Culture, Like Bread

September 29, 2015

I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

          —Excerpt from Like You by Roque Dalton. Translated by Jack Hirschman

To approach an interrogation of “the public’s right to culture,” we must first refine the scope of “public,” “right,” and “culture.” For the purposes of this brief essay, I will explore these terms in relation to my assertion: The public’s right to culture is indeed the right to respond to it, which in turn contributes to what culture is.

From social media influencers to social justice warriors, the “public” is more than huddled masses making up mindless markets of and for consumption. The public, armed with apps, cash, and hashtags, enact their power through the dissemination of information. From product reviews to blog how-tos, the public is making and marking the issues of our time—nothing less than creating our culture as they respond to it.

The culture creators of previous generations were defined by their privileged access to creation tools and audience. For example, being a renowned painter (and by extension, a purveyor of culture), required not only the resources of brushes, pigments and canvas, but also the approval of an authoritative artistic audience to create value.  A resultant painting exists within a cultural zeitgeist informed by styles, mores, belief systems, etc. and as such is influenced by the very culture(s) it purports to stand in for. The painting then is a response to culture while also embodying and contributing to it.

The public’s “right” to a resultant painting, as we now understand that right, is to view the painting in a museum (after paying admission or waiting for a free day), perhaps taking a photograph or purchasing a postcard of it, and reading about it. It is important to note how enacting this “right” has evolved in our current era of participatory culture creation.

If the experience of viewing the painting is subjectively “valuable” to the viewing public, they increasingly have a desire to respond with any medium they have available. A viewer of the painting can write a poem or song about it, they can paint their own version of the image, they can even critique it. These days, the most common response would be a blog entry, tweet, or Instagram post which is then available to an unrestricted audience. That response to the original painting increases the cultural impact of the work, even if only by miniscule factors.

If an artist or their estate restricts or altogether rescinds access to a work, the public’s right (responsibility?) as I see it is to respond, enter into conversation with the work and to participate in its culture-making. Museum archives are filled with works that have never been on display; if an artist’s estate removes their painting, there will be other works that will help create culture. Rather than fearing the disappearance of culture, perhaps we should embrace opportunities for underrepresented cultural creators to earn visibility and enter into discourse.

I’d now like to return to the Dalton quote at the beginning of this essay: “poetry, like bread, is for everyone”, and focus on the word “for.” The tools to participate in culture are now more accessible than ever, making poetry (and its cultural brethren) truly for everyone—for everyone to read, to write, to research, to discuss, and to discover. In so doing, the public claims their inalienable right to culture by responding to it.