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Of What Is Culture?

Never, in the history of western man, have so many had so much. It has made ours the most complicated world in which any people have ever lived. So complex is it that we have reconciled ourselves to the need for specialization. Huge banks of data are compartmentalized for handy organization and assimilation. Never have we been further away from the "renaissance man" concept.

While the great abundances of our age have brought about such rewards as prolonged life, extended leisure, and hitherto unimagined creature comforts, they have also created problems which loom larger as time goes by. What happens to a society which vests all judgmental responsibility in the specialist? which soothes its nagging conscience by pleading ignorance of technological sophistication? which unabashedly consigns art to the artist, science to the scientist, politics to the politician?

In the arts, we have witnessed the deferring of the many to the few, of the layman to the practitioner. Artists have understandably enjoyed the new position of power and prerogative to which they have become heir. They sit on panels, advise endowments and foundations, control academia, and create the very definitions and parameters of culture. As producers of culture, they feel that they are best qualified to set its standards. Our lay society, relieved of risky judgmental burdens, is happy to go along.

The problem, as any sociologist will remind you, is that culture, is by definition, a lay, rather than a parochial, concept. Webster refers to "the concepts, habits, skills, art, instruments, institutions, etc. of a given people in a given period; civilization." We will not be remembered by what our artists have done unless it reflects what we have done; unless we get them to love that which we love, and sing about it in a way we can understand and recall. Culture, then, is not, at bottom, what artists do, but what lay people do. Should we not save some of our questions, observations, and resources for those who love our art and are, in the best sense of the word, amateurs? Professional music makers would do well to seek more integration with those who revere their art and wish to participate in it.

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