What is culture? Well, it’s complicated. We seem to have cultures within cultures, within cultures, and it only seems to be getting more complex and difficult to define. To my understanding, it’s the art, music, food, aesthetic, values and beliefs of a particular group of people, at a particular time in history. Culture is not static, it is ever changing along with the people who are immersed in it. It is people that decide culture. They decide what changes and what doesn’t. What parts to keep and what parts to discard, and what new ideas to include. Culture tends to shift from one generation to the next as each group of youth challenges the ideas and values of their Parent’s generation. Let’s also not ignore how our history has shown us our potential for self proclaimed superiority over another culture. An people of one culture may all but eradicate the culture of another in order to grow their own, in the name of righteousness, or progress. People have done horrific things in the name of expanding their beliefs and way of life. Culture continues to adapt over time, whether we cling to the past or not. To be cultured is to be enlightened, educated and knowledgable about the time in which we live. When we describe someone as cultured we often mean they are refined, well educated and have good taste, whatever that is, from one moment to the next?
It is interesting to me that something that is clearly so deeply valued by people, is made up of components such as art, books and music that never seem to get the recognition, validation or support they require to sustain themselves. People fight to preserve and maintain art, books and music with fierce protectiveness. We put it in museums and libraries, display it in our homes and public buildings. We spend immense amounts of money keeping it safe. We talk about it, write about it and make documentary films about it. Yet, most of the people I know who are making art, music and writing books are are struggling for recognition and to make a living wage. Centuries and centuries of people creating the art, music and books that are the essence of the culture of the time in which they were created with little to no real appreciation or support while they were actually alive and creating. Why is this? And why does it still continue to happen today?
Well, the simple answer to my mind, is that people can’t seem to see past the end of their own noses, and hind-sight is 20/20. The more complicated answer is that art captures the essence of culture in a moment in time and nobody is fully aware of what precisely the culture is while they are living it. They are quite literally caught up in the moment and continual upheaval and evolution of culture and not aware of what will be significant to their cultural time until they look back and see it clearly portrayed through the great artistic minds of the time. Nobody knew Woodstock, just a three day music festival in a farmer’s field would become the climax of what would be later known as a defining moment in our history and significant cultural marker of the 1960’s. Many of the performers that played Woodstock, like Joe Cocker (Have a Little Help From My Friends) and Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) (It was only their second time ever playing live), were barely known at the time and they were catapulted to stardom and cultural significance. What about all the creative minds who defined our cultural history? I would love to go back in time and ask Socrates, Mozart and Frida Kahlo about their life experience and whether or not they felt valued and supported by their community in their artistic endeavours? Books, documentaries and essays about their lives seem to suggest that no, they did not in fact get that support when they needed it. They struggled significantly and did not get the recognition they truly deserved until well after they were dead. They were not appreciated fully until they were gone. But yet, they still created because they were compelled to do so. Their work allowed them to process and understand the world around them and helped them make sense of living, even if they felt isolated and found it difficult to relate to the masses.
The truth is, that all art, music and writing is capturing the essence of culture as it is happening. It would be impossible not to. We are all living it and all trying to make sense of what is going on around us and within us, and the artistic community is often slightly removed from mainstream culture and being on the fringe tends to give one a better vantage point to see what is actually going on around them. We are a product of our time and the culture that exists at that time, and no matter when in history we are, culture is constantly in flux, so it can be very confusing and difficult to make sense of. Joan Didion, an American journalist and writer, famous for her writing in the 1960’s-70’s about cultural chaos and social fragmentation said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the music, art and writing of the 1960’s resonates so deeply with me as an artist and writer myself given all the cultural parallels to our current time. The cultural chaos that Joan Didion wrote about reflected a time of deep generational divide in values, major political upheaval, the threat of war, and ramped up racial discrimination and civil rights activism. Today we are facing all of the same issues in different packaging. In the 60’s women were burning their bras, today we attend the Women’s March and hashtag #timesup on social media in support of equal pay for women. The Black Panther Party was created in 1966 to protect African American citizens from police brutality, today we have the Black Lives Matter activist movement. In the 60’s, an entire generation challenged the status quo, railing against the rigid family structure and cultural values of the 1950s’, conservative, religious, hard-working middle class. They rejected old cultural structures, preferring freedom, less lifestyle restrictions, less materialism, and embraced eastern philosophy, spirituality and the recreational use of marijuana. Today, we have the millennial generation rejecting old political and social structures and values, fighting for a better quality of life with less emphasis on material gain, the ability to love who they want and define themselves as they wish. Again, eastern philosophy and spiritual practices are being embraced in an even bigger way and marijuana is back in popular culture with the use of CBD Oil (Cannabis Based Drug) on the rise in the medical industry and the legalization of Cannabis for medical use in the U.S. in 29 States already and Canada slated to legalize this year. The parallel’s between the 1960’s and today are uncanny. There are song lyrics and magazine articles written from that time in history that could easily have been written today.
