Essay: reading culture

I have always been interested in how we read culture and its importance within our social fabric. All forms of culture; high and low, traditional and popular, mainstream and underground, all encapsulate varying social values and personify social trends amongst collective groups.

With the rise of internet streaming and on-demand access to TV shows, movies, music, even e-Books, we digest culture at a rapid rate and have the ability to filter out that which we don’t like and only take in what we do. There is no need to apologise for our taste and although some of us may not readily admit to the kind of pop culture that we enjoy consuming (Real Housewives, anyone?!) we can have easy conversations about why or why not we do not enjoy particular forms of pop culture. There is little shame attached to stating your preferences and tastes, and most of the time we can all agree to disagree. Specifically, we can have jovial conversations around why we don’t watch Game of Thrones, because we cannot subject ourselves to that kind of emotional trauma, in the little free time that we have.

But why can’t we speak as freely about art? In my line of work I seem to encounter a surprising amount of people who do not trust their opinions on art. They fear that they may get it ‘wrong’ and resist sharing their thoughts on art, particularly on the big, bad, non-traditional, contemporary kind. Others may be more willing to state what they are drawn to in a particular piece but qualify their statements with something along the lines of ‘I like it, I don’t know if I get it, but I like X, Y, and Z.’

I think the central catalyst to the fear of sharing frank interpretations of art is because there is this pressure to ‘understand it’, as if all fine art within a gallery of museum whether it is performance, painting, video, or sculpture, derives from complicated high cultural references. Hence, the overarching fear that unless we know the artist’s true intentions behind a particular piece, we can either get it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The fact that street artists such as Banksy seem to be the exception, rather than the rule, supports this claim. Banksy’s art, filled with obvious references to corporate America and consumer culture, is more ‘easy’ to understand, and therefore, more popular in the masses.

The point that I’d like to make is that Banksy’s art still fits the rule, and he isn’t the exception. All art appropriates high and low culture, past and present, across including literary, musical, fine art fields, in the same way that Banksy does. In fact, once you’ve devoured enough high and low culture from varying points of history you can start to see it referenced in all forms of pop culture.

In music, we often see rifts and bridges appropriated from previous decades. What was once a pop song in the 1970s can be revised as a techno track in 2015. Please don’t stop the music by pop princess RiRi is an appropriation of Michael Jackson’s riff from Wanna be startin’ something. Interestingly, Michael Jackson had appropriated the melody himself from Manu Dibango’s 1972 hit Soul Makossa. So across three decades we have the same riff repeating itself in the music charts.

Look, someone cool on the Internet already did a mashup for us to listen to:

We see this all too similarly in movies that steal plot lines from the literary canon. Clueless, for example, is famously based on Jane Austen’s Emma and the Brother’s Grimm’s story of Cinderella has been reinterpreted too many times to count. Most fairytales, in fact have been altered by Walt Disney’s filter that appropriated the good and made the ugly more child-friendly.

Reading art as appropriated culture in the same way that we do films, novels, music, and trashy TV is an important tool to understand underlying concepts of contemporary art. Quite often if a particular symbol reminds viewers of another form of culture, we can assume that the artist has done so with purpose. And importantly, if there is something that seems to vaguely reference politics, you can be sure that it’s political. Always go with your instincts.

Mirka Mora once told me that when she is fully immersed in the act of painting, she hears music; loud symphonies that echo through her mind. Upon hearing this I longed for the day when I could be so creatively free. And then I discovered that when I look at Craig Handley’s paintings it reminds me of Raymond Carver’s writing. Carver is one of my favourite writers and in viewing Handley’s work it is like reading a passage from one of his short stories. Handley paints only sections of a scene and never presents the entire scenes to viewers. In this way his is similar to Carver, who only ever told us so much but never gave the full story away. I like that both writer and artist have confidence in their readers and viewers alike, that their interpretation and impression of where the narrative is going and has come from, is just as strong as what they had already imagined themselves.

When we look at art, we aren’t just looking at what we see, we are looking at everything that surrounds it and that has influenced its creation. As time ticks on and history is made appropriation continues to influence and wriggle it’s way into all that is now being produced and what will eventually emerge in the future of art history’s canon. In this way, high and low culture from the arts, music, and literature, comes together to form part of a collective human footprint, a mark of our social trends, values, and politics.

1 comment
  1. Jennifer Dalgleish said:

    Such thought provoking perspectives Claire. So many cultural layers that influence interpretation of art! It’s quite liberating to think we don’t always have to try to analyse and interpret art by predicting what inspired the artist’s creation of the art work. Great read!


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