Thursday, April 29, 2010

What makes culture so important?

Ouch, this is going to be a tough one to talk through. What do I mean by that anyway? I'm not sure actually. I thought I'd just rant on and see where it leads me. So bare with me while I twist around my own shoulder, and arguments, with this trail of thought. Now don't get me wrong, I don't want to imply that culture isn't important. I'd even say it's crucial to human society. Would we be humans without culture? I don't think so.

It all started when I simply asked Love "what is culture good for anyway?". Why are famous people famous and what makes them "better" than anyone else? The reason for it was that we're going to a party this weekend and we bought Patti Smiths biography as a gift. I had heard her name before, but I can't say I knew anything about her. I didn't know if she wrote, or sang or whatever she was famous for. But apparently Patti Smith is very famous however, or at least she used to be. She is seen as a "very important culture figure". She has been a "great source of influence" for alot of people, according to But why does that make her so good?

I thought; "what makes someone an important culture figure anyway?". What have they contributed to society and the lives of people that make them deserve that fame and acknowledgement? As I asked about it I got to think about the painting someone had that turned out to be a Da Vinci painting. That meant that that painting was suddenly worth like a thousand times more, over night. But had the painting actually changed? No. It was the exact... same... painting. The quality didn't change, the motive didn't change. Nothing had changed. But someone else had painted it and suddenly it was... better.

Why is that? Why would the painting be better because Da Vinci had painted it? Why would someone pay more for a scribble by Patti Smith or any other famous person, than mine? Is this "fanboyism" that everyone, anyone, seems to show about objects originating from famous people, something that humans simply do? Just like little girls screaming when they find a poster of Backstreet Boys in some magazine, others scream when they find a painting made by some semi-famous person at an auction. We -all- have some item we'd find extremely cool to own, just because some famous person has done something to it.

This phenomena, and I admit I am speculating now, has to be exclusive for mankind. Or do apes, or any other animal, collect items from other famous apes? Do gorillas keep the itching-stick of some prominent silver back as a keep sake? Who knows, maybe. Although my guess would be no, only humans are that interested in something as abstract as "fame".

But what did fame have to do with culture? Well, science people rarely get famous, and yet they are the ones contributing with something "actual" to society. When they create something, or write about something, it's to change things, make us understand the world better and even maybe make it a better place (although I think that is quite secondary to most scientists, they're just curious people). But what do culture figures, the ones who become the really famous ones, actually contribute to society? Do they make the world a better place? Do they make us understand ourselves better? I must say that I suppose they do, but in a way that is very hard to measure. But why else would we take so much time with culture? Why else would it be so incredibly important to us that a painting can become a thousand times more valuable just because someone else painted it?

And not anyone gets famous. I suppose out of all the people trying, it's only those who really do something special, something we other people acknowledge as important enough, who become famous. Maybe they're not all groundbreaking, but groundbreaking enough for us to want to become a part of it. Maybe we hope their geniouses and innovation will rub off on us? "I was there". "I am special too". "I own a painting by Da Vinci so I am also important".

It doesn't really make any sense, and trying to figure it out here and now would be impossible. I am sure it has something to do with the fact that humans are incredibly social. Everything we do is affected by and affects people around us at all times. For some reason one bi-product of our extreme sociability has become the need for famous people. Or the need to be noticed and maybe we feel noticed through famous people. By being a small part of them we are famous too. But I have really no idea. It is quite an interesting phenomena though.


  1. I do mostly agree with you. I'd just like to comment just for the sake of it.

    Culture isn't just crucial to human society, it IS human society. What we might describe as our social code, our unspoken rules, is what actually are our culture. Many people limit themselves to thinking that all culture is is what could be called "high culture", or for that mater popular culture, when it also includes social contracts. Some Swedish examples are our tendency to stand in line or "jantelagen". They are neither high nor popular culture, but are a part of what we as a nation collectively oblige to consciously or no.

    As on the mater of fame, I believe that it is a thing born out of communication. In some cases famous people are those who do something for the first time or make others think in a new way. DaVinci was one of them. Perhaps not so much in art, I know little of that, but at least in science.
    I believe as you that idol worship is stupid. Some people who are famous just for the sake of being famous I try hard to avoid. But even so, they set an example and can as such still have value to society as a whole. Some claim that gossip is one of the things that, evolutionary, made mankind great. Where would we be if we could not follow the examples of others? The old saying that "if we do not know our history we are doomed to repeat it" comes to mind. I guess it can also be applied to current history.
    So yeah. DaVincis painting did get better when we know who painted it. No, the painting didn't change, but the people around it changed. A matter of famous by association.
    I've ranted on long enough I guess. Still are things that could be discussed, things to be commented on, but, as I said, this is long enough. Maybe I'll be back after breakfast.

  2. Yes exactly, thanks for a great comment! It was what I was thinking but couldn't really get it into words yesterday :) But that's what ranting is all about

  3. My completely uneducated and probably awfully wrong theory is that by worshipping celebrities and having this built-in need to allow someone else to be the alpha we make (or at least made) society stronger by letting inventors, prominent artists and political leaders to lead and set the example with less competition. There are theories that in war a single strong leader is better than a democratic process, since it allows for faster reactions to the circumstances - and it is this "winning strategy" that makes us feel good about idolizing someone we don't know, and probably never will know. This theory is probably all too simple, but I wouldn't be surprised if it at least was one of the facets of the full explanation.

  4. A great historical example of what Love said is of course Julius Caesar. He was first appointed as a general by the Roman senate, made many successful campaigns in the "north" returned and made himself Caesar. The position of Caesar was a special case in those days, kind of declaring Martial Law and only allowed during times of great dangers, and was meant to do exactly what You describes. Make sure that all the important decision making went fast and smooth. Of course the Caesar was supposed to resign when the danger was gone but honestly, who would? Of course the senate of the time knew of Julius ambition and would not have had him appointed if it were not for the fact that he already had enough popularity and power within the military to take the position by force if he had to.
    (Instead they waited, bid their time, and stabbed him in the back. Ah, the good old days =) )

    As for the theory... Can I sum it up saying: "Great leaders are idolized because they are efficient"? And if so, then I believe you are indeed partially right. Partial because it only applies to Leaders. And we have currently a lot of famous persons who are not Leaders, but rather artists or just "wise men" (or women of course). They might be leaders with in their own fields of speciality but aren't really "Leaders" per se.
    So, thus fame and idolization must also have additional functions with in society.

  5. Yes, history gives many examples of strong leaders. But also of strong leaders that become idolized the way many famous people are today. Just one example of many is of course Mao who was treated like any a rockstar would be today wherever he came. This shows of a sort of crossover between leadership and idolazation. Perhaps the famous people of today are a substitute for an innate need of us humans to follow leaders, and worship them which I suppose sorta was what Love was talking about. So I agree that the famous people of today are completely different from the leaders of yesterday, but maybe it is us who are making them "leaders" by us idolazing them like we do? But I also agree this is only part of the explanation.

    The reason we idolize people who are long gone (like Da vinci) and who perhaps even had no recognition when they lived seems to indicate that there are other functions as well.