September 12, 2013

The Commercialisation of Culture (part one)

by Daniel Matthys

“The very first thing I can ever remember seeing with my own eyes was a young man walking across a bridge. He had a curly moustache and an attitude of confidence verging on swagger. He carried in his hand a disproportionally large key of a shining yellow metal and wore a large golden or gilded crown.”

In this scene from his early childhood the English author G. K. Chesterton describes a fairy play in a toy theatre in his family home in the suburbs of London. The toy theatre was a construction of Chesterton’s father and the scene Chesterton remembered was part of a grander narrative created by the boy’s father for the domestic consumption of the household. What is more remarkable is that this cultural product of the Chesterton household was by no means unusual or extraordinary. It was one of many products, books, stories and paintings of his father’s cultural inclinations, whose artistic ambition never went further than his own household’s edification. This is remarkable on one hand, yet as we look closer, nothing could be more natural.

Cultural creation and consumption is a natural part of being human something that is most evident in the youngest of all humans.

Cultural creation and consumption is a natural part of being human something that is most evident in the youngest of all humans. When we observe children playing we can see at it rawest artistic creation and consumption running hand in hand. In their games, in their drawings and in their speech children cannot help but exercise their imaginative abilities in the creation of entire worlds, grotesque monsters and fantastic scenes that appear to draw only the most tedious link to their material surroundings. These are cultural products that never leave their own tiny domestic circle but possess enormous value for all their lack of mercenary ambition. In cultural creation man, who is made in the image of God, embodies God’s own creative aspect and exercises it in the sub creation of mythical realms, creatures and stories.

This, as I said before, is natural and unremarkable (insofar as anything pertaining to that bizarrely wonderful creature man, can be considered unremarkable). What should be remarkable is the separation of the process of artistic creation and consumption that seems to occur in our society, as children become adults.

As people grow older they do not lose their need for cultural and artistic products. Adults are hardly less susceptible to the pleasures of storytelling than children, as television guides attest. In television, movies, professional sport, songs, plays, novels and musicals, cultural consumption continues unabated through childhood, adulthood and old age. But where as children we created, in the very act of consumption as adults, we become willing to hire professionals to create, and limit our cultural engagement to the consumption of prefabricated products.

This trend from children creators to adult consumers is so deeply entrenched in contemporary life it is hard to think of it as anything but natural. Entertainment is a business, an enormously profitable business, populated by professionals. In our own homes we feel no need to create a culture with its own artistic achievements and cultural artefacts. Indeed it seems almost a waste of time to do so when we can call upon subcontractors, at any time of the day or night, to fulfil our cultural needs. The story of Chesterton’s father reads like that of an eccentric, why would someone be moved to create entertainment merely for the enjoyment of his own family, with no promise or expectation of monetary reward? Why not simply buy the boy a ticket to the local puppet theatre and be done with it?

In a future post I will attempt to trace the development of culture from a product of the family and the small locality to the centralised, multibillion-dollar industry it is today; and to analyse the effects this transformation has had upon our society at large.

Part two

Part three