Culture is continually changing and reflecting the social issues and values of the time, but I would argue that people have changed very little. While our world looks very different now in terms of infrastructure and population growth, and technology changing the world dramatically, the human condition is ticking along slowly like it somehow has not learned from itself at all. We are still walking around blind and reactionary to the shifting cultural values as they happen before our eyes and not valuing and supporting the artistic community that is capturing it as it happens until we look back years later and it’s often too late to support them. Joan Didion also wrote “In theory momentos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.” If you have ever read any of my previous writing, you’ll know that I am a big believer in self examination, personal evolution and intentional living. A big part of this is evaluating how much we have learned from our past and what we choose to do differently as a result. What if we didn’t wait for hind-sight to show us what is culturally relevant and what artists, musicians and writers we should have supported while they were giving all of themselves to their generation? What if we decided for ourselves what is relevant right now? What if we took the reins and intentionally voted with our dollars and our attention what we want to go down in history? What if we didn’t wait for our children and grandchildren to decide what was culturally relevant from our generation, but instead, we stood back, saw the bigger picture and realized the pattern that has shown us again and again that it’s the people challenging the status quo who define the culture of the time? Those fringe artists are right on the pulse of the cultural shift and the cusp of change is right there captured within their art for all to see. If they bother to look. What if we got on board early and supported that change instead of sitting back and watching where the pieces fall?
So, how do we do that? Well, we can start by acknowledging how important art, music and writing is to society! Show me a home that you would like to live in that has no books, music or art displayed? A home void of those things is a sad place indeed. You have an opinion and taste of your own. Don’t wait for the masses to decide for you what is good and culturally significant. Go watch local bands play and buy their music. Find them on Spotify, listen to them in your home and tell your friends about them. Check out a local market or festival and purchase art from artists and makers in your own city. Ask them about their work when you are face to face with them. Buy books directly from Author’s websites or their booth at conventions where they receive all of the money, not just a tiny percentage that they get when they sell at big book stores like Chapters. The people who are quite literally capturing and defining our current culture should be able to make a living wage and support themselves at the very least. They are doing good, important work for their community and I think it’s time we recognized it. Why do we need to continue to wait for future generations to decide for us what was culturally relevant during our generation? We have a role in history and we have the opportunity to spend our money on the things we want more of in our world and support the things we think are important. The painting you bought that’s a sanitized knock off of a knock off from Winners will have no cultural relevance or significance in history, but that little book you buy off of an Author’s table at a market could turn out to be the next great philosophical work of our time. That writer could be the Socrates of the the Twenty-first century, and you would have been part of that greatness for supporting it and making it possible for her to continue her work. That kid you watched play his guitar and sing at a little folk festival in a small town, could be the next Bob Dylan and his songs might go down in history as some of the most influetial words of the 2010’s. You never know, but at any given moment, you could be supporting an incredible mind and creative genius, and have a part to play in changing the world as we know it. At the very least, you will be woven into the cultural fabric of an important moment in human history, and I think that is more than worth your attention.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: Joey Senft
THRIFTED FASHION: Gold snake belt and wide leg checkered pants.
*INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE brings together 29 emerging-to-established Indigenous artists who are pushing boundaries with their work. The collection considers political insurgency and cultural resurgence to radically shift our understanding of Canada, now and in the future. Working in a variety of media, the artists focus on Indigenous intergenerational cultural knowledge within land based practices, gender, traditional aesthetics, language revitalization, interconnected kinships, identity, and material culture. INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE is the WAG’s largest-ever exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art and includes 12 new commissions from artists across Canadian territories and nations. –Winnipeg Art Gallery Website