September 24, 2013

The Commercialisation of Culture (part three)

by Daniel Matthys

In my previous posts (part one and part two) I looked at the historical development of the contemporary entertainment industry. In this final post I shall trace in more detail some of the consequences of the commercialisation of culture and also some of the means of challenging the rule of mass entertainment in our lives.

A mindless culture of consumption, which is the aim of the entertainment industry, makes us somewhat less human. As we have already seen creating and engaging with cultural works is something fundamentally human. It is something we all engage in from an early age. Something all societies have engaged in, since time immemorial. Art, like reason, is distinctly human. In both the spheres of art and reason there are passive and active elements. It makes sense to learn from the great minds of the present and the past. Similarly it is good and wholesome that we engage in the cultural works of the present and the past. Yet in both our faculties of reason and culture there is a necessity for independence of thought and imagination. We have a term for the unquestioning acceptance of ideas and arguments, which is brainwashing. A person whose engagement in reason is merely to parrot back the views of another is not developing their full capacity as a human being. The same is true of the arts. A person who ceases to actively engage their imagination past choosing a channel or selecting a movie has failed to develop a facility that is a fundamental part of what makes them human.

A person who ceases to actively engage their imagination past choosing a channel or selecting a movie has failed to develop a facility that is a fundamental part of what makes them human

None of this is to suggest that television and film are somehow inherently evil but that the unquestioning sway we allow them to command over our imaginative life is damaging. Film, television and the cultural products of others have a place in our culture but a place that must also allow for an active, independent and imaginative creation of culture in every individual and in every household. Christians believe that we are created in the “image and likeness” of God and the first depiction of God in the Bible is of God the creator. We must engage with the gifts of reason and imagination that we have been granted if we are to be ‘sub-creators’ in the image of Our Father.

How can one develop their imaginative life? The first step is to realise the importance of our cultural and imaginative facilities. Imagination unfortunately has fallen somewhat into disrepute. Amongst the secular world imagination becomes a sort of wishy-washy virtue for young children that quickly becomes a secondary priority to mathematics and science. Among Catholics one too often gets the sense that imagination is something to be lived with and controlled, useful perhaps for propaganda, but always strictly subordinated to reason. The claims of reason are probably a topic for another time; it is enough to suggest for the moment that imagination needs to be developed. It must be developed for our appetite for its products never diminishes and it is fundamental to our life as a whole.

The way forward is difficult only because the consumption is so much easier that the production of culture. Here I believe the cultivation of good reading habits is essential. Reading as I have already suggested is both an active and passive activity. It informs the imagination with the thoughts and ideas of others but leaves the imagination free to develop as it clothes these ideas in form. Beyond reading however every household should aim to become something like the household of G. K. Chesterton as a boy. As Chesterton’s father ignored the ‘profit motive’, so should we ignore the mistakes, the less than perfect works, the absence of fame and money because as with love, singing, dancing and all that makes humanity what it is, “the things in life worth doing are worth doing badly.”