Culture vs Civilization

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, Opus 1717, Dark Night, acrylic on paper

Q: There’s a lot of people doing interesting and lovely things. And a lot of junk. There’s a lot of people on this planet.

ReeL: We’re long past 17,000 citizens and thirty-thousand slaves living inside city walls, yet, I agree with Whitehead when he said the entire history of philosophy isn’t much more than a long series of footnotes to Plato.

And it’s unfortunate. for that slave thing alone, it’s unfortunate we haven’t moved further.

Q: What about art? Do you feel something similar? Are we, art-wise, barely past Athens?

ReeL: Better? Athens?  It’s the wrong question.  Art is not progressive. It’s difficult to get anything better than Cycladic figurines, and always will be. They are much older than Plato, but that is irrelevant.  Look at  neolithic cave paintings for that matter.  Some of them are fabulously good, even technically. Art is not progressive.

That is one of the great differences between culture and civilization. Culture changes, but is not progressive. Civilization definitely has the possibility for significant improvement. Running water and sanitation and better medicine are definitely improvements. But civilization doesn’t necessarily have to progress either, no matter how much people want to assume it to be so.

Creating culture is extremely difficult. The idea that everyone is an artist, at that level, is absurd. The ability to create something at that level is clearly quite rare. We need to become more civilized; but as far as art and culture, we are what we are, it is to be experienced, but there is no progression.

Q: And anything quite rare can be exploited financially. So you’re implying that one of the fallacies of an entire generation was the claim that everyone is an artist, which has led to a lot of junk, and in the end all they created was a greater awareness than ever of how rare it is and how thoroughly that can be exploited financially. Never has there been such an explosion in the art market.

ReeL: That’s not where I was going. I wanted to talk about how the dynamics of civilization create new needs for creating cultural relevance, for creating meaning within individual’s lives. How it is difficult to do this; most people don’t have the faintest notion how. You see, art and culture sustain and support the individual, people other than the “artist.”

Civilization, a good civilization should do so as well, and if a civilization improves, it improves the lives of individuals. But Civilization doesn’t necessarily do any of that. Empires live and die and civilization rumbles on, often without any regard to individuals. One reason all despots hate, or at least distrust, art and artists:  tyrants don’t give a damn about individuals, but art supports individuals.  To a Stalin, this is tantamount to a threat. At the very least a challenge to their authority.

Wars and break-downs in civilization sweep continents and millions die and suffer. Culture and art, on the other hand, have to support and nourish the individual; they have to create meaning for someone within a given civilization, or they would never be accepted as art to begin with. Big difference. One often poorly understood by historians, especially historians, including art historians, burdened by an expectation of linear progression or a bias toward a single monolithic culture.

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