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This is the second part of a more extended series of updates (‘book’) about abundance and how our cultures’ legacy can shape a better tomorrow. Read the first installment here.
Culture is a complex, multidimensional concept. The word has different and evolving meanings. There are agriculture and horticulture, cultured people, and cultures of bacteria. There is a culture of the mind, and culture as the intellectual state of society. In the classic Culture and society, Raymond Williams frames culture to mean either of two things: the material, intellectual, and spiritual way of life of communities or the general body of the arts. For me, this works. It relates the culture that happens organically whenever people come together with the type we create institutions for. The concept combines an anthropological notion that encompasses many forms of human ideas, expression, and behavior, with more formalized cultural activities such as concerts, books, and exhibitions. In summary, one could argue that culture is the values, ideas, and practices that people share and the expressions these inspire.
Human culture is our competitive advantage over other animals. The culture of one group can give it an edge over another. Solid and shared cultures can make the seemingly impossible possible. According to Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, we started to form our first cultures 70,000 years ago. The ‘culture’ Harari refers to is our collective ability to create and communicate about new and alternative realities, which he calls fictions. Initially, culture was primarily oral or related to natural sites. The oldest ongoing fiction in the world, the story of Budj Bim told by the Gunditjmara people of south-eastern Australia, reaches back 37,000 years. It tells the birth story of a volcano which plays a central role in their description of time and the world. This story has been passed on from one generation to the next more than 1,500 times.
To facilitate communication about fictions, humans could rely on their ability to develop symbols, images, customs, and objects to go with them. People have been making practical tools and decorative objects for millions of years, but once we started using them as expressions to share our culture, our ability for storytelling multiplied. Art was born. The oldest known undisputed works of art date back 35,000 to 40,000 years, about as far back as Budj Bim’s story.
Our ability to tell stories and create expressions around them allowed people to come together and interact in new ways. Instead of simply being people, this corporation around an idea turned groups into a people. This changed the world. While the human population was small around 70,000 years ago, after the ‘invention of culture’, our species saw a major increase in numbers. Starting 40,000 years ago, this was coupled in some areas by increased rates of interaction between people. More people and more interaction between them were among the reasons that allowed for more rapid cultural innovation, a higher pace of new ideas that were successfully adopted by communities and societies. It may be the reason why so many ancient human tools – hand axes, for instance – barely changed for a million years. Then in the span of a few tens of thousands of years, we turned them into the virtual axes used to model Minecraft worlds.
With the start of the agricultural revolution only 12,000 years ago, our ability to create physical expressions to fictions substantially increased. Farming allows communities to create a surplus, which can be invested in things other than survival. From that unique moment in time stems what may be the world’s first cultural institution, the temple complex of Gobekli Tepe in south-eastern Turkey. At the site, hundreds of T-shaped stone pillars are erected in separate circles. The largest pillars weigh more than 16 tons. Without clear evidence of permanent human settlement in the area, it seems that Gobekli Tepe was constructed by people who traveled to the site for the complex itself, a ten-thousand-year-old version of the Burning Man festival.
When humans settled, first in villages, then in ever-larger cities, culture went into overdrive. As the number of people living together increased, so did their ability to invest in its expressions. In the late fourth millennium BCE, this process gave rise to the first important city and the first urban civilization: the Sumer and their capital Uruk. With its walls and temple complexes, Uruk was a place where art and monumental architecture flourished. Writing was invented in this city, further spurring stories on.
Over time, other cities and other civilizations gave rise to many cultural institutions that we still like to visit today. The world’s oldest known library was founded in Ebla, in current-day Syria, around 2,500 BCE. The performance of sacred rituals turned into what we now call theater around 2,000 BCE in Egypt. Since at least 1,500 BCE China has a vibrant theatrical practice, including music, clowning, and acrobatics. The first museum was probably founded by the Babylonian princess Ennigaldi around 500 BCE. It was a historical museum, looking back thousands of years on the civilizations that came before. The Roman Republic, not much later, had a lively art market, complete with intrigues and fakes. By the time the common era commenced, culture, cultural institutions, and all the things that come with them were a well-established part of society. Two thousand years on, what was once the Roman theatre and the Egyptian library has morphed into organizations like The Met, Qatar’s National Library, and the Royal Albert Hall.
We may have been living in the golden age of organized culture. Cultural organizations have had many heydays in their long history, depending on place and time: Russian literature, Chinese opera, American cinema. When, however, city marketeers in Sydney and Bilbao discovered that their landmark cultural projects gave them an edge over the competition in an increasingly globalized world, cultural organizations became instruments in the hands of neoliberal governments. It has led to a boom in cultural investments around the world. From Doha to Malaga and from Rio de Janeiro to Cape town, cities invest in cultural infrastructure to attract tourists. Or to reassert their place in an interconnected world. Alas, like airports, the resulting organizations are often wholly interchangeable. Black boxes and white cubes. One can hardly blame the city planners and businesspeople that imagine and fund these places. It is not their responsibility to prove that culture can be more than an item on a global elite’s bucket list. That’s up to us. Examples of organizations that do culture differently abound. Although they typically do not have a starchitect home.
In broad strokes, I would say cultural organizations serve four roles in societies. The first is as guardians of the values, ideas, and practices that people share and the resulting expressions. Part of this role is literal – conserving objects for posterity – but most of this implies a continuous process of reimagining stories that have been passed down through time. For instance, when a classical music piece is reinterpreted on stage. The second role is that as a pilgrimage site or, in modern parlance, the bucket list item. This role invites a global audience to connect with and learn about a culture different from theirs. When you queue for the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and squeeze your way in past posh ladies in furs, it doesn’t just reward you with some of the best art in the world, but with a first-order experience of the Russian reverence for classical culture. The third role of cultural organizations is entertainment. And the fourth role is that of study. Study of culture and its expressions by scholars and amateurs alike, and study of the self by everyone. Maybe study is not the right word; transmission is better—the transmission and reinterpretation of culture’s past to shape culture’s future.
All these roles reach back through the ages. The Musaeum of Alexandria, home to the famed library, which provides the source for the modern word museum, was as much a place of study as a bucket list item for the era’s scholars. Now it is time to reinvent these roles in a world where cultural diversity, like biodiversity, is under threat. What new models and examples exist to ensure that cultural organizations keep playing their part in societies of the future? Models, and examples, that pay homage to the long history of human culture and its incredible diversity. Models, and examples, that see culture as more than a neoliberal instrument.
Thanks for reading, subscribing, forwarding, and replying, as always. The week has been crazy, with the launch of our latest tool, running with one of Europe’s largest wild herbivores, and so much more. I can’t wait to tell you more about all of this next week. Until then, stay safe!