were expressing the same urge as the people who painted scenes on cave walls (except they didn't get yelled at by Mom). And when, as kids, we built our tree forts, clubhouses, and so on, we were expressing the same urge to make something as the early Greek architects.

So art is one of our earliest expressions of culture. It helped early humans to organize their lives, to understand the world around them, and to communicate those understandings. And that is what art does for us. It helps us to understand how we feel about things and helps us to organize our world. Which brings us back to Langer's definition of art- the practice of creating perceptible forms expressive of human feelings. But, some of the words she uses need their own definitions.

Perceptible - If something is perceptible, then we can know it either through our senses or our imagination. e.g. (this is the Latin abbreviation for "for example") We can perceive this handout because we feel it and see it, but we can also perceive what we are going to have for lunch or dinner because we can imagine ourselves eating it.
Feeling - Langer means those sensations, sensibilities, or emotions that ideas and activities bring out in us, like when we read a sad story or see a dog run over by a car. Both situations will make us "feel" something, even though the story is not real. It still has the power to make us feel emotions and learn something about what it means to be sad.
Creating - Making, constructing. Obviously, this can apply to many, many activities- from cooking to landscaping to painting to composing music.
Form - An apparition given to our senses or imagination which has a unity, a self-sufficiency, and an individual reality. e.g. a shape in the fog may be unclear, but it still exists as a form, as a shape in the fog.
Expression - There are two kinds of expression. One is self-expression which gives vent to our feelings. It is a symptom of what we feel, a spontaneous reaction to an actual situation. The other is conceptual expression, that is, the presentation of an idea through a symbol system such as language or painting or music. For example, written words are symbols for spoken  language, so this whole text is a conceptual expression of the idea of art, created through the symbol system of written language.

The ScreamLook at this detail from Edvard Munch's The Scream. It is a conceptual expression of the idea of feeling great emotion created through the symbol system of the visual arts.






Symbol Systems

So what are these symbol system things? Well, again we need to turn to Clifford Geertz for a definition. 

A symbol is- any object [like writing or painting], act [like dancing] , event [like a rock concert], quality [ like loud!] , or relation [ like getting involved with a soap opera] which serves as a vehicle for a conception- the conception is the symbol's meaning. Symbols are tangible [ able to be perceived] formulations of notions, abstractions from experiences fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings or beliefs (91).     (italicized material in brackets is mine.)

A symbol system, then, is a group of symbols which make up cultural acts, and cultural acts are the things like religion or sports or TV or hanging out that we participate in without even really thinking about how they effect us. That is, symbols and cultural acts, or patterns, are the ways we exchange information with each other about "how life goes." But we arent always aware of the fact that who we are, both as individuals and as a culture (group), is determined by our culture (man-made things, ideas, events, and so on. You know- symbol systems). And since art is a symbol system just like any other, it is also able to tell us things about ourselves that we wouldn't otherwise know. 

Language As A Symbol System

In speaking of language as a symbol system, Langer points out that- "Acting as symbols, language will formulate new ideas as well as communicate old ones. Symbolic expression, therefore, extends our knowledge beyond the scope of our actual experience" (77). Using anger as an example, Langer tells us that to feel anger is a symptom of how a situation affects us, but to talk about that anger is to express the anger in a symbolic way in order to share it with someone. The things we can say are the things we can think. Without words, sense experience is only a flow of impressions. Words help us to organize and make sense out of what goes on around us. "Words make sense experience objective- make it into facts and things" (78). In other words, if we didnt have the word anger, we wouldnt know what we were feeling, and we wouldnt know what to do about it. But to know what to do about it is also made clear through language. Someone who grew up listening to and watching Mom or Dad scream at the top of their lungs whenever they were angry would naturally think that that was the normal way to express anger. But if that same person also listened to, watched, or read about other ways of expressing anger, they would learn that we have choices about how to express anger. For example, in Shakespeare, anger is usually expressed through strong but elegant words which almost turns anger into an art form itself. The English take great pride in expressing anger through beautiful speeches that make the person to whom the anger is directed feel worse than if they had simply been yelled at. 

But we can also share the feeling by painting a picture or writing a poem about anger. These symbol systems tell us something about anger which merely talking about it cannot. Again, as Langer points out-

But- there is an important part of reality that is quite inaccessible to the formative influence of language; i.e.,"inner experience." .....Feelings and emotions only seem irrational because language does not help to make them conceivable. The natural form of language does not reflect the natural form of feeling. Language only names very general kinds of inner experience. [But] human feeling is a fabric, not a vague mass. It  has an intricate dynamic pattern with possible combinations and new emergent phenomena.This dynamic pattern finds its formal expression in the arts...... The primary function of art is to objectify feeling so that we can contemplate and understand it (80). 

Imagination One final word on the arts and culture--imagination. As Langer tells us, imagination is the oldest typically human mental trait- older even than what we call logical reasoning. As the common source for dreams and social acts of all kinds, imagination is still a very important part of how our minds work. Would we ever come up with new ideas if we didn't have imagination? But here is the really neat thing. Although imagination is what we need to create the arts, the arts also create the imagination, by giving us new things to think. For example, an artist creates a painting of a flower or  an historical event. This act transforms those scenes into "a piece of imagination," which then adds to our enjoyment of the real things. This also happens when we read good literature. We imagine the scene and the characters as we read, but, by creating new images for us to think about, the literature also makes us see things in the world around us in different ways. It even helps us to see things we might never have noticed before. 

The Fall of IcarusDetail from The Fall of Icarus by Pietr Breughel


For a further discussion of culture and of Clifford Geertz, go on to What Is Culture and be prepared to use the material from this site in a quiz or an Agora posting.




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